Pushing onwards: The resurgent Thai labor movement and May Day 2004

Pushing onwards: The resurgent Thai labor movement and May Day 2004 - The Irrawaddy, May 1, 2004
...This development is a big change from previous union campaigns against privatization, when previous governments in the early and mid-1990s successfully smeared union campaigns as "self-interested" efforts by the workers to protect their pay packets and privileges at the expense of the wider interests of the public.
The unions and their allies have now turned the tables on the government. After the partial privatizations of the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and the Airports Authority of Thailand, in which the families of leading members of the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party, or TRT, got the lion’s share of cut-rate shares on offer, the unions have convinced the general public that privatizing EGAT through listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand is more of the same elite "policy corruption".


[2015 note: Like many newspaper articles from the early days of the internet in the region, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

Pushing Onwards: The Resurgent Thai Labor Movement and May Day 2004

By William K. Roland

May 02, 2004—It is May Day in Bangkok, and the main thoroughfare of Rachadamnern Avenue in front of the United Nations building is long since lost to the Thai police, at least for the afternoon. Before the end of the day, the police will lose control of more than just the street. Displacing the usual fare of buses and taxis belching exhaust is a riotous sea of red shirts, a massive throng of 80,000 protesting workers who pump their fists in the air, wave flags and banners protesting privatization of state enterprises (and other Thai government failures to respect worker rights), and march.

They move to a continuous beat of drums, labor songs, and speeches from their leaders on trucks festooned with slogans and cartoon characterizations of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as everything ranging from an all-consuming capitalist vampire to an authoritarian Asian Hitler. The newspaper reports call the union challenge to Thaksin one of the major threats to his government, along with the militant Muslim threat in the far South of the country, and judging by yesterday’s rally, they are right.

A new militancy has taken hold in the Thai labor movement. The state enterprise unions, the backbone of the movement in terms of members and resources, have hit their stride in their absolute opposition to any privatization of key resources such as water and electricity.

Led by the unions of the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT, and the Metropolitan Electrical Authority, or MEA, and strongly supported by the national State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation, or SERC, a new militancy has taken hold in the Thai labor movement. The state enterprise unions, the backbone of the movement in terms of members and resources, have hit their stride in their absolute opposition to any privatization of key resources such as water and electricity. Importantly, they are also being cheered on by a growing network of civil society allies—ranging from consumer organizations, to NGOs, to farmers’ organizations—in their confrontation with the government.

This development is a big change from previous union campaigns against privatization, when previous governments in the early and mid-1990s successfully smeared union campaigns as “self-interested” efforts by the workers to protect their pay packets and privileges at the expense of the wider interests of the public.

The unions and their allies have now turned the tables on the government. After the partial privatizations of the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and the Airports Authority of Thailand, in which the families of leading members of the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party, or TRT, got the lion’s share of cut-rate shares on offer, the unions have convinced the general public that privatizing EGAT through listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand is more of the same elite “policy corruption”.

SERC and the state enterprise unions have also focused on critical international “lessons learned” to critique privatization. They raise the disastrous situation in Argentina regularly, and ask citizens a central question based on those international lessons: whether they can afford the increased costs of basic goods (such as electricity, water, low-cost transport) that privatization will likely bring.

A commitment to public empowerment and involvement in the campaign, embodied by the unions’ promise to put the privatization question to a national referendum and abide by the result, has also generated goodwill. Even small details—like preventing any consumption of alcohol by union members during events, a major source of public relations and crowd control problems in the past—have been covered. An easy, no-compromise position of “no privatization, period”, while committing to undertake efficiency reforms to improve service, binds together worker and public interest as one.

Waved on by their fellow workers and with nary a cop in sight, protesters poured into the Government House compound. Within six or seven minutes, well over 1,000 protesters had streamed in.

Small wonder then that the Thaksin government’s bluster and intimidation tactics (which prove so effective in intimidating NGOs and academics) have little effect on the unions. After underestimating the determination of the unions, based apparently on a faulty assessment that the workers could be bought off with offers of stock or pay raises, the government is temporarily in retreat.

