Despite his high standing in national and international labor organizations, little is known about Rekson Silaban personally. Yet most people, especially workers, empathize with the ideals he fights for.
His unassuming appearance belies his passion for labor issues, and when the subject is broached no questions are left unanswered as he brings fresh new insights to light.
Rekson, chairman the Confederation of Indonesian Prosperous Labor Union (KSBSI), has been fighting to build harmonious industrial relations in an effort to change the image of the once-militant labor union, and of workers in general.
"In this era of democratization and globalization, it doesn't make sense for us to confront or continually oppose the government and employers. Workers and employers are constant partners in industrial relations," he told The Jakarta Post.
KSBSI, officially founded on April 24, 1992, as an independent alternative to the previously government-backed Confederation of All Indonesian Workers Union (KSPSI), collided head-on with former president Soeharto's military-style regime by opposing human rights abuses, authoritarianism and the intervention of the military and intelligence agency in industrial disputes.
The labor union's stance cost them dearly: former chairman Muhtar Pakpahan and many unionists were jailed for militancy and subversion in leading violent anti-government rallies.
"The whole story is a good lesson for us. After Soeharto's downfall in May 1998, the country's outlook changed. Confrontation and extremism are no longer relevant in this reform era, with the advent of true democracy and the ratification of ILO conventions on core labor standards, including the freedom of association," he said.
His life story is riddled with tales of intimidation and terror. In representing workers, he was challenged to do more for them and to delve deeper into labor issues, two determining factors that brought him to his current top position in the KSBSI and in an international trade union.
His close relations with international unionists and attendance at annual international labor conferences and seminars has led to enhanced cooperation between the KSBSI and the ILO, as well as regional and international trade unions, especially on labor issues and training programs.
Delivering his address at the KSBSI's 16th anniversary celebrations last week, Rekson called on all labor unions to return to the original mission of representing workers instead of manipulating them for political and religious interests.
"Extremism and terrorism have proven ineffective in changing the nation, as when the Communist Party attempted a coup in 1965, and with the emergence of terrorist networks because people want harmony and peace despite pluralism," he said.
He said the achievements of labor unions should be measured not by their influence in religion and politics, but rather by the number of collective labor agreements successfully accepted by employers.
Rekson, also a member of the executive board of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), stressed the importance of getting more in touch with the grassroots level by intensifying labor training programs on effective bargaining techniques at the corporate level.
He said KSBSI had less than 500,000 members nationwide but it made thousands of collective labor agreements with employers.
Under his leadership, KSBSI has remained the most solid of the three major labor unions since both the KSPSI and the Confederation of National Workers Trade Union (KSPN) split into two factions each. More than 180 labor unions have been registered with the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry but so far only a handful have members at the grassroots level.
Rekson, who was born in Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, in 1966, is married to Merdy Rumintjip and has two sons. He defended KSBSI's support for the ongoing promotion of bipartisanism in settling industrial disputes because workers, as an key part of industrial relations, had to be encouraged to improve their competence and hence their social welfare.
"Bipartite negotiations between workers and employers are more effective than industrial strikes and with the bipartisanism, we're presenting a newer friendlier image of workers. Many employers have been critical of unions because they still view them in terms of violent and anarchic strikes," he said.
Rekson said he spent May Day discussing crucial labor issues such as outsourcing and recruitment of contract-based workers, subjects which caused job insecurity among workers.
"We celebrate May Day as a prime opportunity for workers to fight for respect from employers and the government, for their normative rights and core labor standards, and for pro-labor development policy and law enforcement," he said.