Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The Thai trade union membership stands at less than 5% of the workforce. However, such an average figure can be misleading. Most State Enterprises and large factories in the private sector are fully unionised or at least dominated by unions. This includes some offices, especially the banks. Apart from this, unionised workers are mainly concentrated in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces of the Central region and the Eastern industrial Seaboard. Such concentrations of working class organisations allow for more influence than would be supposed from just looking at the national figures for unionisation. Strikes occur on a regular basis and trade union membership has expanded in manufacturing on the Eastern Seaboard, especially in auto-parts and auto assembly factories.
In Thailand, as in other countries, trade union bureaucrats enjoy a better standard of living than their members. However, networks of unofficial rank and file activists, independent of top leaders, exist in “Area Groups”. Even official groupings, such as the Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Unions, are able to bring together different unions at rank and file level, independent of the various bureaucratised peak bodies and congresses. These area groupings are considerably more democratic than the peak bodies. The entire committee of the group is usually elected every year and made up of men and women lay-representatives covering different workplaces and industries. These rank and file union groupings are a way in which “enterprise unions” can build solidarity with one another across workplace boundaries.
Trade unions and strikes have existed in Thailand for many years, but it is ideological factors which have held back the working class. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Communist Party of Thailand, which originally organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, took a Maoist turn away from the working class, towards the peasantry, in the 1960s. For this reason there have been few left-wing activists willing to agitate among workers. Unlike South Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists headed for the countryside after graduation. After the collapse of the CPT we can see the influence of NGOs, using funds from U.S. and German foundations, and more recently the arrival of “international” bureaucratic union federations. This is the second main factor which accounts for the ideological weakness of the Thai labour movement.
Labour-NGOs run by Thais receive funds from international foundations such as “The American Center For International Labor Solidarity” or the “Solidarity Center”, funded by the AFL-CIO and “The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung”, funded by the German Social Democrat Party (SPD). In recent years highly bureaucratised “international” unions have organised recruitment drives in some Thai workplaces. The aim is to increase membership of these international bodies, not to increase the combative and political nature of Thai unions. These NGOs and international unions have a number of commonly held beliefs. They actively support trade unions as long as they stay within the law. Thai labour law stipulates that trade unions must remain “non-political” and most NGOs are totally opposed to trade unionists taking up socialist politics or forming political parties. Thai labour law also makes it hard to carry out strikes.
NGO activists are known as “Pi-lieng” (Nannies). These “nannies”, help “child-like workers” to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws and to conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a workplace, various NGO nannies will be sent out to stay with the workers’ “mob” in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be scolded like children.
While such NGO and international union activity has resulted in more trade unions being established, it also breeds worker dependency on outside funding and socialises union representatives into a life-style made up of seminars in luxury hotels and foreign trips to conferences.
Yellow Shirts influence in some unions
The Yellow Shirts, and later Sutep’s mob, gained some influence in the trade union movement, although this is severely limited to sections of the State Enterprise workers. These unions are influenced by retired railway union boss Somsak Kosaisuk, who has joined Sutep’s mob. They have personal connections with Somsak Kosaisuk and his allies in NGO-type organisations like “Friends of the People” (FOP). Somsak and his allies organised “top down” educational groups for these trade unionists, funded by outside bodies such as The Solidarity Center and The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Another factor is the “State Enterprise union mentality” of putting more faith in talking to “sympathetic” management or elites, rather than organising and building a mass base. This drew some trade unionists towards the yellow shirts and later towards Sutep.
The left in the unions
Many active trade unionists who wish to fight in a more politicised manner have turned to militant Syndicalism. They are organised in networks of unofficial rank and file activists. Militant Syndicalism in the present day Thai context means engaging in the class struggle, supporting and organising strikes and being against cooperation with the State or the elites. These militants, who are mainly in the private sector workplaces, opposed the 2006 coup d’état and the Yellow Shirts. But Syndicalists are also very anxious to protect their independence while being wary of all political parties or of forming political organisations. This means that Thai Syndicalists are wary of cooperating too closely with pro-democracy social movements and this remains a political weakness.