November 28, 2013

Eight Questions Palestinian Queers Are Tired Of Hearing

Graffiti In Ramallah: "Queers Passed Through Here"

You might think that the main goal of a group of queer activists in Palestine like us in Al-Qaws should be the seemingly endless task of dismantling sexual and gender hierarchy in one’s own society.
It is. But you might think otherwise, judging from the repetitive questions we get during our lectures and events, or from inquiries we receive from media and other international organizations.
We intend to end this once and for all. Educating people about their own privilege is not our burden. But before we announce our formal retirement from this task, here are the eight most frequent questions we get, and their definitive answers.
1. Doesn’t Israel provide Palestinian queers with a safe haven?
Of course it does: the apartheid wall has sparkly pink doors lining it, ready to admit those who strike a fabulous pose. In fact, Israel built the wall to keep Palestinian homophobes out and to protect Palestinian queers who seek refuge in it.
But seriously: “Israel” creates refugees; it does not shelter refugees. There has never been a case of a Palestinian — a descendant of a family or families who were forcibly displaced, sometimes massacred, often thrown in jail without charge — magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.
If some people manage to cross the wall and end up in Tel Aviv, they are considered “illegal.” They end up working and living in horrible conditions, trying to avoid being arrested.
2. Aren’t all Palestinians homophobic?
Are all Americans homophobic? Of course not. Unfortunately, Western representations of Palestinians, particularly lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Palestinians, tend to ignore diversity in Palestinian society.
That being said, Palestinians are living under a decades-long military occupation. The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.
However, homophobia is not the way we contextualize our struggle. This is a notion comes from specific type of activism in the global north.
How can we single out homophobia from a complex oppressive system (patriarchy) that oppresses women, and gender non-conforming people?
3. How do you deal with your main enemy, Islam?
Oh, we have a main enemy now? If we had to single out a main enemy that would be occupation, not religion — Islam or otherwise.
More fundamentalist forms of religion are presently enjoying a global resurgence, including in many Western societies.
We don’t view religion as our main exceptional challenge. Still, increased religious sentiment, regardless of which religion, almost always creates obstacles for those interested in promoting respect for gender and sexual diversity.
Palestinian nationalism has a long history of respect for secularism. This provides a set of cultural values useful in advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians.
Furthermore, religion is often an important part of Palestinian LGBTQ people’s identities. We respect all of our communities’ identities and make space for diversity.
4. Are there any out Palestinians?
I’m glad you asked that question. We have great Palestinian gay carpenters who build such amazing closets for queers with all the Western comforts you can dream of — we never want to leave.
Once again the notion of coming out — or the politics of visibility — is a strategy that has been adopted by some LGBT activists in the global north, due to specific circumstances. Imposing this strategy on the rest of the world, without understanding context, is a colonial project.
Ask us instead what social change strategies apply to our context, and whether the notion of coming out even makes sense.
5. Why are there no Israelis in al-Qaws?
Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money). Being super “good” doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.
Our organization works within Palestinian society, across borders imposed by the occupation. The challenges that LGBTQ Israelis face are nothing like the ones faced by Palestinians.
We are talking about two different societies with different cultures and histories; the fact that they are currently occupying our land doesn’t make us one society.
Moreover, being queer does not eliminate the power dynamic between the colonized and colonizer despite the best of intentions.
We resist the “global, pink, happy, gay family” sentiment. Palestinian-only organizing is essential to decolonizing and improving Palestinian society.
6. I saw this film about gay Palestinians (Invisible Men/Bubble/Out In The Dark, etc.) and I feel I learned a lot about your struggle
You mean the films that were made by privileged Israeli or Jewish filmmakers portraying white Israelis as saviors and Palestinians as victims that needed saving?
These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society.
Moreover, these films rely on racist tropes of Arab men as volatile and dangerous. These films are simply pinkwashing propaganda, funded by the Israeli government, with a poignant oppressed/oppressor love story the glitter on top.
If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites.
7. Isn’t fighting for gay rights a more pressing issue than pinkwashing?
Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia.
But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.
Furthermore, pinkwashing is a strategy used by the Brand Israel campaign to garner the support of queers in other parts of the world. It is simply an attempt to make the Zionist project more appealing to queer people.
This is another iteration of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy — that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves.
Pinkwashing strips away our voices, history and agency, telling the world that Israel knows what is best for us. By targeting pinkwashing we are reclaiming our agency, history, voices and bodies, telling the world what we want and how to support us.
8. Why do you use terms from “the West” like LGBT or queer to describe your struggle? How do you answer that critique?
Though we have occasionally been branded as tokenized, complicit with Israel, naïve and Westernized (by those based in the West), our activists bring decades of experience and on-the-ground analysis of cultural imperialism and Orientalism.
This has provided the raw material for many an itinerant academic. However, the work of those in the Ivory Tower is rarely, if ever, accountable to those working in the field nor does it acknowledge its power (derived from the same colonial economy) on activists.
We are accountable to our local communities and the values developed over years of organizing.
Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do. The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context.
The language that we use is always revisited and expanded through our work. Language catalyzes discussions and pushes us to think more critically, but no word whether in English or Arabic can do the work. Only a movement can.
Ghaith Hilal is a queer Palestinian activist from the West Bank who has been part of Al-Qaws leadership since 2007.

