West Papua 2007

Ten minutes to organise: the Tongoi Papua strike

Jason MacLeod

Hengky Uamang’s voice is quiet. ‘My heart is broken. It is as if we are not human beings but a piece of gold to be consumed. I am gold but I get no benefit.’ Tears slowly roll down his face. Others in the crowded living room in dusty Timika become angry. ‘Does Moffet (the US Chair of the sprawling Freeport McMoRan/Rio Tinto gold and copper mine) not fear God?’ Jecky Amisim, a youth leader, rhetorically asks. ‘Don’t you people in America know that if you come to someone’s place and want to take something, you have to ask first?’

The mine workers are angry for good reason. Their list of grievances is long and serious:
* The United States and Indonesian government opened the mine in 1967, two years before the question of sovereignty over West Papua was even raised. When West Papuans resisted Indonesian government rule, the U.S. government helped crush the rebellion.
* Since then workers and land owners have been subjected to repeated violence from the Indonesian security forces who protect the mine.
* Papuans that undertake the difficult and dangerous work at the mine earn wages that they cannot live on.
* Indonesian migrants pour into the country threatening to turn the indigenous Papuans into 29% of the population by 2020. Migrants and foreigners dominate the labour force, with few opportunities for Papuan mine workers to advance. West Papuans experience racism, corruption and military and police violence on a daily basis.

Organising in this environment is extremely challenging. It is made more difficult by the fact that the company fosters division in order to maintain their rule. But not only did the Papuan workers manage to unite, they secured support from Indonesian allies, prosecuted a successful strike, maintained nonviolent discipline under extreme provocation and won a 100% wage increase for the lowest paid workers and created new opportunities for Papuan workers to advance.

This is the story of Tongoi Papua, the first independent labour union in West Papua, Indonesia’s last remaining colony.

In March 1996 disgruntled workers joined in riots over state violence, land rights, inequality and environmental degradation of indigenous lands, surrounding the mine. Freeport property was deliberately destroyed. Several people were killed in clashes and the mine was shut down for a short period. Freeport responded to Papuan workers’ grievances by creating new policies. They also formed an internal group of Papuan employees known as ‘Ring Papua’. These were Company-led initiatives but they created space for people to build relationships, and share their grievances and aspirations.

In the beginning Ring Papua included workers from different tribal backgrounds. But conflict and rivalry between different groups drove them apart. Ring Papua split. A new organisiation ToP (Tongoi of Papuanese) was formed. ToP was led by Silas Nakime an influential Amungme leader, the mountain people whose land had been appropriated by the mine. In 2005, a year after joining Freeport, Frans Pigome was elected as chair of Ring Papua. Pigome quickly came to the conclusion that separately the two organisations – Ring Papua and ToP – would not be able to resolve the complex issues faced by Papuan workers. Nakime felt the same, so in April 2006 the two organisations become one. Tongoi Papua was formed and Frans Pigome was elected leader. It was West Papua’s first independent labour union. ‘Tongoi’ is an Amungme word that means ‘men’s house’. It is the place where all tribal business takes place and where alliances are formed, disputes settled and plans for war are made. The tongoi is the living cultural heart of Amungme society.

Pigome’s first move was to hold a conference, a large consultation of all Papuan Freeport workers. To prepare, small groups of Papuan mine workers from the various employment sites and sectors were formed. Each group was charged with the task of collecting data around various grievances.

On 7-9 November 2006 the consultation was held. Five hundred delegates from all departments within Freeport attended. They came up with three core demands:
1. A 100% wage rise for the lowest paid workers.
2. The establishment of a Papuan Affairs Department to develop the Papuan workforce and attend to Papuan workers’ welfare.
3. That specific managers who had engaged in unsafe, discriminatory or abusive conduct be fired. A list of names and a log of all incidents was compiled.

These demands and data backing them up was presented to Freeport management. Copies of the document were also forwarded to the local police, and the local and the provincial government. Three months went by without any response from management. ‘Freeport ignored us or asked us to follow company policy’, recalls Pigome.

Freeport’s decision not to engage Tongoi Papua in constructive dialogue around the recommendations of the November 2006 consultation was interpreted by Pigome as ‘a very clear sign to us that they did not care about Papuans and local workers. For that reason’, said Pigome, ‘we prepared to strike.’ But thinking through the tactics of striking was challenging.

The last time Papuan miners had demonstrated the Indonesian military responded brutally. ‘The events of 1996 were still fresh in our minds’ said Penina Karma but ‘we were willing to risk collective action’.

The second problem was that the workers were divided, not just ethnically into Papuans and Indonesian migrants and into different Papuan tribes, each with their own language and culture, they were also divided by task and location. The mine is massive. It includes both an open pit and an underground section. Workers are spread from high altitude sites over 4000m all the way down to the port where the ore is loaded. There was only one place where a majority of workers meet each day: the tram and bus station. For ten minutes each day workers mill together waiting to be transferred to different work sites. Ten minutes a day. Ten minutes to organise. Ten minutes to prepare a strike under the watchful eye of the Indonesian security forces and the company.

The third challenge was the most delicate. Tongoi Papua wanted to make sure that the focus of the strike was on the original demands submitted to management in November 2006. They did not want to get drawn into wider agitation about independence. It is not that the Papuan workers did not want to be free, they did not want to give the military and company an excuse to brutally repress them.

That meant an explicit commitment to disciplined nonviolent action. ‘We learnt from our experience in 1996’ said Karma. ‘In order to make sure the strike was a success we developed a shared agreement that we would not use violence.’ That agreement specified that only Freeport workers and contractors could participate in the strike. People who were drunk, drinking or who could not prove they were a Freeport worker were denied entry to the demonstrations. Tongoi Papua was even able to get the agreement of the Chief of Police, a recently appointed Papuan, to close all the bars during the duration of the strike.

