While the workers’ movement that had remained marginalised from Turkey’s political stage for nearly 30 years following the 1980 military coup that brutally repressed the political left, today we are witnessing an astonishing political awakening of the working class in Turkey.
The social picture in Turkey and North Kurdistan is now distant from class compromises, just as they are known to us in the former class compromises of the Fordist Global North. The official unemployment rate in Turkey stood at the level of 15.6 per cent. However, the actual rate is at a point far higher, as a vast amount of people still practicing subsistence agriculture or are undocumented urban residents.
The increasing labour fights of recent times seem to mark a new conjuncture of labour movements. Since 2000, eight strikes have been “suspended” due to the fact that they had seemingly posed “threats to national security” – meaning a military-forced systematic strike ban, regarding to the article in the constitution which has taken effect in 1982 by the enforcement of the junta that realised the 1980 vicious military coup. The current resistance of the workers of TEKEL (public enterprise which produces tobacco, alcoholic drinks and spirits), succeeded to set an example.
On December 14, 2009 the workers of TEKEL gathered in front of ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party) headquarters in Ankara in order to begin their protests against the enormous assaults on their employment rights following the process of privatisation. The decision had already been taken in 2001 by the previous government during the course of the devastating 2001 financial and economic crisis, which was accompanied by a significant political crisis. It created an opportunity for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to which Turkey was in debt since the reformation of the State power after the 1980 military coup, to intervene and foster the following privatisation strategies. This was the beginning of the contested transformation process in Turkey between capital and labour and between the national bourgeoisie and the popular classes under the new conditions of imperial changes, which led to the weakening of the working-classes.
After the tobacco and alcohol sections of TEKEL were privatised, the production units were demerged. MEY Beverage, one of the leading beverage companies in Turkey, acquired the alcohol production section of the enterprise. The Cigarette Division was bought by British American Tobacco in 2008. Then the workers, who organized with the Tek Gida-Is Union, remained rather isolated. The remaining 12,000 employees today at Tekel (31,000 workers in 2001) are now protesting the operational restructuring of their working status, transferring the fairly well-off employees from their civil servant status in the so called 4-C status of civil servants Additional Clause status. This means: short-time working, far less payment, massive precarious working conditions and a de facto free rein for the company.
The latter point is central, because the salary is mentioned as a maximum amount. It may subsequently be reduced from the new enterprise’s perspective. Furthermore, no information on the working hours is specified in the contracts, thus the payment method is also not regulated. The lay-off procedure of the TEKEL workers completely excludes the benefits provided for the seasonal workers during the non-productive periods in the year. Moreover, no social security or items for health insurance policy are provided for the workers within the framework of the 4-C regulations. It is clear that it is not an attack of the private capital alone, but a joint attack of state and capital to the workers.
The protests of the TEKEL workers have been radicalised and developed quickly into mass protests of the popular classes. They had quickly been attacked in the first few days while they were protesting in front of the headquarters of the AKP and in the central parts of the city by the police forces and driven away. However, they managed repeatedly to regroup themselves and their struggles in the park, where they were quartered after the police violence, moved into the city centre of Ankara. NGOs, political parties and trade union confederations have integrated into the fight. After protests, rallies, strikes and civil actions in various symbolic places in Turkey, the AKP government agreed to attend a negotiation meeting on February 3, although they had titled the fighting workers previously as “immoral beggary”.
The meeting achieved nothing at all, except that in the mean time the workers’ protests continued, also targeting the headquarters of the Turk-Is, the oldest, largest and most conservative union confederation, because the representatives of that union were just before the meeting with the government no longer insisting on a general strike, instead proposing isolated token strikes. However, the workers remained persistent in their demands that they should be retained under their former working conditions, without any cuts. Meanwhile, over 140 workers have been on hunger strike. On Thursday, February 9, five trade union federations held a one-day general strike in Turkey, which was forced by the radicalism of the workers.
The female and male workers are in agreement that the fight should not lose its radical character. They seek militant solidarity at international level. The government has set a deadline for the end of the month, in order to force the workers to accept the 4-C conditions, otherwise they are threatening to intervene with military force. However the lively movement of the class-fight is still an open inspiring excitement in terms of the fight against capitalist exploitation and oppression.
Ekrem Ekici and Ceren TÃ¼rkmen are PhD students in Philosophy and Sociology, based in Berlin, Germany.
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This post was written by Ekrem Ekici and Ceren TÃ¼rkmen