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Journal ArticleDOI

A victor's history: a comparative analysis of the labour historiography of Indonesia's New Order

02 Dec 2010-Labor History (Routledge)-Vol. 51, Iss: 4, pp 523-541
TL;DR: The harnessing of labour history to justify the transformation from a political force valued for their contribution to the struggle for independence to a state-sponsored tool of development is discussed in this paper.
Abstract: Some observers have identified a common pattern in developing countries whereby unions are transformed from a political force valued for their contribution to the struggle for independence to a state-sponsored ‘tool of development’. A less well-explored question concerns the harnessing of labour historiography to justify such transitions. As this article shows, Suharto's New Order (1966–98) undertook a conscious and purposeful rewriting of Indonesian labour history in support of a single vehicle of labour representation organized around a narrative of the dangers of political unionism and designed to control and harness the industrial workforce in the name of economic development.

Summary (3 min read)

Introduction

  • Some observers have identified a common pattern in developing countries whereby unions are transformed from a political force valued for their contribution to the struggle for independence to a state-sponsored ‘tool of development’.
  • A less well-explored question concerns the harnessing of labour historiography to justify such transitions.
  • As this article shows, Suharto’s New Order (1966–98) undertook a conscious and purposeful rewriting of Indonesian labour history in support of a single vehicle of labour representation organized around a narrative of the dangers of political unionism and designed to control and harness the industrial workforce in the name of economic development.
  • There is a vast literature on this topic, but two relatively old models are particularly useful in the Indonesian context.

The ‘renovation’ of the Indonesian labour movement

  • Having turned Indonesia upside down after the putative communist coup of 1 October 1965, Suharto’s new military-backed regime destroyed dozens of leftist organizations and murdered and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people, including many trade unionists.
  • The first of these was to safeguard the ‘State Ideology’ and the Constitution of 1945, which the New Order claimed ‘had been imperilled in previous years’.
  • 10 Indeed, as Ali Moertopo asserted, ‘Pancasila is the fundamental norms [sic] to be carried out by the nation and the State’ while the New Order was ‘the attitude of the Indonesian people in order to apply those norms correctly’.
  • 23 According to New Order labour historians, the inherently political nature of Indonesia’s labour movement was a product of its early ties to the nationalist movement and its exposure to outside influences, both domestic and foreign.

Subordinate to the nationalist movement

  • An important aspect of New Order accounts of the colonial trade unionism was their almost uniform identification of 1908 as the year that the organized labour movement began.
  • This apparently small shift thus carried a great weight of meaning.
  • As Figure 2 shows, although there was intense debate among ‘Old Order’ and transitional labour historians about whether the communists were the primary actors in the 1926 rebellion, all parties acknowledged the importance of labour as a sphere of resistance at that time.
  • By contrast, the New Order potted histories examined here are silent on labour’s role as a key site of resistance to Dutch rule in the mid-1920s and on Dutch persecution of Indonesian communists.
  • Most New Order labour historians emphasized the positive legacy of labour’s involvement in the nationalist struggle (when trade unions ‘held hands’ with the nationalist forces) as a precursor to FBSI’s willingness during the New Order period to put aside the interests of its members and help shoulder the burdens of development.

Susceptible to outside influences

  • Clearly one of the most important and interesting shifts in labour historiography – although less evident in terms of specific events mentioned – was the question of contamination through foreign influence and domestic political alliances.
  • Links between political parties and Indonesia’s organized labour movement had always been strong, and since the beginning of the twentieth century many trade union leaders had simultaneously held executive positions in parties or other political organizations.
  • Yet while these Sukarno-era accounts sometimes noted opponents’ ideologies and the way those ideologies arrived in Indonesia, little negative comment was made about the influence of foreign ideology in general.
  • Sukijat, a member of the executive committee of the official union of the New Order period and a former government bureaucrat, used even more colourful language, which reflected the regime’s animosity towards the communists.
  • But despite deep inconsistencies in its own practice, trade unions’ subordination to political parties was also universally condemned in New Order labour histories, particularly accounts of the ‘liberal’ and Guided Democracy periods when it was claimed the union movement became irrevocably committed to the political path.

Divided by politics

  • In accounts written before 1965, communists and non-communists alike claimed credit for efforts to unify the labour movement.
  • At the root of this difference, he said, was a more essential divide, which reflected ‘the divergent political philosophies of their parent organizations’.
  • In addition, repeated and direct criticisms appear concerning SOBSI’s involvement in the 1948 communist uprising in Madiun – a link that was recorded but seldom emphasized in labour histories written in the 1950s and 1960s.

