Trade Unions and Politics: An Inseparable Relationship.

Speech by Ketua Pembangkang and DAP Secretary-General, Lim Kit Siang, to the National Union of Employees of Unions of Petaling Jaya, Balai Raya, on Sunday, 17th October, 1976,at 10.00 a.m.

Trade Unions and Politics: An Inseparable Relationship.

Recently, trade unions have been very much in the news firstly over the CUEPACS claim for government implementation of the Ibrahim Ali Commission revised Report, an secondly the Trade Union demand for changes in the labour laws.

In the controversy that has arisen over these two claims I perceive a misconception among some trade union leaders about the relationship between labour and politics.

Last week, for instance, the CUEPACS Secretary-General, Encik Jamaluddin Isa, was reported as having urged Datuk Hussein Onn as Acting UMNO President, to restrain UMNO officials from making public statements on the Ibrahim Ali Commission Report, as such statement were “likely to mollify the Prime Minister’s efforts to resolve the dispute over the report.

He was also reported as saying that the Ibrahim Ali report issue was a matter for the government and the unions to sort out and had nothing to do with politics.

Other trade union leaders have also made similar calls, telling politicians to keep to politics and not to involve in trade union issues.

I have every sympathy and support for Cuepaos and workers, whether in the private or public sector, in their legitimate claims and aspirations to get adequate wages and proper working conditions.

But I think this misconception in the minds of some trade union leaders about the separable relationship between politics and trade unions is not only wrong, but in the long run, positively harmful.

The simply truth is that trade union and labour issues, concerned about the proper and rightful place workers should enjoy in our society, is the very subject of politics too. When politicians “keep to politics”, they concern themselves with among other things, the bread-and-butter issues like the wages and working conditions of the working masses, whether in public or private sector, in other, there is an inseparable relationship between politics and labour issues.

Calls by trade union leaders to “politicians to keep to politics” could not and would not stop UMNO of other Barisan leaders from attacking trade unions. In fact, no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mahamed, has very unkind things to say about trade unions in his new book “Menghadapi Cabaran”.

It is more important that trade union leaders and workers should understand the meaning, field and scope of politics, and why politicians made anti-labour and anti-trade union speeches, or why anti-labour laws are enacted.

When Jamaluddin Isa made the call last week, he was clearly reacting to a fierce denunciation of workers and trade unions by the Chairman of UMNO Ibukota, Encik Ahmad Roose, who accused CEUEPACS and MTUC leaders of guilty of an ?? of bad faith “in” ruthlessly wielding the power of organized labour in the pursuit of narrow, sectional interests, regardless of the interests of the nation as a whole”

Who is Encik Ahmad Roose? He is the General Manager of Bank Bumiputra, Malaysia.

His is the voice of Capital.

Another frequent and loud voice against workers and trade unions is that of Senator Tan Sri S.O.K. Ubaidulla, who is not only chairman of the Malayan Council of Employer’s Organisations (MCEO), but one of the kingpins of MIC.

And comfortably in the seat as Minister of Labour is Datuk Lee San Choon President of MCA, a party of the rich and for the rich.

It is because Capital are so ensconced in the seats of power that they have been able to get pro-employer laws passed in Parliament time after time.

For trade union leaders to ignore this reality is not only to misunderstand the problem of power, but to do a long term disservice to the cause of workers.

Policies and trade union issues are inseparable. Trade unions and workers must exercise political influence of they are to achieve any meaningful and gainful for the workers as a whole.

When I say this, I do not mean that all trade union leaders should join the DAP. It is up to the trade unions themselves to decide what form of political influence and pressure they are to assume and exercise, but assume and exercise they must, for they operate not in a political vacuum, but in a political milieu.

MTUE should educate the public about labour rights:

One manner of assuming and exercising political influence is to secure public support for the labour cause. This can only be done by educating the general public about the proper place and rights of labour.

Recently, the MTUC met the Prime Minister, and submitted a three-volume memorandum seeking 183 amendments to the Industrial
Relations Act, Employment Ordinance and the Trade Unions Ordinance.

What are these amendments? The public do not know. Members of Parliament, who are legislators, do not know.

In fact, I still remember that in July meeting in Parliament, when Lee San Choon wanted to enact the amendments to the 1955 Employment Ordinance, the MTUC sent a telegram to all MPs asking them to strongly oppose the amendments. The MPs, however, were not told why, or the MTUC’s views on the amendments.

And when the amendments to the Employment Ordinance 1955 were being debated in Parliament, not a single trade union leader was interested enough to attend the Parliamentary meeting.

Workers entitled to a rightful role in society:

Workers in Malaysia are entitled to a rightful role in society. But they must win this role for themselves and be respected by the other agents of development.

Malaysian workers have still to achieve this. This probably explains why, when the Third Malaysia Plan was being formulated, employers and industrialists were consulted in different sub-committees, but not workers or their representatives.

Malaysian workers can only earn for themselves respect from other agents of development, like government and capital, if trade unions possess a vision and dedication and work not only for themselves, or individual unions, but workers as a whole. And when we realise that 85 to 90 per cent of the work force in Malaysia still unorganised, we can appreciate the magnitude of this task.

There still many mountains to climb for trade union leaders and workers, but these mountains cannot be scaled unless they assume and exercise political influence and power, in the way that employers and managements have all along been assuming and exercising political influence and power.