November 20, 2013

Kshama Sawant: Socialist Elected To Seattle City Council

By Ann Montague
November 16th, eleven days after election night the first socialist to be elected to the Seattle City Council held her victory rally. The rally was at the headquarters of SEIU 775NW.  This fact alone is significant as SEIU endorsed her opponent. By the time Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant spoke the crowd was ready to hear her and she spoke for half an hour. She started by saying that she would be speaking that long because, “when you are challenging the status quo you cannot speak in sound bites.  It takes time”.  She talked mostly about the fight for the $15.00 an hour minimum wage and reminded everyone that voting is only the first step and then warned them that there will be attempts to use slander and to divide the movement. She went on to explain that their opponents will try to make this personal. They will tell us to have a ‘reasonable’ discussion and they will try to water down our demands. “We need to stay strong, the power is in our hands”.

Rita Shaw, a Socialist Action supporter was at the rally and reports there were around 500 people there and it was standing room only.  But more interesting than the numbers were the labor representatives who spoke despite the fact that they had supported her opponent. This included the King County Labor Council Executive Director David Freiboth and a representative from SEIU 775NW. Shaw thought the most important thing about the night was Sawant’s emphasis on building broad coalitions all over the city to start talking about winning the $15 an hour minimum wage.

Two nights earlier Sawant’s opponent, Democrat Richard Conlin who had held that position for sixteen years had conceded the election. She was behind on election night but was confident that the later votes which tend to be from independents and non-voters would put her over the top.  As of this writing votes are still being counted and she has received 93,168 votes which is 50.63 per cent.

Her grassroots campaign was rooted in the movement for $15 minimum wage, a millionaires tax to fund public transit and rent control.  Sawant teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College and was an organizer for Occupy Seattle. She was arrested during foreclosure fights and supported the mass movement against coal trains and the building of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. She has pledged to give most of her $120,000 city council salary to the social movements in the Seattle area.

Sawant is a member of AFT Local 1719 and they endorsed her along with CWA local 37083, APWU of Greater Seattle, IBEW local 46, AFSCME/WFSE local 1488.  A majority of the King County Labor Council voted to endorse her but 2/3 was required for an official endorsement.
A statement election night from Socialist Alternative stated, “U.S. capitalism is in a deep economic and social crisis. The political establishment is discredited, and their system of government appears broken. Deep anger is growing against inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Environmental destruction is worsening. The situation is crying out for an alternative. We urgently need a party of working people, connected to social movements, fighting unions, community organizations, Greens and socialists. As a concrete step to get there, we should form coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections. The unions who supported the Moore and Sawant campaigns and many others should run full slates of independent working-class candidates in the mid-term, state, and local elections”.

