Sutomo, the Indonesian Study Club and Organised Labour in Late Colonial Surabaya

Ingleson, John, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Labour history of colonial Indonesia after the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its affiliated unions in 1926 has received little attention from historians. The accepted convention is that, after 1926 there was little or no labour union activity in the colony, or at least little of any consequence. (1) This period was certainly less dramatic than the years immediately after the First World War when strikes, demonstrations and political protest were commonplace. After 1926, repressive government policies and closer cooperation between government and employers severely restricted the space for organised labour. However this was far from the end of efforts to organise urban workers. Those who wanted to create a viable labour movement were forced to work within this restricted space and to develop less confrontationist strategies. (2)

The focus here is on the efforts of people associated with the Indonesian Study Club in Surabaya, the major port city of East Java, to organise private sector workers in Surabaya and surrounding towns after 1926. The Indonesian Study Club sought to develop enduring linkages with Surabaya workers through a strategy of engagement with the twin worlds of the neighbourhood (kampung) and the workplace. Its core constituency was the long-term residents of the kampung, though its social and economic work did not ignore the transient workers who made up a significant part of the urban workforce. The long-term Surabaya residents were people with differing levels of skill, education and status in the workplaces and different levels of wealth and influence in the kampung. In their own eyes they were what Frederick has called ‘arek Surabaya’, the real Surabayans, the city people.

The creation of labour unions was part of a broader strategy to create enduring linkages between the western-educated elite and Surabaya workers. It emphasised meeting the immediate needs of workers and providing educational and broad industrial support to them in their dealings with employers. It insisted that the labour movement should be separate from the political movement. It stressed the importance of providing social security for workers–sickness funds, death benefit funds, savings funds, insurance funds, cooperatives, legal support and the like both as a way of improving workers’ lives and as a way of motivating them to join unions. This provision of a measure of social security complemented and intermeshed with the Indonesian Study Club’s broader social and economic activities in Surabaya, which included the establishment of a national bank, the creation of poor and unemployment relief agencies, and the provision of worker education through courses, literacy programmes, libraries, pamphlets and newspapers. (3)


Surabaya was colonial Indonesia’s industrial city and, at least until the Depression, one of Asia’s major commercial cities. (4) Focused around the naval base, the railways and the sugar industry, Surabaya was home to engineering companies, small metal manufacturing factories, shipyards and railway workshops as well as to the service companies dependent on them. There was a greater proportion of workers employed by private companies than in the other major cities of Batavia, Bandung, Semarang and Yogyakarta. Surabaya was the great prize and the great challenge for labour union leaders trying to organise workers in the private sector. Workers were difficult to organise because they were scattered among a large number of companies and divided by ethnicity, race and status. (5) Most were illiterate, or barely literate, making access through the written word difficult.

Surabaya was a major site for labour unrest in the early 1920s, culminating in the last four months of 1925 in extensive strikes in the engineering companies. Employers joined forces to resist workers’ demands and crush the strikes. Many workers lost their jobs, others were demoted or, if re-employed, denied conditions and pensions accumulated over many years. (6) In the process, labour unions were greatly weakened. The bans in late 1925 on the railway workers’ union (VSTP), the single largest union in Surabaya, and the steadily increasing pressure on the PKI, culminating in the arrest of hundreds of PKI and labour union leaders in November 1926 after its abortive ‘rebellion’, brought Surabaya workers’ involvement in labour unions to a standstill.

Members of the Indonesian Study Club kept a careful eye on the Surabaya political and industrial landscape in the mid-1920s. Founded on 11 July 1924, its prime mover was Sutomo, a Surabaya doctor and teacher at the local medical school, who while in Amsterdam between 1919 and 1923, had been a member of the Indonesian students’ organisation, Perhimpunan Indonesia. (7) Members were in the main Dutch-educated, either independent professionals, such as doctors, lawyers or journalists, or employees of government organisations. Many were Netherlands-educated and like Sutomo, former members of Perhimpunan Indonesia. Some had been members of Budi Utomo before they went to the Netherlands but on their return to Indonesia found it too conservative. For them, it was the role of the new generation of western-educated intellectuals rather than the old generation of aristocrats, to regenerate society and bring progress and prosperity to the people. (8)

The emblem of the Indonesian Study Club, emblazoned on its letterhead and its publications, consisted of one hand holding a sickle and a rice plant and the other holding a pen. It symbolised the masses and the intellectuals working hand in hand with each other and the responsibilities of the educated towards workers and peasants. (9) Its colours were red and green–for example, in conference stationery or the flag flying from leaders’ cars on propaganda tours. Red was the colour of nationalism, and green, the colour of Islam. This symbolised an organisation committed to the idea of Indonesia and open to all people irrespective of political or religious convictions. Members were free to join political parties of their choice.

The Indonesian Study Club was the first of the study clubs that sprang up in the major cities of Java between 1924 and 1926. The other large one was the General Study Club in Bandung, West Java, founded in November 1925 by Netherlands-educated young men who had been members of Perhimpunan Indonesia together with prominent Bandung nationalists and students at the Bandung Technical High School. The study clubs were major centres for political debate at an exciting time in the development of Indonesian nationalism. The apparent strength of the Indonesian Communist Party and its ideological conflicts with Sarekat Islam, the major Islamic nationalist party, the strike waves of 1925 and 1926, and the increasingly repressive response of the colonial government was the context in which a new generation of young Indonesians debated their political future. The focus of all the study clubs was anti-colonial politics. They engaged in educational activities such as lectures and courses and both the Surabaya and Bandung Clubs published magazines debating the issues of the day in the context not just of Indonesia but also of the broader anticolonial struggles in Asia. The significant difference between the Indonesian Study Club in Surabaya and the General Study Club in Bandung was that the Indonesian Study Club focused as much on social and economic issues as on politics, arguing that these were vitally important for the creation of a modern, independent Indonesian nation.

The Indonesian Study Club was proudly Surabayan and its members saw Surabaya as the natural centre for nationalist politics. They had a strong sense of independence and of Surabaya not just being the major industrial city but being more advanced than elsewhere. They were wary of the growing importance of Batavia and Bandung in the broader nationalist movement and determined not to be subservient to political and labour leaders in these cities. There were many reasons for the divisions within the Indonesian nationalist movement–ideology, religion and ethnicity being the three most important–but regional tensions should not be overlooked. There was strong inter-city rivalry between the leadership groups in Bandung, Batavia, Semarang, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, which limited sustained cooperative endeavour, either on the political or the labour union front, throughout the colonial period.

Sutomo was the major intellectual influence in the Indonesian Study Club. He shared the world view of the new western-educated intellectual class that emerged in Indonesia in growing numbers from the 1910s. (10) The son of a minor government official, he had a strong sense of obligation to those less well placed than himself. (11) Sutomo’s work in the Indonesian Study Club and its affiliated organisations reveal a man with a strong sense of moral purpose, committed to practical ways of improving the lives of those less fortunate than himself, willing to put time and energy into worthwhile projects and with the intellectual and organisational skills as well as the personal and professional networks to be able to tap into government and private funding. His social and political base was Surabaya, and in the 1930s he was a widely known and respected political figure in East Java generally. The Surabaya/East Java base was, however, an obstacle to his aspirations for a broader role in the Indonesian nationalist movement after the destruction of the PKI as the centre of political action moved to Batavia and Bandung.

The Indonesian Study Club was not a large organisation. It probably never had more than 150 members. (12) However, its influence was far greater than its membership figures might suggest, because so many of its members were active within a myriad of political parties, labour unions and social and economic organisations in late colonial Surabaya. The nationalist world of Surabaya was small, with interconnected leaderships. Activists knew each other well and whatever their political, ideological and religious differences could hardly avoid frequent contact with each other. The Indonesian Study Club was the major forum in the city for Dutch-speaking intellectuals. Its buildings–in 1931, it moved from its original headquarters to a large building known as the Gedung Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Building) –were the major venues for Surabaya organisations, ranging from political parties to religious groups, cooperatives and self-help groups. There was a sharp edge to the relationship between the Study Club and the major Islamic political party, Partai Sarekat Islam (PSI), but relationships with the Surabaya branch of the Partai Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian Nationalist Party–PNI), and after 1931, the Partai Indonesia (Partindo) and the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Education–PNI Baru), were more cooperative than competitive, as was its relationship with the Surabaya branch of Budi Utomo. Many leaders of the Surabaya branches of the PNI, Partindo, PNI Baru and Budi Utomo were simultaneously active members of the Indonesian Study Club.

The Indonesian Study Club was involved in relief operations for strikers and their families during the city-wide strikes of late 1925 and early 1926. It produced a detailed analysis of the strikes based on extensive interviews with strikers. The report stressed the economic causes behind the strikes, warning government and employers against labelling all labour union leaders communists and all strikes as communist inspired. Employers, it argued, must improve workers’ wages and must also improve their social conditions with better housing and medical services and closer regulation of hours and conditions of work. (13)

The Indonesian Study Club assumed a major educational role. Regular lectures and courses were organised, including literacy courses for Surabaya workers, a substantial lending library was created and at the beginning of 1926, it started its own monthly publication, Soeloeh Indonesia [Torch of Indonesia]. At the end of 1926, Soeloeh Indonesia proudly proclaimed that it had about 1,000 subscribers, mainly in Surabaya but also in cities and towns throughout Java. For over two years, Soeloeh Indonesia published regular reports on social and economic conditions in Surabaya and articles which urged the need for renewed political action by Indonesians. At the beginning of 1928, it changed its name to Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia [Torch of the Indonesian People], symbolising the Study Club’s wish to identify with ordinary people and foreshadowing its move to organise Surabaya workers directly. (14)

Labour unions and politics

The colonial government, supported by the European press, increasingly asserted that Indonesian labour unions should be politically neutral. By this, the government meant that leadership should be exclusively in the hands of workers in the particular industry and that unions should be concerned solely with negotiating wages and conditions and taking up individual grievances with employers in a non-confrontationist way. Meetings should not discuss political issues and journals should not push the nationalist agenda or challenge colonial authority.