Already, the government has compromised to set up a so-called “independent” regulator. More recently, in a move widely seen as buying time for the government, an agreement was reached between the newly appointed EGAT board and the EGAT union to scrap the immediate floating of shares on the stock exchange. To give it legitimacy, it was also co-signed by the Minister of Energy.

Today’s May Day march also brings in thousands of factory workers in private enterprises, who are members of the five national labor congresses who are boycotting the Ministry of Labor-controlled (and paid for) event at Sanam Luang (Royal Ploughing Field).

The factory workers’ concerns were also listed in the core May Day demands of the SERC, including reforming the Labor Relations Act of 1975 to genuinely protect workers’ rights to organize; raising the minimum wage; and supporting the rights of sub-contract and migrant workers.

Farmers, academics, and NGOs fill out the ranks of the marchers, and many of their demands were also included, such as opening the process of signing bilateral Free Trade Agreements to public participation and scrutiny; solving the debt problems of farmers; and opposing the war in Iraq and demanding an immediate withdrawal of Thai troops from that country.

But for the marchers in the scorching mid-day heat on Rachadamnern, what matters is the solidarity and camaraderie, and building the tumult of scathing speeches, whistles and horns, and labor songs (belted out by the labor rock band Paradorn) continued. Off to the side of the stage, the plainclothes Special Branch Police—easily identifiable in their sports caps, T-shirts and jeans, big gold chains around the neck, and expensive running shoes—filmed the proceedings and scanned the crowd. But they were in the wrong place.

Down the street, across from the Ministry of Education, the waves of red humanity had found a crack in the Government House’s security, and pushed open a gate manned by only three police, who promptly fled the scene. Waved on by their fellow workers and with nary a cop in sight, protesters poured into the Government House compound. Within six or seven minutes, well over 1,000 protesters had streamed in before police reinforcements arrived—just in time to prevent one of the protesters’ sound trucks from heading through the gates.

A tussle to shut the gates ensued, between 50 helmeted policemen and 100 or so protesters just outside the gate, as another 5,000 protesters gathered to observe and shout encouragement. Protesters clambered on to the guardhouse roof at the gate with video cameras, and a big cheer went up when a protester climbed up with a poster demanding to know the fate of missing human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit.

Finally, as the police pushed the gates closed, only the continuous pleas for total non-violence by a protest leader on the sound truck kept things somewhat calm. A few projectiles from the crowd were aimed at the police, but quickly stopped. Meanwhile, protest flags, banners, water and supplies were being sent over a side-wall to the protesters, taking advantage of the alternatively stunned and lethargic response by the police. New cheers and chants went up in support of the “brave ones” inside.

Time passed, protesters congregated, and a long-term sit-in looked increasingly likely. “Government House Invasion, Protesters by the Thousands” were the headlines in my head, seemingly ready to write themselves. Yet behind the scenes, the labor leaders of the day—Pean Yongnu (from MEA), Somsak Kosaisook (SERC) and Sirichai Mai-Ngam (EGAT)—were obviously working towards a solution. Perhaps recognizing that a spontaneous occupation of Government House had the very real likelihood to give Thaksin the ammunition to discredit the whole May Day event and the state enterprise workers’ campaign, a compromise was needed.

Finally, after an hour stand-off, it was agreed to allow the protesters to file out of the Government House without any harassment by police—a classic Thai solution, best characterized as “no harm, no foul”. Pien Yongnu stepped forward to man the microphones and convince all to come out. TV Cameras from Channel 11 and Channel 7 were there, but of course no stories ran in the evening news on the incident—raising again the issue of censorship under the Thaksin government.

Thaksin and his government dodged a crisis they are ill-prepared to handle, but its open question whether the government has recognized the changed situation. There is a new dynamic order in labor—the workers of Thailand are marching with the people supporting them, they are smart and creative in tactics, and they are unified. After the day’s events, it is clear that Thaksin and his government either need to get on board, or get out of the way.

William Roland is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok who reports regularly on international development, human rights, and labor issues.
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