One of the things that grabbed the attention of workers was this campaign’s relentless attacks on the Democratic Party which were personified by her opponent Richard Conlin. In my union workers have been so disgusted by Democratic governors who are throwing huge tax breaks at corporations and then crying that their states are going broke that they found an opportunity to watch a candidate take on the Democratic Party enticing. As a result we sent a letter to all the SEIU locals in Washington State encouraging them to endorse the Sawant campaign. Now they will continue to be watching.

The day after the victory party Sawant sent out an e-mail to all her supporters saying, “This is our fight, all of us” And calling on all her supporters to stand in solidarity with Boeing machinists at their rally that afternoon.  She pointed out the Democratic controlled legislature had recently called a Special Session to offer Boeing $8 billion more dollars in tax breaks while demanding draconian cuts in wages and benefits.  At the rally she spoke about the Boeing CEO threatening to leave Seattle. “The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don't need the executives. The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do. We can re-tool the machines to produce mass transit like buses.”

November 15, 2013

Democrat Conlin Concedes: Seattle Elects Socialist Kshama Sawant To Its City Council

Longtime Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin conceded his seat to challenger Kshama Sawant late Friday after Sawant's lead widened to 1,640 votes, or 50.3 percent.
Sawant becomes the first Socialist elected to the city council. Her grassroots campaign focused on a $15 minimum wage, rent control in a city with rising rents, and a millionaires' tax to fund transportation. Sawant has a Ph.D. in economics, and has taught at Seattle Central Community College. She's been active in the Occupy Seattle movement.
Conlin has served 16 years on the council, where he most recently chaired the city's land use committee. During his press conference Friday, he said he was proud of his record on sustainability and transit.
Both Conlin and Sawant mounted post-election campaigns to get voters to double check that their votes had been counted.  Sawant ran as a Socialist Alternative. She previously ran unsuccessfully for  House Speaker Frank Chopp's seat in 2012. She won 29 percent of the vote in that race, which put her on the map. She had been steadily gaining on Conlin since election night.