The nature of the relationship between nationalist political parties and labour unions in the post-1926 repressive atmosphere was hotly debated by Indonesian activists. However, no Indonesian labour union leader believed in political neutrality. As the Partindo journal Soeloeh Indonesia Moeda stated in June 1932, ‘The absolute neutrality of labour unions means the absolute impotence of labour unions.’ (15) Indonesian labour union journals–whether published by unions for government workers or by unions for workers in the private sector–all had a strong nationalist

flavour. Public meetings of all labour unions were held in buildings adorned with nationalist symbols. The negative impact of capitalism and imperialism were regular topics. The need to end colonial rule was taken for granted. The idea of Indonesia was promoted. By 1933, almost all labour unions, even the most moderate ones, had incorporated the word ‘Indonesia’ in their name. The underlying support for the political agenda of the nationalist movement was clear and strong.

Just as political neutrality was rejected, most labour union activists also rejected the government’s position that central and branch executives of labour unions must be composed entirely of workers in the industry. (16) Their reading of European labour history and their understanding of their own society convinced them that in a colonial society at this particular stage of development leadership would not emerge from workers themselves. Moreover, they argued, even if it were possible, leaderships composed entirely of workers in an industry would leave unions too exposed to employer retribution.

While rejecting political neutrality, the Indonesian Study Club argued that labour unions should be independent. By this, it meant that while union leaders were properly active in nationalist politics, unions should cut across political and religious allegiances and, within a nationalist context, their meetings should focus on industrial issues and the social and economic advancement of workers rather than overt political issues. It was an important distinction, often lost on government and employers who viewed any organisation of workers by urban elites with deep suspicion as subversive of colonial authority.

In large part, the Indonesian Study Club leaders’ distinction between political and social-economic activities reflected their assessment of what was possible post-1926. They believed that the government would suppress labour unions which were too closely linked organisationally to political parties or if the tone and themes of their public meetings were no different from those of political party meetings. In part though, it also reflected their conviction that political allegiances could be divisive. They were particularly concerned about unions based on religion, and they observed with some alarm the emergence of Christian labour unions and the debates within the PSI about the possibility of creating Islamic labour unions. (17) In their view, Indonesian workers could only successfully combat the power of employers if they were united in one organisation tied neither to a political party nor to a religious group but with members joining political or religious organisations of their choice. (18)

In its analysis of the failure of the city-wide strikes in Surabaya in 1925, the Indonesian Study Club argued that a key factor was the lack of organisation and leadership among Surabaya workers. (19) This was a theme to which it returned repeatedly over the coming years. In the meantime, through 1927 and 1928, Study Club leaders watched efforts to fill the gap left by the collapse of unions connected to the PKI. The large unions for government workers, such as the pawnshop workers’ union and the teachers’ unions, continued to have a significant presence in Surabaya. Most interest, though, was in renewed efforts to organise workers in private employ–on the docks, in the factories, on the private rail and tramways and among lower-paid workers such as taxi drivers. It was a difficult task to reinstil confidence in labour unions. A Surabaya postal worker summed up the prevailing mood early in 1928 when he told a union leader that ‘I am not brave, although the work is heavy, if I speak out aloud I am accused of being a communist.’ (20)

Sarekat Kaum Buruh Indonesia

The Sarekat Kaum Buruh Indonesia (Indonesian Workers Association–SKBI) was the first attempt to create a city-wide union for Surabaya workers after the demise of the PKI. (21) Established in July 1928, its executive included former members of the banned PKI who had been active in Surabaya unions connected to it. The close connection between Surabaya political and labour union leaders, despite ideological and personal differences, is evident not just in the fact that a PNI branch leader was the first chairman of the SKBI but also that its inaugural public meeting was held in the Indonesian Study Club building with PNI and Indonesian Study Club members in attendance. Moreover, Sutomo was one of the speakers, urging workers to overcome their fears and become active in labour unions. (22)

The SKBI promised to confront employers on the workers’ behalf. It sometimes invoked the name of former PKI and union leader Semaun and tried to persuade workers that it was a continuation of PKI-led unions but moving now in a nationalist direction. The flag chosen by the SKBI symbolically linked it to the PKI. The red background with a black hammer and pen under the union name symbolised the unity of ‘kasar’ (literally ‘coarse’ but meaning blue-collar workers) and ‘halus’ (literally ‘refined’ but meaning white-collar workers). (23) The statutes and work programme of the SKBI made clear its leaders’ ideological convictions. The Marxist language was dangerously reminiscent of the banned PKI. (24)

In trying to create branches throughout Java, the Surabaya leaders of the SKBI sought support from local PNI members sympathetic to their aims. Many of the initial propaganda meetings in towns and cities outside Surabaya were organised by local PNI members and sometimes held in PNI offices. However, it was not long before Surabaya leaders of the Study Club and the PNI distanced themselves from the SKBI. Sutomo privately stated that he had been warned by the Surabaya Political Intelligence Service in late 1928, about associating with the SKBI Chairman Marsudi, because he was a communist. Marsudi was also suspected by many in Surabaya of being a government spy. (25) Communist or government spy (or both), by early 1929, Marsudi had no support from the Study Club or the PNI. He then wrote to Sukarno seeking support from the Bandung-based central executive of the PNI to no avail. The Bandung leadership issued an instruction to all branches that PNI members were not to become involved with the SKBI. It believed that it was only a matter of time before the government crushed the SKBI and was anxious that it did not suffer the same fate through association with it. (26)

On 1 April 1929, the SKBI central executive applied to join the Comintern-sponsored League against Colonialism and Colonial Oppression and on 30 May was formally accepted. The exchange of letters between the SKBI and the League against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression only came to the notice of the Surabaya political intelligence service on 16 July, when a spy supplied copies. Batavia was quickly informed and on 26 July, house searches and arrests were ordered of SKBI leaders. (27) The union was proscribed and six of those arrested were subsequently interned in Boven Digul. (28)

The Indonesian Study Club and labour unions

As he observed the failure of new unions to take root among Surabaya workers, Sutomo became convinced that the Study Club should take the initiative. On 12 July 1929, the Indonesian Study Club organised a public meeting at the Study Club building to establish a taxi drivers’ union, Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia. Consistent with the arguments he had been making over the previous five years, Sutomo argued that the new union should not be involved in politics but rather should seek to improve the economic and social life of drivers. (29) He believed that unions had so far not proved powerful enough to counter bad working conditions and that the Indonesian Study Club, with its strong leadership and well-resourced organisation, would be able to do much better. The arrest of SKBI leaders on 26 July confirmed Sutomo in his convictions. (30)

In the latter half of 1929, Sutomo outlined his thinking on labour unions in a series of major speeches at public meetings. In October 1929, for example, he surveyed the development of labour unions in the Netherlands. Thirty years ago, he said, there were no labour unions and the worst possible conditions for workers. This was all changed by the Netherlands Federation of Labour Unions which educated workers to be aware of their conditions and organised them to force better wages and conditions from employers. These improvements to Dutch workers’ wages and conditions had yet to flow through to workers in Indonesia. Sutomo was reported as saying:

If a more collective spirit had been shown during the 1925 workers’
unrest and if there had not been a shortage of leaders, then
workers would now be living in better circumstances and have
obtained acknowledgement of many of their rights from both
government and employers. [Sutomo] urged workers to organise
themselves and explained that the success of labour union action
depended on continual agitation, in conjunction with mutual
solidarity, party discipline and unconditional support of
everything decided by the organization, with all personal opinions
and interests set aside. (31)
Sutomo argued that labour unions must work in two directions. First, they must demand that the government introduce social laws, controlling such things as child and female labour, working hours and the safety of the workplace and providing basic rights of association for workers. Second, they must struggle for better working conditions: all unions should have a work programme which included raising wages and shortening working hours. He again warned against mixing religion and politics in labour unions, cautioning that worker unity would fall apart if differences in religious belief or ideological conviction were allowed to intrude. (32)

He also addressed the issue of strikes. On the one hand, he did not rule them out. He was well-read enough in European history to know that the strike was an important weapon in the improvement of European workers’ wages and conditions and he was aware that if workers did not have the right to strike, and did not threaten to exercise that right from time to time, they would have little leverage against employers. Along with all nationalists, he was strongly opposed to the battery of repressive laws in the colony which were used not just to suppress strikes but also to hobble the development of unions. On the other hand, he argued that a strike should only be considered when a union had good leadership, committed and disciplined members, and a strong strike fund. Strikes in Europe had succeeded, he argued, not just because the legal framework within which workers operated was less draconian than in Indonesia but also because European unions had large strike funds with which they could support striking workers and their families. If an Indonesian union wanted to organise a strike, he believed that the first question it should ask itself was whether or not it had a chance of success. Entering into strikes which were doomed to failure from the start only weakened the position of colonial workers. In his view, there were many important lessons to be learnt from the failure of the major strikes in the colony, the most important of which was that a large strike fund was essential. Without a large strike fund, a labour union had no power. The stronger the fund, the more attention employers would give to workers. Thus he argued that the largest strike yet seen in colonial Indonesia, the railway workers strike in 1923, never had a chance of succeeding because the VSTP lacked a strong strike fund. (33)

While Sutomo frequently spoke of workers’ right to strike and of the need for labour unions to have strong strike funds, it is clear that he was convinced that the basic conditions for successful strikes were lacking in colonial Indonesia. Whenever a particular strike occurred or was proposed, Sutomo made known his disapproval. For example, he had opposed nurses at the Surabaya Municipal Hospital going on strike in 1924 and considered the three largest strikes in the colony, those of the railway workers, the pawnshop workers and the sugar factory workers, ill-conceived, poorly planned and doomed to failure. (34) In his view, the short-term objective of a strong strike fund was not actually to launch a strike, but to use it as a tactical weapon in negotiations with employers:

… a fighting fund is nothing other than an asset of an
organisation, which is not exclusively created to use during
strikes, but in the first instance should be used as a way of
frightening employers. If a large fighting fund exists, then
employers will pay more attention to the wishes of employees. (35)
For Sutomo, the history of labour unions in Indonesia, so far, was a story of failure.

