The Turkish working class is beginning to move as a series of strikes and protests spread across the country. Factory workers; textile workers; construction workers; health workers; postal workers; service workers; miners; airline workers; press workers; municipality workers; and more have begun fighting back against union busting, unfair contracts, layoffs, dismissals, and unpaid wages.
Turkish capitalism has been in crisis for years now, which has been compounded and deepened by the global economic crisis unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The conditions workers are being forced to work under and the attacks on living standards are driving workers to the unions. The consciousness of millions of workers has taken a leap forward. Workers increasingly understand that they cannot trust the bosses or the government, and the need for class unity against the bosses. Union membership, which had been falling since the 1980s, has reached a point of inflexion and is once more on the rise. This is an omen of things to come.
The ruling class is not only trying to make the workers pay for the current crisis, they are desperately attempting to prevent the Turkish working class from organising into a strong labour movement. Workers who attempt to unionise are being methodically singled out and fired with a slew of labour laws.
As strikes and protests become increasingly frequent and the economic crisis deepens, the way is being prepared for a social explosion in Turkey.
In the Trakya (Eastern Thrace) region, which has one of the highest concentrations of factories and workers, union presence is scarce and wages are low. But a wave of union drives are taking place in the region. Food manufacturing factories, Belkarper and İndomie Adkotürk in the Tekirdağ province, both organised with Tekgıda-İş, an affiliate of the state linked Türk-İş trade union federation, are on strike against union-busting, dismissals, and the right to collective agreement contracts.
Bosses have repeatedly tried to break both strikes with scabs and intimidation. The workers at both factories are serving as an inspiration to other workers and are drawing class conscious conclusions from their struggles. During a recent interview one of the union representatives said: “Those who rule the country are as guilty as the bosses, they have united with the bosses, and they don’t want the workers to be organised and unionised.” While another worker added: “It’s not just the ruling party, it's the opposition too. They are all on the side of the bosses, even if they may appear to be on our side”.
While the workers at Bel Karper remain defiant as their strike heads into its fifth month, the strike at İndomie Adkotürk has been growing with each day since its onset on 23 August. New workers continue to join the strike almost every day. One of these workers spoke with Evrensel newspaper about the conditions: “Due to the strike, they have made overtime compulsory. I use my house like a hotel. Wherever there is a shortage of workers, they send us there. […] I was afraid of losing my pay cheque. But now I'm with my friends.”
In Konya, a province in the Central Anatolia region, 140 workers were fired at once for theft under ‘Code-46’ of the labour law at the Kentpar factory after unionising with Birleşik Metal-İş, an affiliate of the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DİSK). In Esenyurt, Istanbul, 65 workers at the Dega Demir Galvaniz factory were fired after unionising with Türk Metal (TÜRK-İŞ). In Urfa, one of the largest Kurdish cities, all 300 workers at Uğur Tekstil Factory, were laid off under ‘Code-18’ of the labour law, which entails an end to work, after unionising with DİSK. Bosses shut down the factory to prevent unionisation. These are just a few of the workplaces sacking workers in their dozens or hundreds for becoming trade union members. Workers at the three factories have responded with demonstrations and workplace occupations.
Postal workers at Posta, Telegraf, Telefon (PTT) have organised demonstrations in major cities throughout the pandemic to protest union-busting. For the first time since it was privatised in 1995, workers formed an independent union in 2019, PTT-SEN. Only 174 workers at the PTT are permanent workers, while more than 17,000 are contract workers without basic workers’ rights and benefits.
In the service sector, the biggest food delivery service in Turkey, Yemeksepeti, which employs more than 8,000 workers, has been firing workers for their membership to Nakliyat-İş (DİSK). If successful, the union drive would mark a watershed moment for food couriers in Turkey. This is a hyper-exploited sector, in which unsafe work conditions led to at least 190 courier deaths in 2020 and at least 12 deaths in the first 5 months of 2021. The workers have started a campaign calling for a boycott in protest of the dismissals and attempts to bust the union.
Strike notices are being served and new protests are being sparked throughout Turkey as employers refuse to negotiate fair collective agreement contracts. Transportation workers at İzmir Metro have decided to strike on 22 October after an agreement could not be reached in the collective agreement negotiations between the Demiryol-İş union, which is part of Türk-iŞ and Izmir Metro A.Ş., one of the companies of Izmir Metropolitan Municipality. The strike, affecting 627 metro and streetcar workers, would paralyse Izmir, the third largest city in the country.