Machinists Defeat Boeing (by 67%) Proposal: Boo Brass Who Pushed It

Machinists at Boeing resoundingly voted down mid-contract concessions yesterday and then booed the union leaders who had pushed the proposal on a shocked membership.
Their contract doesn’t expire until 2016, but the company is threatening to move production of the huge new 777X aircraft out of Washington state to avoid the union.
Boeing even promised $10,000 apiece upon approval, but the workers didn’t take the bait, opposing the scheme by 67 percent.
A line snaked around the union building in Everett as workers waited to vote on a proposal they’d only learned was under discussion a week before. The 31,000 workers are members of IAM District Lodge 751.
“I’ve never seen a turnout like this,” said 35-year Machinist Jim Levitt. “There was very little in the way of signs or banners. Just a lot of workers making sure they had their say.”
Union officials were greeted by a chorus of boos as they prepared to announce the results. After announcing the 2-1 margin they beat a hasty retreat, neither addressing the union members in the hall nor holding a press conference.
Secret Negotiations
The company’s proposal was not made public until last Wednesday, November 6. Immediately a website sprang up urging members to “vote no to corporate blackmail” and questioning how the proposed contract would guarantee that the work stayed in Washington. Supporters rallied on Monday.
IAM leaders conceded that the talks were more like an ultimatum than a negotiation, but asked members to consider the threat anyway.
Boeing had demanded an end to the defined-benefit pension as of 2016, ending accruals for all workers and replacing it with a 401(k)-type structure with very small company contributions.
The company also demanded steep increases in medical payments and a change to the pay structure that would mean new workers would not reach top pay for 20 years. Wage increases would have been 1 percent every other year.
Under the current step system, in a typical pay grade, Grade 4, minimum pay is $15, maximum is $35.25. Workers get raises of 50 cents an hour for the first six years, then a big jump to top pay. Under the proposed system, new hires would never get the big jump, so they would cost Boeing far less.
Getting to Be a Habit
Two years ago the IAM extended an existing contract under extortion-like conditions when Boeing threatened to move future production of the 737. That contract still has three years to run, meaning workers can’t threaten to strike.
After the vote, Boeing officials reiterated the company’s threat to shop 777X work around to other states for cheaper labor. The 777X is a wide-body jet that would compete with a forthcoming Airbus plane. It would improve on the fuel efficiency of existing 777s.
In another rushed move, Washington Governor Jay Inslee called legislators to the capital for a special session to discuss incentives to keep the 777X in Washington last week.
In the past, Boeing has taken state money—and union concessions—and then built wings in Japan and a new 787 factory in right-to-work South Carolina.
On Saturday, legislators approved $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing over the next 16 years. It’s the largest state tax subsidy in U.S. history, according to critics who point to a revolving door between the state’s government and Boeing.
Union Tried to Sell It
The staff and business agents of Machinists District Lodge 751 initially were divided on the proposal, voting 18 to 10 not to present it to members, but they were overruled.
At a packed, tense union meeting last Thursday, with 750 members present, District President Tom Wroblewski initially made no recommendation how to vote.
According to Levitt, opponents in the meeting said, “We have a contract. Let’s negotiate again when there isn’t a gun to our heads, and when we all know that negotiations are going on.”
When it became clear that membership opposition was intense and overwhelming, Wroblewski ripped up the proposal he called “a piece of crap” and said he would “check the bylaws” to see whether he could stop the vote.
However, international staffers met with workers in the factories to push the plan.
After the vote, Wroblewski issued a statement: "We preserved something sacred by rejecting the Boeing proposal. We've held on to our pensions and that's big."
Will They Move It?
How real is the threat? Some analysts say moving 777X production to South Carolina or another state will be more disruptive to efficiency and quality than basing the program in Washington, where similar fuselages are already being produced. The very long composite wings for the new airplane are hard to transport if they’re built far away.
“The 787 model of building parts all over the place is not feasible,” said Levitt. Huge delays caused by subcontractors unable to produce the work properly and on schedule created cost overruns on the 787.
“The company could still make a horrible business decision to locate the 777X elsewhere,” notes the 751 Vote No website. “If the company chooses this path of destruction, then they are responsible for it. That is on them and we, as union members, do not have control over it.”
"Every time they outsource something, there are problems, and they ship it back to Everett," said Steve Phelps, an electrician who works on the 787.
“It’s possible they’ll build a plant in Texas, or Utah, or some other low-wage locale,” said Levitt. “Or they’ll figure out that to avoid another major disaster following on the 787, they’d be better off back dealing with us. Time will tell.”

Jenny Brown is a staff writer for Labor
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November 12, 2013

The AFL-CIO: Choices of Perspective -- by Kurt Stand (reprinted from Portside)

Continuing the dialogue on recent developments within the AFL-CIO

Organized labor's crisis has lasted over three decades; numerous attempts have been made during that time to turn matters around and regain strength, none of which have proved successful. The recently concluded AFL-CIO Convention's decision to open up union structures to non-union organizations in order to widen the base of support for labor's agenda is another such attempt, more basic than the ones that came before. If viewed as simply another false path, as a further retreat by labor leadership before the power of capital, then we will return to focus on building counter institutions or agendas which - though essential parts of the movement for progressive/radical social change - have themselves been unable to produce sufficient working-class power to rebuild our labor movement or civil society. If seen as providing new opportunities to re-engage rank-and-file members and workers outside union ranks, we might be able to use pre-existing networks in concert with labor's institutions to finally re-build working-class strength to counter that power.

A set of choices are thus present akin to those which have faced the left and social movement activists when other such potential turning points have presented themselves in the recent past.

Following eight-years of neo-liberal Democratic Administration that oversaw the expansion of presidential war-making powers via the bombing of Serbia and a deeply reactionary welfare reform, large numbers of people concluded that it made little difference who was elected to office - and so Ralph Nader's independent campaign for the presidency gained more support in 2000 than any other such effort from the left since Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in 1948. But evidently the results of the election did matter to those in power - for although Al Gore won the popular vote, and likely won the electoral vote, concerted corporate Republican pressure, abetted by the Supreme Court, made George Bush Jr. President. Nader and the Green Party were at the height of their influence, and perhaps had they strongly organized and agitated that the victor in the race should sit in the White House, they might have helped build a popular resistance all too lacking at the time. In fact, the stolen election that year confirmed Nader's analysis of the corruption of the US electoral system. But because he so narrowly clung to the viewpoint that there was no difference between the parties, Nader and his supporters failed to act. Inaction at a moment of decision - even a moment that didn't look as imagined --is one of the reasons that no large independent organization emerged from that impressive vote total.