More than 200 Field Coordinators (KorlapKoordinasi di Lapangan) were appointed and given clear roles and instructions. The strike committee kept in close contact with the Chief of Police. He even marched with the strikers. Tongoi Papua decided to demonstrate outside the mine area where the police rather than the military had greater jurisdiction. They felt that it was more likely that media and third parties would witness the strike if they demonstrated in public places and it would be less likely that the military – who have a large presence inside the Freeport concession area – would interfere.

Pigome and the other Tongoi members were careful to emphasise that the planned action was not just about Papuan workers. ‘Actually there is no difference in the relationship between Tongoi Papuan workers and non-Papuan workers…. Tongoi is not just for Papuans. We are struggling for the rights of all workers; for justice’ said Pigome. As a result the goals of Tongoi Papua were also supported by Indonesian mineworkers, and in turn by the wider migrant Muslim community.

The community organising approach, willingness to pursue disruptive tactics, nonviolent discipline and attention to strategy paid off. Approximately 5-6,000 people participated in the strike which continued for four days. Indonesia’s energy minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told the press that production at the Grasberg open pit down was reduced to 20% of capacity and 60% at the underground mine. Shipping at the port in Amamapare came to a complete standstill as dock workers walked off the job.

The accumulated impact of the strike resulted in devastating economic losses for the New Orleans-based company, Rio-Tinto, Freeport’s Anglo-Australian partner and for Freeport Indonesia. The price of copper, of which Freeport is a major global supplier, rose to US$8,000 per metric ton on the London Metal Exchange, close to [its] previous highest record. Net losses resulting from the disruption totalled an estimated US$11.32 million. Unsurprisingly, Freeport management declared the strike illegal.

When Freeport urged the police to break up the strike the Police refused to cooperate. The relationship Tongoi Papua built with the Chief of Police was critical in this regard. But it was not only Papuan police who refused to cooperate. Indonesian police also publicly expressed concerns. Local Police Chief Inspector, General Tommy Yacobus, who was helping maintain security at the request of Tongoi Papua leadership, told Freeport that the strike [was] a problem the company created themselves. He urged the management to settle the workers’ requests as soon as possible.

As the political and economic crises for Freeport intensified protesters gathered in Timika. The Tongoi Papua leadership continued meeting with the local government representatives who were working behind the scenes to set up a meeting with James (Bob) Moffett, Freeport’s CEO. The demonstrations continued. Soldiers and police with riot gear faced unarmed Papuan strikers as tension grew. When Freeport refused to budge Pigome raised the stakes, telling reporters that his organisation was ready to extend the strike for a month if their demands were not met. ‘It [was] just like a war’ Penina Karma remarked to a journalist.

As the negotiations started, stalled, then started again, thousands of people maintained a presence outside the office building in Kuala Kencana where the discussions were taking place. Pigome describes company tactics during the negotiations:

‘Freeport tried to insist that the mediator must side with them. Management approached the local government and said that the mediator cannot be neutral. That he must side with the Company because Freeport was a vital national asset and Tongoi Papua was a non-formal organisation. Every time the local government appeared to support the workers Freeport would call a break and speak to the government representatives. After the break these representatives would side with the company. But we had the evidence, a year’s worth of data to back up our claims. So when management tried to change the subject we would always say let’s return to the data. We reminded management that there thousands of people waiting outside the negotiation room for [an] answer. We know that we had the power from all the workers outside the meeting room.’

The strike and demonstrations continued throughout the negotiations. Churches and Mosques supplied food to the Papuan protesters. Freeport approached influential Papuan leaders to urge the workers to return to work. The strikers refused.

Finally a deal was sealed. Tongoi Papua won a wage increase for the lowest paid workers of over 300% from 1,000,000 Rupiah per month to 3,200,000 Rupiah per month, just below the 3.6 million Rupiahs per month that Tongoi was asking for.

‘We are satisfied. After more than 40 years in operation, this is the most spectacular wage increase we have ever received,’ said Pigome.[1]

The strike positively affected peoples’ self-confidence, self-belief and unity between different Papuan ethnic groups. Penina Karma explains: ‘After the strike people saw that they need to be the masters of their own land. They began to ask themselves, why do outsiders order me around? It is me who needs to organise others. After the strike self-confidence returned to people.’

Pigome concurs: ‘Before the strike workers constantly heard that they weren’t able. That they didn’t have access to email, to transport, that our kids couldn’t go to the Freeport school. But through the strike we felt this self-confidence; that we could do it. We felt a sense of liberation. After the strike we felt like the space for freedom had been widened. We also felt united. We got rid of this thinking that we are seven tribes or highlanders and islanders. If we think of ourselves as separate we will be defeated. And this impact was felt not just by the Papuans but by all the workers.’

Tongoi Papua’s 2006-2007 campaign has left many with a real sense of their own power. In the case of the lowest paid workers they won an income they can live on. More importantly they won self-respect.

In occupied West Papua that could spell the beginning of the end for military rule.


1. There were also unintended negative impacts. Pigome explains that ‘lots of non-Papuans were recruited after the strike’. The other negative impact was that many of the US Managers that were sympathetic to the Papuans were asked to leave. ‘We believe this decision was made by senior Indonesian Freeport managers’, said Pigome.

Source of this document: https://nonviolentliberationstrategy.wordpress.com/case-studies/west-papua-2007/