In his reading of the history of labour unions in Europe, Sutomo seems to have been particularly influenced by the British labour movement. He noted that many British labour unions had evolved out of friendly societies and trade guilds and observed that almost all had a deep involvement in social and economic issues, with a stress on mutual benefit societies and cooperatives. The lesson for Indonesia, he believed, was that if labour unions were to be successful, they needed to engage far more closely with workers’ daily lives. A labour union focused on supporting the everyday social and economic needs of workers and educating them about the value of collective action would in time draw workers into lasting commitments. While Sutomo would never have used the term ‘class consciousness’, nevertheless he believed that workers should be educated to an increased consciousness of themselves and their potential political power. He believed that a strong labour movement with deep linkages into urban workers’ world would be of enormous benefit to the broader nationalist movement.

Sutomo clearly believed that if unions were organised along these lines, then government and employers would take notice and could be persuaded to improve workers’ wages and conditions. Little personal correspondence between political leaders has survived, but one letter that has is from Sutomo to the Batavian nationalist, and close confidant of Sukarno, Husni Thamrin. (36) Written in September 1929, the letter might have been a response to criticism from Thamrin, and perhaps also Sukarno, about Sutomo’s emphasis on labour union activities at the expense of the political movement. In the letter, Sutomo sought the support of Thamrin for his taking the leadership of the labour movement and asked him to discuss the matter with the PNI leaders Sartono and Sukarno. Although he was not to get their support–the arrest of Sukarno in December 1929 intervened–the letter makes clear his views on the importance of organising urban workers:

If I can speak quietly with you and Sukarno, I will be able to
prove to you that our exertions in the labour movement, will make
us a thousand times more powerful. In this way we are also more
dangerous because the masses will truly stand behind us.

We often say that the colonial government stands under the
influence of capitalist forces which exploit our land. These forces
are only able to do so by using native labourers. And if we
mobilise them, not in a political sense, but by opening their eyes
to their human rights as employees, and we explain this active
struggle in this way to the colonial government, whereby through
good planning, through intensive work with the masses, through good
discipline and through the development of self-confidence we
possess power and authority in society, then the government will
pay more attention to us. (37)
Sutomo’s analysis of the power of the colonial government and the powerlessness of labour unions led him to conclude that labour unions must avoid direct confrontation with the government. He was well aware that in a colonial context, all labour union activity was essentially political. However, he wanted to try to limit the room for government intervention by keeping unions and political parties organisationally separate and by avoiding language that advocated strikes or unrest. It was a strategy of accommodation, but in the circumstance after 1926, where the colonial state was determined to tame labour unions by limiting the space in which they could operate, he believed there was no other option if labour unions were to have any chance of survival.

The nature of the relationship between labour unions and political parties divided the Indonesian elite. Those convinced that labour unions must be involved in nationalist politics, preferably directly linked to political parties, were critical of Sutomo’s views, arguing that they weakened the nationalist movement. If they had seen Sutomo’s letter to Thamrin in which he referred to mobilising people ‘not in a political sense’ they would have only been confirmed in their views. Clearly, though, Sutomo was not denigrating political activity, rather he was asserting that the organisation of urban labour was vitally important in its own right and would be more effective outside the ideological divisiveness of political parties. He believed that a strong labour movement, focused on industrial issues, on improving workers’ socio-economic conditions and on raising their consciousness of their rights both complemented and strengthened the political movement for independence and was essential for the creation of a just and prosperous post-colonial nation.

PNI and later Partindo leaders deeply involved in labour unions–men such as Gatot Mangkupradja, Anwari and Sartono–held similar views. For example, in January 1932, Sartono told the Partindo Conference that while it was important that nationalists were involved in labour unions, it was also important that labour unions should remain separate from political parties. He pointed to the history of the PKI and its affiliated unions which demonstrated the dangers of the labour movement and the political movement being closely integrated. (38) A speaker at the 1932 Congress of the teachers’ federation argued that while in a free country there was no difference between politics and labour unions, with one supporting the other, it was different in a colonial society such as Indonesia where workers were frightened to be part of a political movement because of fears of retribution. (39)

The labour unions organised by Indonesian Study Club members stressed the provision of social and economic services in order to attract urban workers. The Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia (SCI) established by the Indonesian Study Club is a good example of this. (40) It held courses every fortnight which focused on practical matters–such as how to drive carefully and how to avoid fines–and it supported members when they got into difficulties. For example, Nitiasmora, a commissioner in the branch executive, was badly injured in a car accident. The SCI executive circulated members asking them to visit him in hospital. Shortly after Nitiasmora was discharged from hospital and returned to work, his one-year-old son died. It was a double tragedy for Nitiasmora because only a month earlier his six-year-old son had also died. The branch organised hundreds of members to attend the burial of his son. (41) In such ordinary ways, the union sought to make itself an essential part of the life of Surabayan drivers.

The SCI called on lawyers in the Indonesian Study Club when it needed legal support for members. For example, in 1931, an SCI member named Dardjan, collided with a bicycle while driving from Tuban to Surabaya. He turned to the SCI for help. He was referred to its legal adviser, Mr Suwono. The SCI then represented him in court and he was found him innocent. The union even raised the cost of Dardjan travelling to Tuban for the court hearing. (42) In another example, the SCI took to the local court a case of three of its members dismissed without compensation. The court awarded each of them one-and-half months’ wages. (43) When in July 1932, the Probolinggo branch of the SCI successfully took up the case with an employer of a driver made redundant without compensation, the union proudly proclaimed that it was now clear ‘that the SCI does not merely make a noise but also works’. (44)

The Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia flourished, spreading beyond Surabaya to enrol taxi drivers in towns throughout East Java and into Central Java. Meetings of 400-500 people were common. The Surabaya leaders who travelled from town to town were determined to quell any nervousness about joining a union by repeatedly stating that the SCI was a labour union exclusively concerned with the welfare of its members, and did not mix labour union activity with nationalist politics. (45) The union prided itself on its mutual benefit activities. In April 1929, it established a credit cooperative, which made small loans to cover sudden emergencies, such as fines imposed on taxi drivers by local courts. (46) No wonder taxi drivers borrowed from the credit cooperative when it charged only 9 per cent interest on a six-month loan compared with up to 40 per cent by moneylenders. Members also trusted it with their savings. (47) In addition, the union introduced members to the Indonesian National Bank, created by the Indonesian Study Club in October 1929, where they could obtain larger loans for the purchase of vehicles so that they could become owner-drivers. (48)

The provision of financial services saw the Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia quickly grow to over 250 Surabaya taxi drivers, with hundreds more enrolling in branches in other East Java towns. (49) About one in three Surabaya taxi drivers joined. Other unions were established for printing industry workers, for hospital nurses and for workers in the batik industry in towns near Surabaya. Efforts were also made to gain a foothold among workers in Surabaya engineering and metal working companies and among workers at the British American Tobacco Company (BAT), though after the experiences of these workers in 1925/26 and again with the SKBI in 1929, it was a hard road. The union for workers at BAT, for example, had only 50 members out of a total workforce of about 2,000 in May 1931 when the factory was closed because of the Depression. (50)

The Surabaya branch of the PNI, under the leadership of Anwari, was also increasingly active in organising labour unions. There was strong cooperation between the Surabaya leaders of the PNI and the Indonesian Study Club–most of the former were also simultaneously members of the Study Club–and the Study Club building was frequently the venue for public meetings of PNI-connected unions. As we have seen, Sutomo was a major speaker at public meetings of PNI-connected labour unions. In the close circle of the Surabaya political elite, it was often difficult to separate PNI and Study Club labour union activities. (51)

For example, PNI members led by Rahardjo, a commissioner in the PNI Surabaya branch, were behind the establishment of the Persatuan Djongos Indonesia (a union for male house workers) in August 1929. About 150 Surabayan men came to its inaugural meeting. (52) Rahardjo also established a union for workers in the Surabaya clothing industry–Perkumpulan Kaum Kleermaker Bond (PKKB). The initial meeting was again held in the Study Club building and was attended by about 90 workers in the clothing industry. (53) These PNI-connected unions, like those connected to the Indonesian Study Club, used public meetings to constantly impress upon workers that the unions were quite distinct from political parties and were focused on supporting them and on improving their wages and conditions.

PNI and Indonesian Study Club members were behind the creation of the largest union for Surabaya workers employed in the private sector. This was established in August 1929 for rail and tramway workers in the East Java Steam Tram Company (Oost Java Stoomtram Maatschappij, hereafter OJS). As with many other unions, its origins were in a reading club for rail and tramway workers, created under the leadership of Rahardjo, as a way of entering the world of urban workers. Rahardjo became its chairman and its secretary/treasurer was Djojosoedjono, another PNI member. (54) Both were also members of the Indonesian Study Club. Central leadership was in the hands of PNI Surabaya / Indonesian Study Club members, and most branch executives were managed by local PNI members, though the majority of branch executives were skilled workers in the rail and tramway industry.