Choices matter. Bush Administration policies led to an intensification of racism and anti-unionism, of an attack on women's rights and an attack on the environment, further entrenching reactionary ideology and practices throughout society. And this time, instead of looking for a better third party solution, the need for acting on the choices as they existed led most activists in the communities hardest hit by Bush policies to support Obama. The fact that the alternative to Bush was not from the left is a reflection of the weakness of the left, a circle which standing outside the world of change will not change. New choices will only appear when we expand the differences within the choices we have.

A reality we see once more in the struggles around the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the proposals are less than what we need and don't challenge the existing power of the insurance industry. But clearly it matters to the Republican right, which has made destroying that legislation the centerpiece of their program. One reason: it expands the notion of health care as a public right going against the train of attacks on such rights.

Another reason: it can potentially be a link between different sectors of working people, running against the lines of division which the racism and misogyny of the right have used to divide people against themselves. So it has become an arena of contestation - and as the government shutdown proved, it is a line of division that runs to the heart of our ability to maintain any form of democratic governance at all. Those people who use valid critiques of the limitations of health reform to sit out the debate actually taking place in society are not only failing to build support for the better alternative of a universal health care system, they are also sitting out the struggle against an unbounded attack on social justice, on social activism, and on public participation in elections.

Alternative ways of viewing choice and change noted above are relevant to the recent Portside discussion initiated by Steve Early's Labor Notes article, "House of Labor Needs Repairs Not Just New Roommates." Like critiques of Gore (and Clinton's) record in office, of the compromises and vacillations of the Obama Administration, of the limitations of the Affordable Care Act; Early raises valuable and important points in his critique of the AFL-CIO Convention. Certainly it is true, as he asserts, that no change in organized labor will be lasting and effective if disconnected with current membership, if disconnected with workplace struggles.

 One of the weaknesses, for example, of the Teamster reform movement after Ron Carey's election as union president was that the constant emphasis of the "New Teamsters," provided an opening through which opponents of that particular change could appeal to members who felt they were being pushed aside. Yet the weakness in Early's position is that he fails to see the intrinsically positive nature of many of the measures adopted by the Convention - from the alliance with national progressive/liberal organizations to the commitment to diversity, to giving voice to disenfranchised workers in non-traditional workplaces - changes necessary if the workplace mobilization he prioritizes is to take place.

Highlighting that weakness is the following quote from his article,
"Unfortunately, greater inclusiveness, closer ties with non-labor allies, and the adoption of pleasingly progressive resolutions only begin to address the real organizing challenges facing labor, whether `alt' or traditional." The unfortunate use of the word "unfortunately" invalidates what would otherwise be a valid statement. Being more inclusive, strengthening relationships outside of labor's ranks, adopting progressive resolutions (which is indeed pleasing) are only steps, much more needs to be done. But they are steps in the right direction, moving toward the goal he states next, of "defending and re-energizing labor's existing members."

The initiatives Trumka and the AFL-CIO took at this convention are a positive continuation of changes first introduced by John Sweeney when his New Voice slate successfully challenged the Kirkland leadership in 1995. Early appears to believe that this made little difference, but in fact it was an enormous advance over the Meany and Kirkland leaderships presiding over a labor federation which was not inclusive, preferred formal ties with Cold War business groups over non-labor liberal allies, and passed many a resolution which was unpleasingly conservative. Of course, Sweeney was not Eugene Debs, just as Obama isn't Martin Luther King - but those weren't the alternatives on the table and wishing otherwise wouldn't make them so.

Only organizing that attacks the roots of labor and working-class weakness can create better and more radical choices. Underlying Early's position is the clear assessment that labor is weak today because its leadership has been unwilling and unable to lead the fight against management's unrelenting attack against all things union, has blocked the ability of rank & file unionists to take initiative in their own hands. What follows from that it is the clear implication that every bad contract, every stalled organizing drive, every lost strike could have been won with a more radical, militant, intelligent leadership, mobilizing and fully engaging the membership.