A victor’s history

  • As this discussion has shown, the ‘renovation’ of the labour movement undertaken in the 1970s by Suharto’s New Order regime was couched in terms of the ‘lessons’ of a very particular history written in support of its authoritarian corporatist structures and to defend its repressive approach against its critics.
  • 60 However, the differences between the historiography of the two periods are unmistakeable.
  • There is nevertheless also ample evidence that they were also concerned with the socioeconomic needs of their members and the implications of party dominance.
  • A narrative describing a transformation from what Galenson calls a duality of purpose, in which trade unions sought to balance members’ interests and the interests of nation-building, to a tool of development would thus have provided a more accurate representation of the historical development of Indonesian trade unions than the one presented in these potted histories.

Notes on contributor

  • Michele Ford chairs the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney, where she teaches about social activism and human rights in Southeast Asia.
  • Her research focuses on Indonesian trade unions, labour migration and organized labour’s responses to temporary labour migration in East and Southeast Asia.

Notes

  • 1 Bates, ‘Study of Unions and Development’.
  • See also Dita Sari, ‘Buruh Indonesia Selalu Terus Melawan’.
  • Note that in this table, and those which follow, authors are listed down the side of the table, while the events mentioned in the texts are listed across the top with the date most regularly cited for that event.

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Content maybe subject to copyright    Report

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis as: Michele
Ford (2010) A victor's history: a comparative analysis of the labour historiography of
Indonesia's New Order, Labor History, 51:4, 523-541, available online:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0023656X.2010.528991
A Victor's History: A Comparative Analysis of the Labour
Historiography of Indonesia's New Order
Michele Ford
Abstract
Some observers have identified a common pattern in developing countries whereby unions
are transformed from a political force valued for their contribution to the struggle for
independence to a state-sponsored ‘tool of development’. A less well-explored question
concerns the harnessing of labour historiography to justify such transitions. As this article
shows, Suharto’s New Order (1966–98) undertook a conscious and purposeful rewriting of
Indonesian labour history in support of a single vehicle of labour representation organized
around a narrative of the dangers of political unionism and designed to control and harness
the industrial workforce in the name of economic development.
Keywords: history; Indonesia; labour historiography; labour movement; New Order; trade
unions
International theorists of political unionism have long argued that developing country trade
unions are more likely to be political than economic because of their involvement in
nationalist movements and their lack of industrial bargaining power.
1
There is a vast literature
on this topic, but two relatively old models are particularly useful in the Indonesian context.
In the late 1950s, Galenson suggested that a duality of purpose is common in developing-
country trade union movements because they must balance members’ interests and the
requirements of nation building.
2
In a survey of trade unionism in former British colonies
published decades later, Gladstone proposed a closely related model, which identified a
transition from a honeymoon period shaped by the ‘real or presumed role of trade unions in
the independence movements and the identification of prominent trade union leaders with
those movements’ to a state-sponsored restructuring of unions as a ‘tool of development’.
3
This model is pertinent to Indonesia, where the politically active unions of the late colonial
and post-Independence periods were systematically restructured by President Suharto’s New
Order regime (196698) to serve the national interest, expressed in terms of economic
development.
A question that is less well explored in the comparative literature is the role that official
labour historiography can play in the attempts of post-colonial governments to justify such
transitions. In Indonesia’s case, the labour historiography of Suharto’s authoritarian New