The OJS Bond Indonesia gradually spread its influence from the East Java Steam Tram Company in Surabaya to workers in the private rail and tramway companies based in Semarang. In order to reflect this, in August 1930, the name of the union was altered to Persatuan Pegawai Partikelir Tramlijnen Indonesia (Union of Indonesian Workers in Private Tramways). In August 1931, it changed its name again to Persatuan Buruh Kareta Api Indonesia (Union of Indonesian Railway Workers–PBKI), in a move indicating that it wanted to expand from its base in the private railways to challenge the Bandung-based Perhimpunan Beambte Spoor dan Tram di Indonesia (Association of Rail and Tramway Workers in Indonesia–PBST) which was dominated by workers in the State Railways. (55)

The railway workers’ union grew very quickly, reflecting the relatively poor wages and conditions of workers in the private railway companies of East and Central Java. Workers in the State Railways were paid higher wages, had better working conditions and had higher pension entitlements on retirement. Large crowds attended public meetings not only in Surabaya but in other towns in East and Central Java. A meeting in Semarang in July 1931 was typical. It was held in a local cinema and attended by 1,500 people, mostly railway workers but with a sprinkling of representatives from other local unions and political parties. The meeting opened with the audience standing and singing the Indonesia Raya, which by this time had become the ‘national anthem’ for Indonesians. Dr Samsi Sastrowidagdo, from Partindo, was one of the major speakers. His theme was the importance of cooperatives for the advancement of Indonesian people and economy. (56)

By March 1933, the PBKI had about 4,150 members in over 20 branches in the towns and cities of Central and East Java. This was its nominal membership. Its financial membership was probably little more than half of this number. Its members were predominantly employed by the private railway companies, but it slowly built up a small membership base in the State Railways in Surabaya and surrounding towns. (57) Its growth was largely the result of its provision of social and economic services to members. It created a cooperative, a savings fund and a death benefits fund and it provided financial support to members who were sick and needed help to pay for a doctor. At the time of the first mass dismissals in the railways in 1931, as a result of the Depression, it raised money for their support. (58)

The OJS Bond Indonesia, large though it appeared to be, suffered the same problems as other unions, particularly those catering for workers in the private sector. At a course meeting in January 1930, for example, its chairman, Rahardjo, urged those present to work harder to overcome the indolence of many in the union. He expressed the frustration of western-educated middle-class union leaders by stating that workers were not sufficiently conscious of their rights and duties as members of labour unions, that there was no trace of discipline among them and that the labour union executive received not the least cooperation from them. Workers’ nervousness about their vulnerability can be seen in January 1930, when in response to the arrests of Sukarno and three other PNI leaders, many members of the PNI who worked at the East Java Steam Tram Company destroyed their PNI membership cards fearing they might be caught up in the government repression. (59)

A new labour union federation

Throughout the last three decades of colonial rule, labour union leaders of all political persuasions dreamed of overcoming the divisions between labour unions by creating labour union federations in the major cities. Difficult as this was (none of the city-wide federations were long lived), it was even more difficult to overcome the intercity rivalry by creating a Java-wide federation. The two attempts in the 1920s–the Perserikatan Persatuan Kaurn Buruh (formed in 1920, initially under Central Sarekat Islam and PKI joint leadership but by 1921 under exclusive CSI leadership) and the Revolutionaire Vakcentrale (formed in 1921 under PKI leadership)–were short lived failures, as was the Persatuan Vakbond Hindia (PVH) created in 1922, to try to bring the communist and non-communist-led federations together. (60)

In the more restricted circumstances after 1926, leaders of unions for government employees and for those in private employ once again sought to create federations. Late in 1929, Volksraad member and chairman of the Vereniging Inlandsche Personeel der Irrigatie dan de Waterdienst (Union for Native Workers in the Irrigation and Water Service–VIPBOW), Suroso, was instrumental in forming the Persatuan Vakbonden Pegawai Negeri (PVPN) which brought together the pawnshop workers’ union and the VIPBOW. The PVPN grew in the 1930s to embrace all the major labour unions for Indonesian workers in the government sector. It played a significant coordinating role, provided a platform for joint activity and enabled common approaches to the government on wages and conditions. (61)

Sutomo and his colleagues had hoped that the Indonesian Study Club would become the foundation of a new Indonesian nationalist party based on the principles developed in Perhimpunan Indonesia. This was not to be. The impetus for the new nationalist party came from the General Study Club in Bandung and control was in the hands of Bandung and Batavia leaders, led by Sukarno in Bandung and Sartono in Batavia. The arrests of Sukarno and three other leaders of the PNI in December 1929 was the catalyst for renewed efforts by Sutomo to create organisational unity in the nationalist movement. In March 1930, he initiated discussions with the PNI central executive–Sartono, Iskaq and Samsi Sastrowidagdo–during which he argued for the dissolution of the PNI and the creation of a new party which while ostensibly working for economic and social improvement and not for Indonesian independence, would in practice be a continuation of the work of the PNI. He clearly saw the Indonesian Study Club as pivotal to the new party, given its financial and organisational strength in Surabaya. Sartono rejected the proposal. The PNI was dissolved, replaced by Partai Indonesia (Partindo), the PNI Baru was formed from disaffected PNI members and, as a consequence, in November 1930, Sutomo led the conversion of the Indonesian Study Club into the Persatuan Bangsa Indonesia. (62)

Sutomo and Anwari had wanted the rather ineffectual federation of Indonesian political parties (PPPKI) founded in July 1928 to become the vehicle for a labour union federation but again to no avail. The formation of Partindo was the catalyst in May 1930 for the Indonesian Study Club to create its own labour union federation, Persatuan Sarekat Sekerdja Indonesia (PSSI). Leadership of the PSSI was a mix of Indonesian Study Club leaders and PNI Surabaya branch leaders, the most prominent of whom were Ruslan Wongsokusumo and Anwari. (63) They saw the formation of the federation as ultimately leading to a fusion with the PVPN to establish a strong Java-wide labour union federation. (64) The PSSI continued the emphasis on self-help: savings societies, death benefit funds, pension funds and cooperatives were all seen as critical for the success of a labour union. Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia was the voice of the PSSI. Like all labour union journals, it published articles designed to educate workers about the labour unions in an international context and to encourage greater support for their own union leaders. It also published detailed reports on individual union matters and regular reports of disputes between workers and employers, highlighting those where a union successfully supported a member. In July 1931, a leading article tackled the assertion of some nationalists that many labour unions were so deeply involved in cooperatives that they no longer behaved like unions, by pointing out that the origin of cooperatives in Indonesia was worker communities themselves and that cooperatives were important for the advancement of workers. (65)

By May 1932, the PSSI had eight affiliated unions, primarily for workers in the rail and tramway companies, the printing industry, the tailoring industry, for domestic workers and for workers in the sugar factories. Public meetings were held regularly in Surabaya and in nearby towns. Oerip Kasansengari, one of the most energetic of the PSSI propagandists, repeatedly assured well-attended meetings that the PSSI labour unions were all about improving workers’ wages and conditions and not about politics. At a meeting of sugar factory workers at Sukaredjo in February 1932, for example, he spoke about the earlier sugar factory workers’ union (PFB) which had been dead for 10 years. He urged workers to overcome their fears and join the new sugar factory workers’ union established by the PSSI and reminded his audience that the social laws in Europe which regulated working conditions, old age pensions, invalidity pensions and sickness benefits had only been achieved through collective action by workers. (66)

In addition to industry-specific unions, the PSSI also created a Sarekat Sekerdja Indonesia as a cross-industry union. Within a month, the Sarekat Sekerdja Indonesia was reported to have had a membership of 250. Once again Ruslan Wongsokusumo was the chairman with the PNI Baru Surabaya commissioner Rustamadji as Treasurer and one other member of the PNI Baru Surabaya on its executive. (67) All attracted workers by offering social welfare benefits to members and their families, ranging from death benefit funds and savings groups to consumer cooperatives and, in the case of the tailors’ union, a production cooperative. The PSSI strategy was relatively successful, but its chairman complained that there were too many people who joined, hoping only for support and unwilling to work hard or make any sacrifices for the wider aims of the union. Workers’ expectations of their unions were such that ‘whenever a member is unable to be helped or provided with mutual aid, reports are spread everywhere that the organization is no good and should not be supported’. (68)

It is difficult to assess the membership of the PSSI-affiliated unions. The Surabaya-based federation claimed that its member unions had 2,000 members in August 1930. (69) In March 1933, it claimed growth to 3,200. (70) In March 1933, the colonial government estimated PBKI membership at 4,150 in 20 branches in East and Central Java. (71) While membership figures touted by unions and government must be treated with caution, these estimates do show both the rapid growth of the PBKI and also, apart from the railway industry, the difficulty Surabaya-based labour unions had in recruiting more than a small proportion of workers in private employ. A relatively large number of workers attended public meetings organised by labour unions, but fewer actually joined.

The Depression impacted on all labour unions throughout Java from 1931. Membership fell away as growing numbers of workers were retrenched and those that kept their jobs became less willing, or able, to pay their dues regularly. Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, the voice of the PSSI, closed at the end of 1931 and as funds dried up, there were of necessity fewer paid officials. As it became clear that labour unions were still very unstable, the PSSI and the Indonesian Study Club/PBI responded by increasing the emphasis on social and economic action to support Surabaya workers. In January 1932, the Indonesian Study Club established a Comite van de Pembrantas Pengangguran Indonesia (Indonesian Unemployment Relief Committee), which over the next five years, raised considerable support in cash and in kind in order to provide relief work, housing and financial support to the Surabaya unemployed. (72) The Study Club Poor Relief arm, managed and run largely by the wives of Study Club members, redoubled its efforts to assist the urban poor and the marginalised. (73) Low cost schools were established, cooperatives were strengthened and annual night markets (pasar malam) became a means to promote Indonesian-made products.