Again a partial truth, the lacks of many in labor's top ranks is legion. Yet it is an outlook that ignores the social context in which union battles take place and ignore the plain fact that - notwithstanding isolated important victories --organized labor, whether measured by membership decline or growing inequality, has been suffering defeats and losses throughout the developed capitalist world. Losses suffered irrespective of the outlook or structure of particular national movements.

Thus the need for political strategies and alliances that go deeper and further than those that existed heretofore, thus the need to move toward structures through which particular union issues are seen through a wider lens and reconnect in practical terms the battle for union workplace rights with the battle for democratic rights. That is a perspective that can create a framework toward a greater class consciousness, reconnecting labor activism with a socialism that has moved from an abstraction to a goal based on concrete possibility.

In turn, only by the embrace of the kind of broadening made possible at the AFL-CIO convention will it be possible to better root union activism amongst current members. Again, Early (and some of the other Portside commentators) have been correct in raising concerns about the drift in many Federation unions to distance leadership and staff from their membership in an unhealthy way. The shameful attempt of the IUOE to raid ILWU contracts, the failure of the Federation to address that issue, serves as a prime example of the danger of separating support for democratic rights in society with that for a more democratic labor movement. But such undemocratic and bureaucratic problems inside the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions has been going on long before the current AFL-CIO Convention and will not be overcome by a return to a focus on building union workplace strength in isolation from all other issues - a legacy from Gompers era that was wrong then, and is inapplicable today. That, of course, is not Early's position, but it is the perspective from the building trades and other unionists most disturbed by the Convention proceedings.

What is critical to recognize is that greater membership involvement on a sustained basis is only possible when that membership sees labor organization as addressing both workplace and non-workplace issues, sees job fights as related to struggles for environmental justice, for social equality and peace. Any thought that there could be a resurgent labor movement that failed to put those matters front and center is a notion that ignores the basis of the rise of the IWW, the rise of the CIO, and the wave of public sector, farm worker and rank & file unionism in the 1960s-70s.

The alliances with the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, NOW and the Sierra Club; the support for and full engagement with non-union workers centers, provide the strongest framework in which such unity can develop - and allow victories such as that won by the Chicago Teachers union be replicated rather than isolated.

Jeff Crosby and Bill Fletcher Jr. ("Viewpoint: AFL-CIO Convention Repositions Unions to Speak for All Workers") cite in their response to Early the AFL-CIO resolution denouncing mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. That position is a direct assault on the racism from which labor has suffered too much in the past, it also lays out a politics that, in the specific case of teacher unionism, is absolutely essential if the school closings, charter school openings, and slow attrition as well as direct assault on public education as a right are to be stopped - teacher jobs protected, teacher unions defending those jobs strengthened.

Like much else, words on paper. But words on paper can be used by those organizing in the trenches - and if so used can create the basis for a re-engagement of current members and the unorganized. There is nothing automatic about that process, but working to radicalize positive change in motion - "to reposition unions toward speaking for all working people in the United States," ... to correct "the narrow focus on its dues-paying members and traditional electoral work that has cursed the movement for most of its history," as Crosby and Fletcher put it, seems a better way to get there than dismissing out of hand such changes for being insufficient.

Militant democratic rank-and-file unionism is a necessity for labor, but it cannot be willed into being and it cannot be created in isolation from other struggles in society. It has to be organized using every tool available. The AFL-CIO Convention has handed us new tools, we now have to use them.

[Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years, eventually serving as an elected regional secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers. Recently released after serving 15 years in federal prison, he has added a view of labor from without to his former view from within.]

