Albion Monitor /News

Illinois Dispute Brings up Specter of East Timor

by Farhan Haq

Union charges owners tied to invasion where 200,000 died

(IPS) NEW YORK -- A three-month lock-out of 1,200 union workers in Illinois by an Indonesian-owned trailer manufacturer now includes a debate on the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

On January 21, the Chicago-based Trailmobile Corporation locked out 1,200 members of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) in Charleston, Illinois.

But the dispute has also raised questions about the company's Indonesian owners, particularly Edward Wanandi, chairman of Gemala North America and owner of Trailmobile.

The union has charged that the Wanandi family was tied to the Indonesian plans to invade East Timor in December 1975. Human rights groups say that some 200,000 Timorese, roughly a third of the territory's population, were killed in the ensuing years as Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony.

Poor labor relations in the U.S.

On February 16, Trailmobile workers picketed the firm's Chicago headquarters, passing out handbills alleging Wanandi involvement in repression in East Timor and Indonesia. In turn, Edward Wanandi has demanded a letter of apology from the union for passing out the handbills.

"There's definitely a connection between the way they treat workers here and the way they treated the Timorese," argues Mike Lewis, the chairman of the UPIU local bargaining committee in Charleston, Local 7591. He adds, "I don't think they're going to get an apology...not from me, anyway. If we had done anything illegal or wrong (by producing the handbills), he would have taken us to court."

The Wanandi family has long been linked to 1975 invasion. In a 1994 documentary by the British Broadcasting corporation (BBC), Australian journalist John Pilger tied Indonesia's Strategic Studies Institute, a think tank founded by Edward Wanandi's elder brother Jusuf, to the invasion, called "Operation Komodo".

John Miller, New York coordinator of the East Timor Action Network, says that Jusuf and another Wanandi brother, Sofjan, benefitted from their ties with Indonesia's military elite, with Sofjan receiving tourist development concessions for East Timor.

"In Timor, you don't get a prominent business concession unless you're hooked in with the military or with President Suharto's family directly," Miller claims.

Trailmobile officials deny any connection between Edward Wanandi and the North American outfit and the charges against the family and the larger Gemala Group. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to comment on the Timorese charges but said the U.S. firm was not linked to the controversy.

"Trailmobile is owned by an individual, Edward Wanandi, and is not owned by the Gemala Group," he says. The company, he adds, is not aware of the Gemala Group's or Wanandi family's histories.

But the locked-out workers and UPIU contend that the company's history of labor relations in the United States is negative.

Since 1989, when Gemala first bought Trailmobile Canada's Toronto-based parent company, the firm's labor record has included mass layoffs of workers, and lock-outs and firings when workers disagreed with wage cuts, the UPIU argues.

In 1992, Trailmobile Canada began a two-year lock-out of 20 Canadian workers who refused to accept a 24 per cent wage cut. Those workers have since been returned to their posts.

The Charleston lock-out began after Local 7591 workers voted overwhelmingly to reject Trailmobile's demands for a new labor contract, including a three-year wage freeze. A previous contract, according to the UPIU, had already frozen wages for four years.

Three days after the workers voted to approve the union's right to strike, workers showed up at the Charleston factory only to find the doors locked and guarded. The company has since hired non-union "scab" workers as replacements.

The dispute has soured the union on foreign conglomerates, as much as on their U.S. equivalents

The Trailmobile spokesman counters that the lock-out is "entirely legal" since the union rejected the contract. "Just as a union has a right to strike when there is no contract, the company has a right to lock workers out when there is no contract," he argues.

The spokesman denies the lock-out is part of a strategy to weaken the union. He accuses the 1,200-member work force in Charleston of lighting acetylene bombs and performing other acts of sabotage during the dispute.

"It's too dangerous to operate under those conditions," the spokesman says.

But Lewis notes that, just last month, Trailmobile told the UPIU that at least 300 members will be laid off, even after the lock-out is resolved. Despite community help in providing funds and shelter for the locked-out workers, he adds, times are tough for the Charleston employees.

The union has filed charges with the federal National Labor Relations Board, accusing Trailmobile of bargaining in bad faith. The Trailmobile spokesman says the company will continue to negotiate in good faith, although he could not say when the firm would meet next with the UPIU.

"I have nothing against Indonesian people, Chinese people, African people -- they're just hard-working people like we are," Lewis says. But he says the Charleston dispute has soured him on foreign conglomerates, as much as on their U.S. equivalents: "They buy up our companies, our land, and treat our people like dirt."

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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