PSSI-affiliated unions struggled to survive the Depression years as did all labour unions for privately employed workers. Even the large unions for government workers faced financial difficulties as the retrenchment of government workers impacted on their memberships. Uniquely for a labour union or political party, the PSSI became involved in a scheme to resettle unemployed Surabaya workers on the land. A transmigration group (Perkurnpulan Transmigratie Indonesia) had been established in Surabaya early in 1931. Its aim was to help resettle people from the Surabaya kampung who were finding life tough because of the Depression. Study Club members played a major part in its creation. (74) The PSSI determined to work with the Transmigration Group, which was cooperating with a group at Banyuwangi that had targeted over 1,400 hectares of land at Bajulmati, about 24 kilometres away, which was unused and suitable for farming. At a public meeting in Surabaya at the end of April 1931, 21 families, 60 people in all, registered interest in moving out of the city to the new land. The PSSI then set about raising the money needed to purchase the land and cover transportation and establishment costs, estimated at around 150 guilders per family. Union members were urged to support the fund, and local businesses that had advertised in their newspapers and journals were solicited for donations. Union leaders acknowledged that the scheme could only assist a very small number of the urban unemployed, but saw it as an important part of their relief work. Over 1,000 guilders was raised by the end of June 1931, and in October, PSSI leaders triumphantly announced that that they persuaded the East Java Provincial Council to provide the balance of 4,000 guilders needed to implement the project. (75)

As the PSSI responded to the Depression by strengthening its work in the social and economic spheres, differences began to emerge within its affiliated unions over the merits of the strategy. On the one side, were those who held firmly to the principles of the Indonesian Study Club, enunciated since the mid-1920s, that there must be a degree of separation between labour union activities and political party activities. The PBI restated this position in January 1932, when it urged branches to redouble their social and economic activities and their efforts to protect workers’ living conditions but not to mix unions and politics ‘because history has shown that a labour movement which gets involved in politics eventually becomes smashed into pieces’. (76)

On the other side, were PNI Baru activists and the Sukarno group within Partindo, both of them arguing that in a colonial situation, there should be no separation between labour unions and politics. Sartono had consistently agreed with Sutomo on the need to keep the political movement separate from the labour movement. This view was strongly challenged by Sukarno after his release from jail in December 1931 and his formal joining of Partindo in August 1932. The Partindo Congress of August 1933 formally adopted the Sukarno position.

Indonesian Study Club members become discomforted by what they saw as the increasing politicisation of the labour unions they had created. In January 1932, Ruslan Wongsokusumo, one of the most active Indonesian Study Club members within the Surabaya labour unions, announced that he had left the Sarekat Sekerdja Indonesia, because the SSI had decided to leave the PSSI, critical of its separation of politics and labour union activity and particularly critical of its involvement with the transmigration group. Ruslan stated that he was a political person and a labour union person, but that he knew the line between the two. In his view, the new SSI leaders, all of whom were PNI Baru members, were now mixing the two to the ultimate detriment of labour unions. (77)

From early 1932, the PSSI came increasingly under the influence of PNI Baru and Partindo activists. Both groups saw the existing labour unions for private sector workers as potentially important vehicles for their political agendas. Their influence can be seen in the Indonesian Workers’ Congress organised by the PSSI in Surabaya at the beginning of May 1933. Throughout the four days of the Congress, there was strong criticism of colonialism and capitalism, with many speakers linking the labour movement with the political movement. The Congress was held at a time when the government was intensifying its warnings to PNI Baru and Partindo leaders about unacceptable political action and was increasingly jailing writers for transgressing the draconian laws governing the written word. One of the key speakers was Sukarno who argued strongly ‘that the labour movement must engage in politics’. Sutomo was the only alternate voice, holding to his view that the labour movement should be kept separate from the political movement. (78) The dominance of the PNI Baru / Partindo activists was seen in the Congress decision to create a new labour union federation, the Centraal Perhimpunan Buruh Indonesia (CPBI) and to dissolve the PSSI into it. The statutes of the CPBI stated that the labour union would be involved in social, economic and political action and that it aimed to create a socialist model of production. (79)

J. D. Syranamual, the editor of the PBI-owned Surabaya daily newspaper Soeara Oernoern, wrote a series of articles in May in which he restated the position of Sutomo and the Indonesian Study Club / PBI about the danger of mixing politics with labour union activities. He agreed with Sukarno that capitalism must be overthrown, but argued that it was not the responsibility of the labour movement as such to do this. Rather it was the responsibility of the political movement. He reaffirmed the view that if labour unions became involved in politics, because of the many streams of politics in Indonesia they would struggle against each other thereby weakening their fight against employers. (80) One consequence of the dissolution of the PSSI into the CPBI was that Sutomo and other PBI leaders significantly reduced their involvement. (81)

The end of the railway workers’ union

The colonial sgovernment had generally taken a benign view of the labour union activities of the Indonesian Study Club / PBI, though as early as July 1930, the attorney-general had expressed concern about the close connection between the Indonesian Study Club and the PNI in the organisation of Surabaya workers. (82) This changed in late 1932 and led in mid-1933 to a prohibition on railway workers being members of the PBKI.

There were four key factors behind this change. First, was the deepening of the Depression, with many tens of thousands of urban workers losing their jobs from the middle of 1930 and no end to the job losses in sight. The mounting jobless, compounded by the return of tens of thousands of retrenched contract labourers from Sumatra, raised European fears that Java’s towns and cities were ripe for nationalist agitation. European newspapers began to publish exaggerated reports on lawlessness in city and countryside and raise the spectre of an outbreak of serious unrest.

Second, was concern in government and employer circles that the more radical people in Partindo and the PNI Baru had taken over control of Indonesian Study Club / PBI labour unions. The government was also concerned about the PBI’s success in organising among farmers (rukun tani) and its stated objective of linking urban workers and rural farmers. It believed that it saw a significant shift in the tone of the meetings of the PBI, and of unions connected to it. (83) More specifically, it feared that not only was the PBKI under PNI Baru / Partindo influence but that its ambitions had expanded to become a Java-wide union, enrolling workers in the State Railways network, and thereby threatening to become another VSTP. The ‘loyal’ PBST certainly expressed this concern quite publicly. (84) So too did the European press. In February 1932, De Indische Courant, accused the PBKI of being a political party rather than a labour union: ‘It is an organisation exclusively for native workers, non-natives cannot join. Nationalist politicians in Surabaya are the force behind its establishment, with Dr Sutomo at the head.’ (85)

Third, in February 1933, Dutch and Indonesian sailors aboard the naval vessel Zeven Provincien mutinied over cuts in wages. The mutiny only ended when the ship was bombed. The European community became even more nervous as a result and increasingly intolerant of nationalist activities of any kind. In April 1933, the editor of the Soeara Oernoem was jailed for 20 months for an article on the Zeven Provincien affairs deemed to be seditious, causing the political intelligence report for May 1933 to comment about the PBI: ‘there is an increasingly anti-authority spirit in Soeara Oemoem, the official organ of this organization….’ (86)

Fourth, was the decision by the Indonesian Workers Congress in May 1933 to create a Centraal Perhimpunan Buruh Indonesia under the control of the PNI Baru leader Sjahrir. The government was now certain that the formation of the CPBI marked a distinct shift of the labour movement in an overt political direction with strong anti-capitalist and class struggle language. (87)

While the PBKI central executive was in Surabaya, and its members predominantly members of the PBI, the Semarang branch was in the hands of men who were members of the PNI Baru. It was this that concerned the colonial government and the head of the Semarang-based Netherlands-Indies Railway Company (NIS). For some time, the head of the NIS had been warning his directors in the Netherlands about what he saw as growing unrest in native society. In March, he warned that there was considerable tension and unrest among the Company’s Indonesian workforce, the blame for which he laid at the feet of the PBKI. He believed that a conflict between the company and its Indonesian workforce was likely in the near future. (88)

The PBKI Central Executive in Surabaya became increasingly concerned about NIS management’s attitude to the union and even more concerned about what Semarang leaders’ reactions might be to this. It feared that they had lost control over Semarang. On 16 May, it issued a statement directed at Semarang leaders, which stated that it had received reliable reports that provocateurs were moving around the NIS stating that the PBKI would strike in May or June. It urged members to exercise restraint in the face of this provocation:

Brother PBKI-ers, especially brother branch leaders! Be careful and
pay attention! This is a time of provocation! Our PBKI is being
targeted by its opponents. Therefore be strong and guard our
fortress so that it is not breached or destroyed by the enemy! (89)
On 6 June, the head of the NIS stated his belief that the PBKI was no longer a labour union but a political party ‘which directs itself against capital and spreads propaganda that capital must be opposed’. He informed his directors that he intended to ban NIS workers from being members of the PBKI even though he realised that this would probably lead to short-term conflict. (90) The ban, he argued, was justified, ‘on the basis that through its actions this organisation has shown that it is not a labour union and merely serves to incite loyal employees against their employer’. (91)

On 27 June, the colonial government banned all government workers from membership of Partindo or PNI Baru. This was followed on 1 August by the arrest of Sukarno and the imposition of tight restrictions on the rights of assembly for Partindo and PNI Baru. (92) The government’s action against the political parties was the catalyst for NIS management finally moving against the PBKI. On 5 July, the NIS issued an instruction banning all employees from membership of the PBKI and stating that any worker who refused to withdraw from the PBKI would be immediately dismissed.

As the PBKI central executive had feared, the Semarang branch responded unilaterally. It immediately printed 4,000 pamphlets calling on NIS workers to defy the order, urging ‘passive resistance’ on the grounds that if workers gave in to this arbitrary order, they could not foresee what further oppression they would be subjected to in the future. It further argued that if workers held out, the company would be unable to operate and would be forced to re-employ those dismissed.