November 10, 2013

National Strike In Indonesia

The Indonesian working class is fighting to end the age of cheap labor. A little over a year after the national strike on 3 October 2012, Indonesian workers launched another national strike. The demand: a fifty per cent increase of the minimum wage.
In Jakarta, workers demand that the minimum wage, which varies from region to region, be set at Rp 3.7 million ($334) monthly. Jakarta is known to have an exceptionally high cost of living by Indonesian standards. An inflation rate that is predicted to hit ten per cent end this year is also pressuring real wages. Apart from wage increase, the movement demands universal health care by 1,January 2014 and the elimination of outsourcing.
The ruling classes, through its business associations, media and government, are arguing that such an increase of the minimum wage would be impossible because of economic difficulties. As they always do, the ruling classes and their mouthpieces claim that a wage increase will force investors to leave the country. This cliche has not lost its power to influence the petty-bourgeoisie or scare the most vulnerable and precarious workers. But the well-organized industrial workers who took to the streets and joined the two day strike at the end of October and early November did not let themselves be intimidated.
One positive development was the willingness of the majority of the Indonesian trade-unions to support the call to strike launched by the Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia (KSPI, Indonesian Trade Union Confederation). In the last few years, the KSPI has developed a reputation as an activist union. The strike was originally planned for August but was postponed to October as it became clear more time was needed to transform the growing support for the call into an effective, united strike. Many workers feel they have exhausted all possible ways of negotiation and dialogue with the bosses and the strike was felt as the best way to win new gains.
A patient process of dialogues and meetings built unity among different trade unions. Finally, a joint meeting decided to hold a strike on 31 October and 1 November. Representatives of trade unions and workers organizations from at least 50 different cities took part in the 500 person strong meeting. [1] Rather spontaneously, the meeting gave birth to a new coalition: Konferensi Nasional Gerakan Buruh (KNGB, National Conference of the Workers Movement). Since then, the KNGB already set up its own news portal:
The atmosphere at the meeting was filled with hope and enthusiasm. Participants hope the unity will not only inspire the fragmented workers’ movements in other regions but that it will also make it possible to mobilize a growing number of workers.
Such unity is needed because, since the last national strike, the ruling classes have launched a media campaign to denounce the workers’ demands as “unreasonable”. This idea has a lot of influence within the petty bourgeoisie and the somewhat better paid white-collar workers who often feel they have little in common with industrial workers. This division between industrial workers and white-collar workers is one often the lasting results of Soeharto’s New Order regime’s attempts to dissolve class consciousness.
Since the national strike of 2012, Indonesia has seen vicious counter-attacks by the bosses and the state apparatus who use violence and legal threats against the workers movement. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) also issued a decree to halt previously won wage increases, declaring that the minimum wage should not rise more than 5 to 10 per cent above the inflation rate.
But too many people have been working for poverty wages too long for the confrontation to be avoided. To give just one of countless possible examples: Lufti is one of many previously unorganized workers who joined the strike. For years, he has been working for around 2 dollars per day. His wife works as a garbage collector and his underage children work as well. Workers like Lufti have put their hope in the union and the strike. The issue of wage increases is emerging as a point of polarization in Indonesian society. The workers movement is not only fighting the individual bosses but also to win support in the public opinion.
Test of strength
The decision of KNGB left less than a month to organize the strike and mobilize workers across Indonesia. From 28 to 31 October, activists mobilized for the strike. From early in the morning of 28 October on, activists were busy leafleting and visiting factories to convince workers to go on strike and support the call for a 50 per cent wage increase. In different locations, students mobilized to show their support for the workers and were sometimes attacked by police.
On 29 October, a march in the Pulogadung industrial zone of Jakarta, where industrial workers are concentrated, went from factory to factory and grew from 150 to 6000. Another industrial zone, Berikat Nusantara Bonded Zone (home to mostly garment and textile industries), also saw a large gathering. Police and company thugs unsuccessfully sought to prevent workers, almost all women, from joining the rally. Other industrial zones also saw protests. Not only throughout Java, but also in other regions workers mobilized, such as in Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