Order regime constituted a conscious and purposeful rewriting of labour history in support of
a single vehicle of labour representation, designed to control and harness Indonesia’s blue-
collar formal sector workforce. Echoing influential strategists like General Ali Moertopo, the
trade unionists and labour bureaucrats who wrote these histories heralded the formation in
1973 of the All-Indonesia Labour Federation (Federasi Buruh Seluruh Indonesia, FBSI) as
achieving unity and as evidence of a renewed commitment to workers’ socioeconomic
struggle. Even more importantly, these aims were achieved in a way that did not ‘exclusively
serve the interests of their own group’.
4
FBSI, they concluded, was the product of careful
consideration of the past, the subsequent learning of ‘history’s lessons’ and the ‘pure and
consistent’ implementation of Pancasila, the national ideology said to embody the national
personality and culture of Indonesia.
This first systematic comparative reading of post-Independence labour historiography
demonstrates the extent to which labour histories shaped and were shaped by the New
Order’s developmentalist ideology.
5
It shows how New Order labour ideologues used the
potted histories they presented in official speeches and in government and trade union
documents to justify this radical restructuring of the Indonesian labour movement by
developing an heroic narrative around a valorised minority of labour unionists who had
struggled to achieve ‘pure’ (economic) unionism only to have their attempts at achieving
unity repeatedly frustrated by the majority of unions, which had been subverted from their
true purpose by political parties. So pervasive was the influence of this narrative that in the
1990s it captured even independent labour historians. While vehemently rejecting the
outcomes of New Order labour policy and encouraging demonstrations against the regime,
those who sought to rally history to the cause of the independent labour movement in fact
reproduced key aspects of New Order readings of Indonesian labour history.
6
Indeed, it was
not until several years after the regime fell in 1998 that a new generation of mainstream trade
unionists once again tentatively embraced the possibilities of the political.
7
The ‘renovation’ of the Indonesian labour movement
Having turned Indonesia upside down after the putative communist coup of 1 October 1965,
Suharto’s new military-backed regime destroyed dozens of leftist organizations and murdered
and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people, including many trade unionists.
8
From the
time it seized power, Suharto’s New Order had two priorities. The first of these was to
safeguard the ‘State Ideology’ and the Constitution of 1945, which the New Order claimed
‘had been imperilled in previous years’. Its second goal was ‘the rebuilding of society and the
overcoming of the legacy of economic chaos’.
9
The state ideology referred to here is the
Pancasila, the five principles on which Indonesian life is supposedly built, and which the
New Order regime described as having roots in ‘the history of [Indonesia’s] own society – a
pre-colonial, pre-independence history which is truly Indonesian’, and therefore beyond the
realm of mere politics.
10
Indeed, as Ali Moertopo asserted, ‘Pancasila is the fundamental
norms [sic] to be carried out by the nation and the State’ while the New Order was ‘the
attitude of the Indonesian people in order to apply those norms correctly’.
11
The New Order explicitly positioned economic development and its co-requisites (such as
stability) as the means by which the Pancasila state was to be achieved. As part of a national

political strategy designed to facilitate the participation of citizens in activities geared
towards the achievement of national development, Moertopo masterminded the establishment
of a corporatist structure of interest representation between 1971 and 1975.
12
This period was
characterized by the ‘politics of fusion’, which saw the amalgamation of the non-communist
political parties that had survived 1965 and the introduction of a floating mass policy, under
which Indonesians were only permitted to engage politically at election time so that they
could devote their energies to development.
13
It also brought the formation of single-vehicle
corporatist bodies for peasants, fishers, youth, women and labour the so-called ‘functional
groups’ that were to be the ‘backbone’ of Indonesia’s developing society.
14
As part of this process, the regime set out to eliminate the legacies of Old Order trade
unionism by forcing the non-communist unionists who had survived the events of 196566 to
join the FBSI.
15
History was central to this project. New Order ideologues argued that
amalgamation was necessary in order to avoid repeating ‘the mistakes of the past’, when
organized labour had eschewed its socio-economic responsibilities in favour of a divisive
political unionism in which ‘outside’ interests (primarily the interests of political parties)
were prioritized over members’ needs and the national interest.
16
In Moertopo’s words:
In the past, the Indonesian labour movement was divided and difficult to unify
because of ideological differences between its leaders, who emphasized the
political struggle and neglected the struggle to improve the socio-economic
welfare of its members... The FBSI’s struggle emphasizes the socio-economic
struggle to improve workers’ welfare, and the achievement of better working
conditions and social guarantees. In doing so, FBSI is returning the function of the
labour movement to that of a labour union rather than of a political organization.
17
Moderate socialist trade union leaders were involved in this restructuring of the labour
movement.
18
More prominent, however, were the leaders of sectarian unions, who generally
employed a conservative social-democratic rhetoric in which workers’ interests were deemed
to be best protected within a harmonious employment relationship predicated on Muslim or
Christian morality. Like Moertopo, these conservative trade union leaders repeatedly
emphasized the difference between the ‘ideological, long-term, socio-political struggle’ of
political organizations and the ‘real, short-term, socio-economic struggle’ of the trade
unions.
19
In New Order Indonesia, this meant not that unions should avoid being controlled
by political parties, as European social democrats had long argued, but that labour should not
be involved in politics at all.
20
Themes of New Order labour historiography
Policy-makers and ideologues actively appropriated the history of trade unionism in their
attempts to justify their commitment to the organic, corporatist state structures of industrial
relations that came to characterize New Order trade unionism, arguing that unions had been
previously unable to achieve their desire for unity because their links to political parties had
distracted them from their ‘true’ socio-economic purpose.
21
Political trade unionism, they
claimed, made unions ‘too weak to fight for the interests of their members’, leaving ‘the main
objective of improving the welfare of workers and of their families’ unattended.
22
These
accounts asserted that it was only when political parties and other labour intellectuals were