The ‘passive resistance’ failed. The Semarang branch seriously underestimated the power of NIS management and overestimated its influence among railway workers. Certainly, NIS workers were unhappy that their wages had once more been reduced in January 1933 by a further 20-25 per cent on average, but they were also well aware that in the depths of the Depression, they needed to hang on to their job. Within the PBKI itself, there were divergent views of the wisdom of the call for ‘passive resistance’. The other branches on the NIS network quickly decided to accede to the NIS demand and recommended that members leave the union. (93) Some 84 railway workers were dismissed, mainly from Semarang.

The PBKI central executive was far from happy with the unilateral action taken by the Semarang branch, but felt it had no choice but to support it publicly. Soeara Oemoem probably expressed the PBKI executive’s views in a leading article, commending the need for struggle but cautioning that it was the responsibility of leaders to assess the risks in any particular struggle, to ensure that the tactics were appropriate and more than anything to ensure that its organisation was strong. Otherwise only defeat would ensue. Readers were reminded that, in Indonesia at this time of crisis, there were tens of thousands of educated people looking for work and even greater numbers of uneducated seeking lower level work. (94)

Implying that the ‘passive resistance’ would fail, Soeara Oemoem stated that it hoped that the action in Semarang would be closely studied by the labour movement at a later date for the lessons that could be learnt from it:

This should not be conducted simply out of passion but in order for
it to report on these actions in a way that strengthens us in
This is real politiek, which provides us with the assurance that
we will be victorious. (95)
The PBKI Central Executive publicly supported the action, and to the annoyance of the government, so too did the PVPN, the labour federation for government workers, along with all nationalist parties and non-political organisations. (96) Privately, the Semarang branch executive was told that its call for ‘passive resistance’ would fail. (97)

The NIS bans were quickly followed by the State Railways and the East Java Rail and Tramway Company,also banning workers from joining the PBKI. (98) In the circumstances, in November 1933 the PKBI leadership in Surabaya decided that there was no point in continuing and dissolved the union. It immediately established a new union, the Sarekat Sekerdja Oemoem, but this tactic quickly failed when railway company managements banned workers from joining it as well. For the remainder of the colonial period, the Bandung-based PBST was the sole major union for railway workers.


The creation of labour unions was part of the Indonesian Study Club’s broader efforts to create enduring linkages between the western-educated Surabaya elite and Surabaya workers. It recognised the difficulty of getting employers to engage with unions, let alone accepting them as workers’ representatives. It also recognised that the colonial government had an increasingly narrow view of the role of unions. Its options were very limited. In its view, a strategy of accommodation was the only real choice.

The government tolerated labour unions for workers it directly employed, because it believed they had been tamed after the pawnshop workers strike of 1922 and the railway workers’ strike of 1923, and were now in relatively safe hands. The action against the railway workers’ union, the PBKI, just as it was beginning to recruit among government railway workers, made it clear that it would not take any chance of a repeat of the union militancy of the early 1920s. Private employers, supported by local and central government, did all that they could to restrict the ability of labour unions to establish footholds in their workplaces.

The strategy developed by the Indonesian Study Club assumed that if unions focused on providing social security and mutual benefit funds, they had a better chance of maintaining workers’ loyalty and in time creating enduring structures into worker communities. The unions created by the Indonesian Study Club did provide tangible benefits for many Surabaya workers and for this reason were relatively successful given the limits of colonial tolerance. However, they did not evolve into sustainable unions with significant numbers of committed members. The Depression ended any hope of this occurring.

Labour unions had always had difficulty in converting nominal members into financial ones. As the impact of the Depression deepened, it became even harder. There were fewer workers in public and private employ and those who did retain work were more cautious about joining labour unions for fear of risking their livelihood. Moreover, during the Depression, labour unions proved unable to deliver the social security promised. Unions created by the Indonesian Study Club in Surabaya were affected as much as others. Membership rapidly declined.

The collapse of the PBKI was a reminder of the difficulty experienced by central executives of all labour unions, and political parties in controlling branches in other cities. Regionalism was strong and communications and organisational structures weak. The Surabaya leaders of the Indonesian Study Club/PBI learnt from their experiences with the Semarang branch of the PBKI and henceforth restricted their activities to Surabaya and East Java, where they could more closely exert control. They were also chastened by their experience of losing control of the PSSI.

The deepening Depression and their experience with the PBKI and the PSSI persuaded the Indonesian Study Club / PBI leaders to redirect their energies from labour unions for the time being. They did not abandon labour union activity altogether; indeed they remained active in Surabaya labour unions throughout the 1930s but they focused more on social and economic issues, supporting Surabaya workers outside a labour union framework, including unemployment relief, cooperatives and the creation of schools for the children of Surabaya workers. It was not until the economy recovered from 1936 that membership of labour unions began to grow again. In the last four years of colonial rule, renewed efforts were again made to organise Surabaya workers in private employ. Former Indonesian Study Club activists were once more in the middle of this renewed activity, hoping to build on their social and economic base to further strengthen their linkages with Surabaya workers. Sutomo died in May 1938, but the strategy he had espoused so strongly remained the strategy for this renewed labour union activity.

The author wishes to thank colleagues in the School of History at the University of New South Wales, especially Ian Black and Jean Taylor, who have provided a wonderfully stimulating environment in which to work.

(1) For example, neither of the two most recent excellent studies of Surabaya by William H. Frederick, Visions and heat: The making of the Indonesian revolution (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989) and H. W. Dick, Surabaya, city of work: A socioeconomic history, 1900-2000 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002) discuss the organisation of the Surabaya workforce after 1926. Indeed, Dick argues that ‘The rebellion nonetheless marked the end of any organised trade union activity until after the Japanese occupation’ (p. 64). Peter Boomgaard has published a brief survey of some of the major unexplored themes of the 1930s–what he refers to as ‘the dullest phase of the Indonesian labour movement before the War in the Pacific’–in ‘Labour in Java in the 1930s’, Working Papers on Asian labour, changing labour relations in Asia project (Amsterdam; International Institute of Social History, n.d.). On the labour movement to 1926, see John Ingleson, In search of justice: Workers and unions in colonial Java, 1908-1926 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986), Ruth T. McVey, The rise of Indonesian communism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965) and Takashi Shiraishi, An age in motion: Popular radicalism in Java, 1921-1926 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

(2) John Ingleson, ‘The legacy of colonial labour unions in Indonesia’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 47, 1 (2001): 85-100.

(3) I have discussed the broader theme in John Ingleson, ‘Labour unions and the provision of social security in colonial Java’, Asian Studies Review, 24, 4 (2000): 471-500.

(4) For a comprehensive history of this port city, refer to Dick, Surabaya: City of work.

(5) John Ingleson, ‘Urban wage labour in colonial Java: The growth of a skilled labour force’, in Wage labour and social change, ed. Michael Pinches and Salem Lakha (Melbourne: Monash papers on Southeast Asia, 16, 1987), pp. 141-58.

(6) For a discussion of the 1925 strikes, see Ingleson, In search of justice, chapter 6.

(7) On Perhimpunan Indonesia, see Harry H. Poeze, In het land van de overheerser. Indonesiers in Nederland 1600-1950 (Dordrecht, Holland: Foris Publications, 1986) and John Ingleson, Perhimpunan Indonesia and the Indonesian nationalist movement 1923-1928 (Melbourne: Monash University papers on Southeast Asia, 1975).

(8) Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia, 18 Jan. 1928.

(9) For a discussion of the symbolism, refer to an article in Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia, 21 Nov. 1928.

(10) What Frederick calls the ‘new privayi’; see Frederick, Visions and heat, especially ch. 2.

(11) For portraits of Sutomo, see Savitri Prastiti Scherer, Keselarasan dan kejanggalan: Pemikiran-pemikiran priayi nasionalis Jawa awal abad XX (Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1975); Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, ‘A time of darkness and a time of light: Transposition in early Indonesian nationalist thought’, in Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, Language and power: Exploring political culture in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Robert Van Neil, The emergence of the modern Indonesian elite (The Hague: Van Hoeve, 1970) and Susan Abeyasekere, ‘Partai Indonesia Raja, 1936-1942: A study in cooperative nationalism’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3, 2 (1972): 262-76; see also the memoirs of Sutomo: Kenang-kenangan dokter Soetomo, ed. Paul W. van der Veur (Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1984).

(12) Soeloeh Indonesia, Dec. 1926, in Overzicht van de Inlandsche en Maleisch-Chineesch Pers (Survey of the Native and Malay-Chinese Press–hereafter IPO), 1 Jan. 1927, pp. 14-15.

(13) The report was published in Soeloeh Indonesia, Mar. 1926. It was reprinted in lava Bode, 27 Mar. 1926.

(14) While only a small proportion of urban workers were literate, it was common for Indonesian- (and Javanese-) language newspapers and magazines to be read aloud in the kampung. The tone and form of some of the articles was shaped by this aural society. The best example is the magazine, Fikiran Ra’jat, edited and largely written by Sukarno in 1932 and 1933. Its language, its humour and its pithy comments had listeners as much as readers in mind.

(15) Soeloeh Indonesia Moeda, June 1932, p. 80. ‘The labour unions as a primary mass organisation must serve to increase the power of the fighters for Indonesian Independence by bringing them into contact with the broad masses. There must he strong co-operation between the party of the people and the labour unions.’

(16) There was a minority view–held most clearly by the leaders of the Bandung-based railway workers’ union (PBST) which catered primarily for state railways workers and the numerous teachers’ unions that leadership should be restricted to workers in the industry.

