Pushing Onwards: The Resurgent Thai Labor Movement and May Day 2004
By William K. Roland Tuesday, August 24, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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