In Jakarta, female garment workers in left their factories large numbers to join the strike. The Berikat Nusantara Bonded Zone was paralyzed on 31 October as at least 50.000 women workers went on strike. In the industrial port 5000 transportation and dockworkers joined the strike that day and closed one entry gate. Several industrial areas were reported to have been “paralysed” during the strike itself, such as Cimahi in eastern Java and the Ngoro industrial zone in Mojokerto, Central Java.
In Bekasi, a commuter and industrial satellite city of Jakarta, workers were viciously attacked by company thugs. On 29 October, a march that started with 4000 workers and grew to over 10.000 was attacked by company thugs. The most serious attack was on the first day of the strike, on 31 October. Protesting workers were attacked by hundreds of thugs, including members of the infamous Pemuda Pancasila militia, while police and army stood by. Workers were beaten up and stabbed and nineteen of them were heavily injured. Earlier reports that at least one worker was killed turned out to be false however. There was also material damage: many motorcycles, the favorite means of transportation of workers and often their most valuable possession, were broken. Earlier protests in Bekasi have also been met with unusual high levels of violence. [2]
The attacks have not broken the workers will to fight: despite earlier repression, seven industrial complexes in Bekasi were paralysed and workers from all over Bekasi took part in the protests. After the attack, on the second day of the strike, angry workers armed themselves with bamboo sticks to defend themselves. This time, the thugs did not show up. The police and army, who were earlier seen fraternizing with the thugs, now found the opportunity to search workers for weapons.
As during earlier campaigns, social media and mobile telephones played an important role in the diffusion of the call to go on strike and in exchanging information and news between workers and activists. Of around 247 million Indonesians, 64 million use Facebook . As the strike and protests took place, activists spread news through social media. Facebook and even Twitter (usually considered to be the domain of the “middle classes”) were used as agitation tools. This way, news about for example the attack in Bekasi was spread. This helped to counter the portrayal of the movement in the regular media and to motivate workers to continue.
According to police-figures, throughout Jakarta and its neighbors 60.000 workers went on strike. This claims lacks all credibility. Considering how many factories were affected, the participation must have been in the high hundreds of thousands.
Results and prospects
On 1 November, the movement in culminated with a protest at the office of Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Jokowi has won a lot of sympathy with some populist policies and his “man of the people” image. But now he showed his real face as he rejected the demands of the workers. In Jakarta, the minimum wage will be increased by only 11 per cent, one of the lowest increases won in this strike. When after the strike in 2012, Jokowi significantly increased wages, he was attacked by employers and in liberal media. Instead of confronting them, this time he chose to be on the bosses’ side. In Bekasi, workers won raises of between 40 and 50 per cent.
After the historic strike of 2012, this movement was again a sign the Indonesian working class is gaining strength and confidence. True, only a minority of all workers joined the strike but in the important manufacture for export sector, participation was almost total. Workers feel the difference unity can make. In only one month, KNGB succeeded in bringing together movements in 20 provinces, 150 regencies and 40 industrial zones. To appreciate this accomplishment, one must keep in mind that Indonesia’s near 247 million people are spread over the largest island country of the world. Demands like a 50 per cent wage increase, social security and banning of outsourcing proved effective in winning the support of an increasing number of workers.
The most urgent task for the Indonesian workers movement now will be to beat back the inevitable counter-attacks. Already, right-wing media outlets are spreading stories about spoiled workers who rather block the streets than “work to succeed in life”, and intimidate their colleagues if they do not go on strike. Media pundits claim wage increases are not necessary as long as workers can afford motorcycles (an absolute necessity for many of them) and that further wage increases will lead to economic collapse.
But right now, the workers have the wind behind them. Even if the victories remain limited, the real gains they have won in the recent strikes have built their confidence and trust that more is possible. Indonesian leftists and labor activists are learning to counter the propaganda of the ruling class. The demand of a 50 per cent wage increase has not been dropped and will be one of the central issues in Indonesian politics in the coming period.
On 3 November, the KNGB decided it will start planning another strike. We have seen only the beginning, the struggle continues.
[1] See the documentary of the conference at….
[2] The account from the victim can be seen at :http://propagandafspmi.wordpress.c… and the video at….

              Zely ArianeZely Ariane is a member of the revolutionary socialist organization Politik Rakyat (Popular Politics). From International Viewpoint, on-line journal of the Fourth International: Strikers during October 2012 national strike, in which over 2 million workers walked out. From