eliminated under the New Order that trade unions were free to unify and resume their rightful
place as defenders of workers’ socio-economic interests and the well-being of the nation. In
doing so, they emphasized the discontinuity between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Orders, maintaining
that whereas New Order trade unions were characterized by their socioeconomic focus and
responsible attitude, their predecessors had been subverted from their economic and
nationalist purposes by political parties, which they said had betrayed Indonesia and
Indonesian workers. As a result, New Order accounts tended to ignore important transitions
during the revolutionary period (194549), parliamentary period (195057) and the final
years of Sukarno’s presidency, known as Guided Democracy (195765), as well as the
continuities between the Guided Democracy period and the New Order. Instead, they
highlighted repeated failures to unite the politically divided trade union movement of the late
colonial period and Sukarno’s presidency while heralding the establishment in 1973 of a
single federation focused on national development and the socio-economic interests of
workers.
23
According to New Order labour historians, the inherently political nature of Indonesia’s
labour movement was a product of its early ties to the nationalist movement and its exposure
to outside influences, both domestic and foreign. Their potted histories argued that unions
were caught between liberalism and communism, and were unable to achieve unity because
of their links to political parties until such time as the New Order returned Indonesia to the
Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. When describing the development of labour in the
colonial period, New Order texts emphasized the subordination of organized labour to the
nationalist movement while at the same time seeking to highlight tensions between the desire
for unity among socio-economically oriented unions and the divisive influence of the
communists. They also warned repeatedly of the dangers of politicization and its effects on
attempts to achieve unity within the labour movement in their representations of trade
unionism in the period between 1945 and 1965 arguing on the one hand that a minority of
‘pure’ trade unions with the support of the military and later the government had kept hopes
of unification alive, while on the other condemning all unions for falling under the influence
of political parties.
24
As the discussion that follows shows, these themes represented a distinct
shift from the labour historiography of the preceding Sukarno period.
Subordinate to the nationalist movement
An important aspect of New Order accounts of the colonial trade unionism was their almost
uniform identification of 1908 as the year that the organized labour movement began. By
contrast, almost all labour histories written between 1945 and 1965 identified that pivotal
moment as occurring with the formation of the Railway Workers’ Union (Staatspoorbond, SS
Bond) in 1905 (see Figure 1).
25
As was the case with labour historiography of the Sukarno
years in general, accounts written before 1966 offered a range of interpretations of the
significance of 1905. Communist writers sought to emphasize the working class’ position at
the forefront of the Indonesian revolution, claiming that it was ‘only after the workers had
begun to organize themselves in 1905 [that] the aristocratic intellectuals began to organize’.
26
Other accounts, including a 1948 article in the Labour Ministry’s bulletin Tindjauan
Masalaah Perburuhan associated the formation of the SS Bond in 1905 with the Japanese

victory over Russia, which it described as ‘part of the ‘‘Eastern awakening’’’, and thus part
of a firm, pan-Asian rebuttal of European dominance.
27
Figure 1. The genesis of the labour movement, 1894-1908
Notes: (1) Tedjasukmana, Indonesian Trade Union Movement; (2) Sandra, Gerakan Buruh Indonesia;
(3) Sandra, Sedjarah Pergerakan Buruh Indonesia; (4) Aidit, Sedjarah Gerakan Buruh Indonesia; (5)
SOBSI, Sedjarah Gerakan Buruh Indonesia; (6) Pengurus Besar GASBIINDO, GASBIINDO:
Sokoguru Revolusi Indonesia; (7) Hasibuan, Political Unionism and Economic Development; (8)
Trimurti, Hubungan Pergerakan Buruh Indonesia; (9) Soekarno MPA, Renovation of the Indonesian
Labour Movement; (10) SPSI, Laporan PertanggungJawaban Periode 19851990; (11) SPSI
Gerakan Serikat Pekerja; (12) Department of Manpower, The Rights to Organise in Indonesia; (13)
Government of Indonesia, Himpunan Peraturan Pemerintah tentang Ketenagakerjaan; (14)
Simanjuntak, ‘Perkembangan Organisasi Pekerja di Indonesia’; (15) Shamad, Industrial Relations in
Indonesia; (16) Kertonegoro, Gerakan Serikat Pekerja.
As Figure 1 suggests, the overwhelming majority of New Order labour histories located the
beginning of indigenous trade unionism after the formation of the conservative nationalist
organization, Boedi Oetomo, in 1908. Prominent New Order trade unionist Sudono claimed

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Frequently Asked Questions (1)
Q1. What are the contributions in "A victor's history: a comparative analysis of the labour historiography of indonesia's new order" ?

As this article shows, Suharto ’ s New Order ( 1966–98 ) undertook a conscious and purposeful rewriting of Indonesian labour history in support of a single vehicle of labour representation organized around a narrative of the dangers of political unionism and designed to control and harness the industrial workforce in the name of economic development.