Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trade Union : Should it be independent of party politics? Government wants it, what do workers want?

Government's,  like our Malaysian UMNO-led BN government tried to weaken movements, including student movements, workers movements/unions, professional movements  by trying to artificially separate them from party politics - hence the provisions in law that disallows persons holding office in political parties from holding positions in trade unions, Bar Council, etc. For students, it is even worse -as Malaysian students are expected not to be involved in political parties...and/or even sympathize with  political parties.

Not that these 'restrictions' are imposed by law - not by members of the movement themselves...And after a certain number of years, many just begin to accept that artificial division and start treating it as the norm...or the 'correct' position. In the Malaysian Bar, this was a topic of discussion amongst members of the Bar when the issue of Sivarasah came up 

Sivarasa, who is also PRM vice-president, is challenging a provision in the Legal Profession Act which prohibits Bar Council members from taking leadership posts in political parties. 

Without the stay of execution, he will not be able to vote on the Bar Council's new leadership in its annual general meeting next Saturday ....Sivarasa filed his application on Aug 8 in 2001 to prevent his disqualification as a member of the Bar Council, naming the Malaysian Bar and the government as respondents.- Malaysiakini, 13/3/2002, Sivarasa denied stay from disqualification as Bar Council member

Recently, this issue has come up in the trade union movement. Some say that incumbent Syed Shahir may have lost because many believe that it is best for the trade union movement that the leadership are actively involved in political parties.

The 61-year-old British-fathered Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) is still bogged down on the question of whether it is right for its leaders to be active in political parties (especially opposition parties).

Or whether it should continue to remain "free, independent, democratic and responsible" as its British father John Alfred Brazier had preached way back in the late 1940s.

A few candidates vying for various positions in today's MTUC elections have so far stated only their personal preferences and have not moved any motion to bar MTUC from political involvement...- Malaysiakini, 29/12/2010,
No government will bother about MTUC

It is interesting that former president, Syed Shahir, was quoted in an article that looked into the history of MTUC and the trade union movement... What was interesting was that this chap was brought in by the British to de-politise the trade union movement...

It was in the aftermath of the declaration of the Emergency that the move to de-politicise the trade union movement began.

“The British brought in a chap called John Alfred Brazier to introduce a ‘new unionism’ in this country.

“It was then the stigma of ‘you can’t bring politics into the trade union’

Personally, I believe that there should be no law creating restrictions of who can and who cannot be leaders in any movement, including the trade union. At the end of the day, it is the members that elect - and when they do, I believe that they will take into consideration all factors and then cast their vote for their chosen candidates.

Anyway, do read the article

How a movement was re-made

Why is so little known about the exciting period in Malaysia’s history covered in Fahmi Redza’s Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka? Could it be because a vital element of those years was completely made over, thus losing continuity?

THE history of Malaysia’s organised labour movement is not a particularly militant one. General strikes are few and far between, and our trade unions are not feared entities as they often are in developed countries.

Nonetheless, there have been periods in our country’s history when the workers’ movement has been at the forefront of political development, none more so than the volatile situation in the late 1940s.

Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) President Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud, 54 (pic), is a keen student of trade union history and speaks with pride of the role that the labour movement played in pressing the British colonialists to concede independence to Malaya.

“You simply cannot exclude the participation of trade unions and workers from a discussion of the independence struggle,” explained Syed Shahir in an interview at Wisma MTUC earlier this week.

“Even prior to world War II, there was some union activity in Malaya, with the first union, the Selangor Engineering Mechanics Association, being registered in 1928.

”Following the Japanese defeat in 1945, however, there was a tremendous increase in awareness among the Malayan working class, and many rushed to organise.

“It is true that some of these leaders were linked with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) but it must be remembered that at the end of World War II, the party was respected for its fight against the Japanese and was operating legally.”

It is important to recall the circumstances of the time, Syed Shahir feels.

Union activity began as early as 1928, when the first union was registered. – Photo courtesy of FAHMI REZA
After 1945, there were strong independence movements led by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawarhal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose in India; Sukarno in Indonesia; Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam; Aung San in Burma; and many more.

These countries gained a form of independence within three years of the end of the war and the fever caught on in Malaya and Singapore, he says.

The Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) was particularly active in pressing the colonial masters. In 1946, it cofounded the All Malayan Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) along with a number of disparate groups that included the MIC then led by John Thivy and the Malayan Democratic Union (which has been described as a front organisation of the Communist Party of Malaya.

Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the first MCA president, was also a leader of this progressive movement that aimed to press for independence as well as citizenship rights for all those who lived in Malaya, whether they were born in China, India, Indonesia or Malaya itself.

The politicisation of the work force that was supplying Britain with much needed tin and rubber scared Britain’s Labour Government of the day, which had ironically sent trade unionists S.S. Awbery and F.W. Dalley to help Malayan unions in their work. After a particularly debilitating general strike on Oct 20, 1947, the British government had clearly had enough.

Within a few months, the Emergency had been declared, and the CPM was fighting a vicious guerrilla war against the British (the Emergency lasted until 1960).

“The Emergency crippled the worker’s movement,” laments Syed Shahir. “Thousands of unionists and progressive-minded politicians like Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) and Ahmad Boestamam were detained at places like Tanjung Beruas in Malacca. “Some PMFTU leaders, like Lu Chang, were deported back to China. Two PMFTU presidents, S.A. Ganapathy and P. Veerasenan, met violent deaths, the former being hanged after being found guilty of possessing a revolver.

Crucially, the PMFTU itself – which grouped together over 100 unions (with the alleged support of over 300,000 members) and succeeded in unionising a very high percentage of the work force (21%) – was deregistered.

The disruptive general strike called by the unions in 1947 probably prompted the British colonial Government to introduce a new form of unionism that was not politicised. – Photo courtesy of FAHMI REZA
It was in the aftermath of the declaration of the Emergency that the move to de-politicise the trade union movement began.

“The British brought in a chap called John Alfred Brazier to introduce a ‘new unionism’ in this country.

“It was then the stigma of ‘you can’t bring politics into the trade union’ emerged, which, to me, is silly. Quite simply, the two go hand in hand,” says Syed Shahir indignantly.

Former MTUC vice-president K. George is, at 88, one of those veterans who combined trade unionism with political activity.

“You can’t separate one from the other. I believe it is the birthright of any citizen to belong to any organisation.

“It is true that there were many Communists who were in the trade unions at that time, but while some were promoting a violent struggle, many wanted to work through the democratic system to improve the conditions of the common man.

“They were denied that right by the British.” Fortunately, it was at this point that another umbrella body for trade unions was established.

In February 1949, the MTUC itself was established under the presidency of legendary unionist Datuk P.P. Narayanan.

It is a sign of the progressive views held by Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tun Tan Cheng Lock (then Umno and MCA presidents respectively) that both men were present at the inaugural delegates conference that saw the labour movement relaunched - Star, 26/8/2007, How a movement was re-made

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