(17) See Soeara Oemoem, 13 May 1933 which reported the establishment of a Catholic Teachers’ Union. It urged Indonesian workers to pay attention to the lessons from overseas where labour unions divided on religious lines were weakened. Refer to Fadjar Asia, 4 Apr. and 3 July 1929 for reports of the PSI Surabaya branch urging the establishment of labour unions for Muslims; also comments by R. P. Suroso, in a speech as chairman of the PVPN (more details later) at its Annual General Meeting in Solo in Dec. 1937. Suroso opposed labour unions organised on religious lines. He argued that in the Netherlands where they were organised on religious lines, they were weaker than in England, Sweden and Denmark where they were not. Kareta Api, Jan. / Feb. / Mar. 1938.

(18) ‘Perkumpulan Sekerdja haroes dipisah dari perkumpulan Politiek dan Igama’, in Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 Apr. 1931.

(19) Soeloeh Indonesia, Mar. 1926, pp. 3-5.

(20) Quoted in Pembrita Kemadjoean, 17/24/31 Mar. 1928.

(21) The most comprehensive discussion of the SKBI is Takashi Shiraishi, ‘Policing the phantom underground’, Indonesia, 63 (1997): 1-46.

(22) Indonesia Bersatoe, 7 July 1928.

(23) See reports in Politiek Politioneele Overzicht (hereafter PPO), July 1929, V 27 Apr. 1929-X8, General State Archives, The Hague (hereafter ARA) and in Indonesia Bersatoe, 28 July and 4-11 Aug. 1928. The PPO were the regular (generally monthly) political intelligence reports prepared for the colonial government by the Attorney-General’s department from information supplied by the Political Intelligence Service and its monitoring of local language magazines and newspapers.

(24) ‘Werkprogram Kita “SKBI'”, enclosed in Attorney-General to Governor-General, 21 Oct. 1929, V 8 Apr. 1930-S7, ARA. The SKBI stated that ‘The SKBI party must hold firmly to the hegemony of the worker and peasant class, it must create a dictatorship of the proletariat, based strictly on the principle of the supremacy of the worker and peasant class. The SKBI party aims to achieve an authentic society, with the worker and peasant class freed from being squeezed by either foreign or indigenous capitalism. The SKBI party will support every party, without regard to religion or race, which shares its revolutionary principles and which wants to unite the workers and peasants with worker and peasant organizations throughout the world.’

(25) See ‘Rapport van de SKBI’, by the ISDP, Batavia, 21 Oct. 1929, p. 16, Stokvis Collection, Bundle 11113, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. Takashi Shiraishi also refers to Marsudi’s reputation in Surabaya, stating that ‘When he was arrested in Nov. 1926, he provided the Surabaya PID with important information which led to the arrest of “several PKI leaders who had eluded the police till that moment”. He was released as a reward.’ Refer to: ‘Policing the phantom underground’, p. 11.

(26) PPO, Feb. 1929, in V11 Sept. 1929-N 18, ARA. Government reports also referred to the lack of trust between Marsoedi and PNI leaders in Bandung.

(27) Assistant Wedono, Political Intelligence Service Surabaya, Secret Report, 16 July 1929, enclosed in Attorney-General to Governor-General, 30 July 1929, V30 Sept. 1929-O19, ARA.

(28) ‘Rapport over de SKBI’, by the ISDP, Batavia 21 Oct. 1929, pp. 19-20, Stokvis collection, Bundle 111-13, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. Of the 23 arrested in Surabaya, 20 were released. All 20 arrested in Solo were also released with clear warnings. One of those released was a worker in the state railways in Surabaya; he was warned that the only union he could join in the future was the European-controlled Spoorbond. Another was an employee at one of Surabaya’s major printing houses. He was re-employed but on lower wages.

(29) PPO, July 1929, in V10 Mar. 1930-C5, ARA.

(30) Sutomo believed that one of the major reasons why the Indonesian Study Club would be successful in organising labour unions, whereas others before it had failed, was because a broad range of Indonesians respected it, from the aristocrats to the common people. This respect was because they knew that all of its activities were based on the principles of “kebenaran, keadilan dan ketjintaan’ [Honesty, Justice and Devotion]. See speech reported in Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia, 7 Aug. 1929.

(31) PPO, Nov. 1929, in V10 Mar. 1930-C5, ARA.

(32) Ibid.

(33) Ibid. At a course meeting of the Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia in Jan. 1930, Sutomo was reported to have stated that a successful strike could only occur ‘… at a time when international trade was strong, and when there was solidarity between leaders and members, which can only be realised through organizational discipline and the possession of a powerful fighting fund …’ PPO, Jan. 1930, in V26 May 1931-V9, ARA.

(34) See discussion in Ingleson, In search of justice, chapters 3 and 5.

(35) PPO Mar. 1930, in V26 May 1931-V9, ARA.

(36) There are portraits of Thamrin in Susan Abeyasekere, One hand clapping: Indonesian nationalists and the Dutch 1939-1942 (Melbourne: Monash papers on Southeast Asia, 5, 1976) and William I. O’Malley, ‘Indonesia in the Great Depression: A study of East Sumatra and Jogjakarta in the 1930s’ (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, Ithaca, 1977), chapter 5.

(37) Sutomo to Thamrin, 10 Sept. 1929, enclosed in Attorney-General to Governor-General, 23 July 1930, Secret Mail Report 1930/727, ARA. The copy of this document sent to the colonial office in The Hague contains a footnote stating that the emphasis was in the original.

(38) The speech is reported in PPO Jan. 1932 in Secret Mail Report 1932/268, ARA. Gatot Mangkupradja, PNI activist, union organiser in Bandung and Batavia and for a while, editor of the railway workers union journal Kareta Api, argued along similar lines to Sutomo. In an editorial in 1928, he reminded readers that the PBST was not involved with matters of politics or religion. The PBST was a labour union, while the PNI (of which he was a member) was a political party. PBST members were free to join the PNI and as long as PNI activities did not in any way interfere with the PBST it was content to be supportive of it. Kareta Api, Oct. 1928.

(39) See the report of the speech by Susanto in Oetoesan Indonesia, 17 Oct. 1932.

(40) The grievances of taxi drivers were manifold. They complained of arbitrary treatment from the Surabaya police (all of whom were either Dutch or Eurasian), including abusive language and being regularly booked for transgressing regulations that they did not understand because they were in Dutch. Moreover, they complained of daily arrests for minor offences, such as having a broken light, speeding or using the horn too frequently, and of being fined or even imprisoned by the courts without being able to defend themselves properly because the court proceedings were beyond their understanding. See Fadjar Asia, 12 Mar. 1929 and Frederick, Visions and heat, p. 5.

(41) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 Apr. 1931.

(42) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 July 1931.

(43) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 Sept. 1931.

(44) Soeara Oemoem, 8 July 1932.

(45) See, for example, reports of a speech by Reksoadmidjojo at Kudus in Aug. 1931, Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 31 Aug. 193 I, and of Oerip Kasansingari at Jember in July 1931, Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 July 1931. Employers also placed considerable pressure on workers who joined labour unions. Sometimes, though, they were outsmarted by workers. The story was told of a Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia member who was seen looking at his membership card by his employer. The employer demanded to know what it was and when told, got very angry. The story continued:

‘Boss was very angry and said: “For God’s sake, do you want to oppose me in this way?” I answered,

“Oh no sir, the reason I went to an SCI course was to understand from the executive such things as:

Drivers must drive a car with care

Drivers must look after their car

Drivers must behave in a respectful way

Drivers must wear clean clothes

Drivers must live a thrifty life.”

On hearing this, the employer expressed satisfaction with the union.’

Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 31 Mar. 1931.

(46) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 Apr. 1931.

(47) Soeara Oemoern, 3 Feb. 1931.

(48) The Indonesian National Bank was established on 20 Oct. 1929. It developed from the Bank Bumiputra established by the Indonesian Study Club some 18 months earlier. In its short life, the Bank Bumiputra received some 269 loan requests, totalling 152,000 guilders. The decision to convert the Bank Bumuputra into a limited liability company was to enable it to expand its operations. It had a share capital of 500,000 guilders, with shareholding restricted to Indonesians. The prospectus was advertised widely in Indonesian language newspapers. The Indonesian National Bank was established after some months of debate between the Indonesian Study Club and the PSI as to whether charging interest on loans was permitted by Islam. The Study Club had argued for a national bank to be established by the PPPKI, but the first Congress of the PPPKI in 1929 abandoned the idea after strong opposition from the PSI. The Study Club decided to go ahead on its own, publishing a series of articles in its newspaper by one of its members, Fakih Hasin, which argued that charging interest on loans was permissible. Soeara BOW, Dec. 1928; Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia, 2 May 1928 and 21 Oct. 1928; Soeara Oemoem, 25 Feb. 1932.

(49) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 Apr. 1931. The SCI credit cooperative was established in Apr. 1929 with just 13 members. At the end of 1931, it had 99 members and over a two-and-a-half year period had loaned 19,997.50 guilders to members. Soeara Oemoem, 3 Feb. 1932.

(50) Soeloeh Ra’jat Indonesia, 30 May 1931.

(51) Take the example of Ruslan Wongsokusumo. Ruslan was born in 1910 in Madura. He worked as a postal assistant at the Surabaya Post Office, then as a bookkeeper with the NHM in Surabaya and later as a bookkeeper with Japanese companies in Surabaya. In May 1930, he was chairman of the PSSI Central Executive, chairman of three affiliated unions (Persatuan Personeel Drukkerij Indonesia, Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia and Sarekat Sekerdja Indonesia), a commissioner of the PNI Surabaya branch and a prominent member of the Indonesian Study Club. He was also the chairman of the Pasar Malam committee in Surabaya in the 1930s and when the PBI established schools from 1932, he was again deeply involved.

