How did Indonesia’s labour movement go from being small and divided at the demise of the New Order regime in 1998 to play lead parts in politics some two decades later? What lessons have labour organizers learned along the way? And what lessons can we draw from Indonesia relevant to industrial organizing elsewhere? Informed by over a decade of multi-method research in selected sites across the west of the archipelago, Teri Caraway and Michele Ford address these and other questions in their Labor and Politics in Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2020), our featured title for this episode of New Books in Southeast Asian Studies. Tracking how labour unions found resources and identified opportunity structures by sequentially coupling contentious street politics with strategic targeting of executive offices and legislative contests, Caraway and Ford show that Indonesian unions and their allies have succeeded not only in greatly elevating wages and improving workplace conditions but also have built an identifiable working-class constituency. This constituency has given organized labour political clout far beyond what was or what seemed possible a couple of decades ago. And it has made for a more democratic Indonesia, one in which workers not only have participated in but at times taken the lead in local and national political struggles.
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Nick Cheesman is a Fellow in the Department of Political & Social Change, Australian National University. He co-hosts the New Books in Southeast Asian Studies channel and hosts the New Books in Interpretive Political & Social Science series on the New Books Network.