(52) PPO, Aug. 1929 in V 10 Mar. 1930-C5, ARA.

(53) PPO, Apr. 1930, in V 26 May 1931-V9, ARA.

(54) PPO, Sept. 1929, in V 10 Mar. 1930-C5, ARA.

(55) The extraordinary conference of the PBKI, at Surabaya 22 May 1932, formally decided that the PBKI would seek to bring all rail and tram workers throughout Indonesia into the PBKI. Soeara Oemoem, 25 May 1932.

(56) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 July 1931.

(57) Attorney-General to Governor-General, 22 Sept. 1933; enclosed in Secret Mail Report 1933/1137, ARA.

(58) Soeara Oemoem, 27 Jan. 1932; Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 30 Aug. 1931.

(59) Reports in PPO Jan. 1932 in V 26 May 1931-V 9, ARA.

(60) Ingleson, In search of justice, pp. 124-7, 214-17 and McVey, The rise of Indonesian communism, chapters 4-8, especially pp. 101-54.

(61) In 1939, the PVPN had 16 member unions with around 36,000 members. About one in four of the Indonesians employed by the colonial government was a union member. The largest unions were: the teachers’ unions (about 13,000); the rail and tramway workers’ unions (about 8,000); the post and telegraph workers’ unions (about 5,000); the union for workers in the irrigation and water services (about 2,600); and the pawnshop workers’ union (about 2,300). See, ‘Verslag van het Congres Perstoean Vakbond Pegawai Negeri [PVPN] op 28 en 29 Januari 1939 te Bandung’, in V 3 Nov. 1939-M 46, ARA.

(62) John Ingleson, Road to exile: The Indonesian nationalist movement, 1927-1934 (Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979), pp. 122-4.

(63) Fadjar Asia, 4 June 1930. A PSSI meeting at Jombang in mid-Aug. 1930 attracted an audience of about 1,500. Sutomo spoke on the separation between labour unions and politics, Anwari spoke on the purpose of labour unions and Ruslan Wongsokusumo spoke on labour movements overseas, especially in Europe. At the conclusion of the meeting, 80 people enrolled in a local branch of the PSSI. Keng Po, 18 Aug. 1930, in IPO, 1930, No. 35, p. 358.

(64) At a conference in Surabaya on 30 Aug. 1931 between a visiting delegation from the Netherlands Trade Union Federation (NW) and representatives from the PSSI and the PVPN, a commission was established to investigate a fusion between the PSSI and the PVPN. Nothing came of this, probably because by 1932, the PSSI had come increasingly under the influence of Partindo and PNI Baru activists who viewed the PVPN as a conservative organisation for the better paid elite. PPO Aug. 1931 in Secret Mail Report 1931/979, ARA. Ruslan Wongsokusumo states in his article in Soeara Oemoern, 28 Jan. 1932, that the SSI people had been influential in preventing the PSSI from proceeding with plans to unite with the PVPN because they considered the PVPN to be a slave of the government.

(65) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 31 July 1931.

(66) Soeara Oemoern, 11 Mar. 1932.

(67) PPO, Apr. 1930, V 26 May 1931-V9, ARA.

(68) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 Apr. 1931.

(69) This is an estimate by Bintang Timoer, 19 Aug. 1930, quoted in PPO Aug. / Sept. 1930 in V26 May 1931-V9, ARA.

(70) PPO Mar. 1931 in Secret Mail Report 1931/496, ARA.

(71) PPO Mar. 1933 in Secret Mail Report 1933/528, ARA. In Nov. 1931, the PBKI lamented that, despite its best efforts most railway workers had not ,joined. It put forward four reasons to explain this: often they are content and therefore see no reason to join; they are frightened that they will be dismissed from work or suffer other restrictions if they join; they are frightened that if they are involved in a labour union meeting they will be investigated by the police or a local government official; and, finally, they have decided to give in. Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 Nov. 1931.

(72) Soeara Oemoem, 28 and 30 Jan. 1932.

(73) Soeara Oemoem, 3 Feb. and 15 Apr. 1932.

(74) Soeara Oemoem, 28 Jan. 1932.

(75) Soeara Boeroeh Indonesia, 15 and 30 May, 15 June and 31 Oct. 1931; Mustika, 6 May 1931.

(76) Soeara Oemoem, 2 Jan. 1932.

(77) Soeara Oemoern, 28 Jan. 1932.

(78) See, ‘Report on the first Indonesian Workers’ congress held at Surabaya, 4-7 May 1933′, enclosed in Adviser for Native Affairs to Governor-General, 29 May 1933, Secret Mail Report 1933/689, ARA.

(79) The first two paragraphs of the CPBI statutes read:

1. Maintain and improve the destiny of Indonesian workers in all areas (social, economic and political)

2. Strive to create a socialist means of production

Soeara Oemoem, 18 May 1933.

(80) ‘Politiek dan Pergerakan Sekerdja’, Soeara Oemoem, 31 May 1933. Sukarno’s response was published in Fikiran Ra’jat, 43-48, May-June 1933 and reprinted as ‘Bolehkah Serekat Sekerdja berpolitik?’ in Dibawah Bendera Revolusi, vol. 1, Jakarta, 1965, pp. 227-35.

(81) Sutomo had already withdrawn as adviser to the Sarekat Chauffeur Indonesia because he believed that it had started to adopt a more outspokenly political agenda. ‘Report on the first Indonesian Workers’ Congress held at Surabaya, 4-7 May 1933′, enclosed in Adviser for Native Affairs to Governor-General, 29 May 1933, Secret Mail Report 1933/689, ARA. A critical editorial in Soeara Oemoem on 15 May 1933 stated that previous efforts to create labour union federations built on politics failed because member unions all followed different political directions.

(82) He argued: ‘that in my opinion the leadership of Surabaya unions is not in the hands of independent people schooled in labour union issues. Also the promoter, Dr Sutomo, in recent times, appears to be rather energetic. The words of Dr Sutomo may also lead to the disturbance of public order, because he has said that in a labour organisation, a struggle between employers and employees cannot be avoided and that a labour organisation without struggle is impossible, and that the action of a labour organisation is never only directed against the employer but also against the government.’

Attorney-General to Governor-General, 23 July 1930, Secret Mail Report 1930/927, ARA.

(83) The sharper tone of PBKI meetings can be seen in a report on a propaganda tour through the railway towns on the state railways network of East Java in early June 1933 by central executive members Oedin and Djojosuprapto. When asked by state railways workers what the difference was between the PBKI and the Bandung-based PBST, Oedin is reported to have answered that ‘the PBST seeks to improve the destiny of its members along a path of quiet negotiation with employers, while the PBKI moves along the path of education and consciousness raising of Indonesian railway workers about their rights as workers, in order that through the power of united action, full of a spirit raging strongly and unwaveringly, they bravely struggle to demand and defend an improved destiny’. Soeara Oemoem, 15 June 1933.

(84) The PBST journal, Kareta Api, was highly critical of the PBKI.

(85) See reprint in Soeara Oemoem, 25 Feb. 1932. The PBKI leadership strongly rejected the assertion, stating that the PBKI had emerged from within the workers themselves because the PBST had shown very little interest in railway workers in the private companies. It denied that the PBKI mixed politics with labour union activity but asked the rhetorical question of who in the Indonesian labour movement was not also interested in politics? It further asserted that while the PBKI often sought advice from Sutomo, he did not control the union and it was totally concerned with labour issues.

(86) PPO, May 1933 in Secret Mail Report 1933/835, ARA.

(87) Ibid.

(88) Chairman CvB (Vorster) to Chairman RvB, No. 82, 1 Mar. 1933, NIS Archives, Box 272, ARA.

(89) Soeara Oemoern, 16 May 1933.

(90) Chairman CvB (Vorster) to Chairman RvB, No. 93, 6 June 1933, NIS Archives, Box 272, ARA.

(91) Chairman CvB (Vorster) to Chairman RvB, No. 94, 19 June 1933, NIS Archives, Box 272, ARA.

(92) See Ingleson, Road to exile, pp. 215-16.

(93) Hoofioureau van Politie Semarang, Afdeeling Politieke Inlichtingen Dienst, 13 July 1933, in Secret Mail Report 1933/879, ARA.

(94) Soeara Oemoem, 11 July 1933.

(95) Ibid.

(96) Daulat Ra’jat, the journal of the PNI Baru, called on NIS workers to stand firm even if many were dismissed because the Company could not dismiss everyone. It described the government’s reaction as a symptom of the crisis of capitalism. Daulat Ra’jat, 20 July 1933. Dr Sukiman, closely connected to the PNI Baru, a prominent member of the Pawnshop Workers’ Union, adviser to other unions in Yogyakarta and editor of Oetoesan Indonesia, the daily newspaper owned by the pawnshop workers’ union, delivered a strong speech at the July Congress of the Union in which he stated that the PPPB ‘… supports and helps this labour union action. All labour unions are united’. Doenia Pegadaian, 25 Aug. 1933.

(97) Doenia Pegadaian, 25 Aug. 1933. PBI members are reported to have argued against the passive resistance at a meeting of the Semarang branch of the PBKI which eventually decided to urge workers not to abide by the NIS demand that they withdraw from the PBKI. They reportedly argued that the PBKI had little power against the NIS and had little chance of success. They urged members to consider the suffering which would be inflicted on their families if they were dismissed. Their view was that as they could not win, they should withdraw from the PBKI and the branch executive should follow a ‘diplomatic’ route and seek discussions with NIS management.

(98) The State Railways banned membership on 21 Aug. 1933 on the grounds of the close connection between the PBKI and PNI Baru / Partindo, both of which were prohibited organisations for government employees from 27 June.