In the industrial city of Gebze, nearly 300 workers at the Trelleborg factory, where Petrol-İş (DİSK) is organized, have decided to go on strike on 4 November if an agreement can not be reached. This would mark the third strike at the factory in 2 years. The Health and Social Service Workers’ Union (SES) representing nearly 26,000 family physicians across Turkey have led three full-day work stoppages and marched to the capital, Ankara, to protest the new contract imposed on them by the Family Medicine Payment and Contract Regulation Board which took effect on 1 July 2021. Nearly 800 workers at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), organized with Tez-Koop-İş (Türk-iŞ) have been organising ongoing protests since January, and are now discussing strike action, as the university refuses to negotiate a fair collective bargaining agreement.
There are also constant protests for the payment of unpaid wages across many sectors of the economy. About 100 workers, including pilots, cabin crew and technical staff at the Turkish airline, Onur Air, are protesting unpaid wages stretching back 20 months. In Izmir’s Buca Municipality, 100 permanent workers are protesting unpaid benefits while 1,300 workers at the municipality have been protesting unpaid wages dating back to January.
Repression motivated by fear
The Erdoğan regime is fully aware of the potential threat these strikes and protests pose to his regime should these struggles unite, flowing into a single torrent. Fearing any strike or protest may set an example and become a catalyst for further social unrest, the AKP and the capitalist class are trying to suppress and intimidate the growing movement of the workers.
The police repression we’ve seen at the Destek Otomotiv factory in the province of Bursa is a case in point. Police attacked workers at Destek Otomotiv factory who were protesting the dismissals of 100 workers for unionising, hospitalising seven workers. Workers in casts gave interviews to various media outlets, detailing how the police stormed the factory at night and dragged the male workers out, beating them while threatening to do the same to the female workers.
In another case, Belkarpar and İndomie Adkotürk workers organized a protest at the Tekirdağ Governor’s office and were violently suppressed by police. Some workers marched to the office with their families, and were beaten with batons as their children watched. More than 100 workers were taken into custody.
In the most serious case yet, bullets were fired into the strike tent of Belkarper workers two nights in a row. The armed attack took place late at night in both cases. The first night the workers called the police who did not respond. The second night the workers ran after the gunman and caught him. Although it has not yet been confirmed, the gunman was most likely a thug hired by the bosses.
At the PTT, union representatives organising postal workers have been forcibly transferred to other provinces by management. At a recent demonstration in Istanbul, the president of PTT-Sen, Halit Büyük, was taken into custody along with eight other workers. A boss at a PTT partner, Park Konak company, Yavuz Çakır, has been individually calling postal workers organising with PTT-Sen and threatening and intimidating them. Workers have been sharing recordings of the threats on social media and have organised demonstrations calling on the labour movement to support them against the threats.
The ruling class is clearly afraid of the movement and using every means to intimidate it. But far from weakening the workers’ movement, these attacks are further raising the consciousness of workers and reinforcing their understanding of who their real class enemy is, of the need for class unity, of the role of the state, along with many other lessons.
Erdoğan’s fairy tales and the economic reality
During a televised speech in June, Erdoğan attempted to paint the present economic crisis as an attack by the same people who were behind the failed July 2016 coup attempt – who he claims were also behind the 2013 Gezi Uprising – a shadowy force that is supposedly attempting to bring “our country to its knees”. Proclaiming that his government had thwarted this “attack” by bringing its gold back from abroad and by strengthening its reserves, he declared that he had ensured that every citizen in Turkey would be taken care of. But the reality of the economic crisis is far from Erdoğan’s desperate attempts to deceive the masses with absurd conspiracy theories and fairy tales.
Official inflation is being reported at 19.5 percent but real inflation rate is said to be above 30 percent and set to rise in the coming months. Since mid-March alone, the Turkish Lira depreciated by 17 percent against the dollar. This has led to price hikes across the board. A 15 percent price hike was implemented on electricity on 1 July, this comes after a 6 percent hike in January. More than 3 million households across the country do not have electricity because they cannot pay their bills. Reflecting energy prices, transportation costs soared more than 26 percent since last June. A 25 percent price increase for tolls on bridges and turnpikes has been announced, making major routes that working people use on a daily basis unaffordable. Costs of household goods have also soared 26 percent in the past year. Food prices have soared by 35.7 percent since July 2020. Prices for bread, flour, and pasta increased by 24.8 percent, 17.8 percent for meat and fish, and 35.1 percent for milk, dairy products, and eggs since last year. Millions of households are already spending 30 percent of their budget on food, yet food costs are set to rise even further as the country grapples with drought which has caused declines in key crops in addition to rising costs and a depreciating currency.
The Turkish Central Bank has burned all of its net reserves to keep the Lira steady amidst the crisis, which has widened the budget deficit further, contributing to higher inflation. Even further, the Turkish Lira hit a record low and continues to sink after the central bank cut interest rates by a full percentage point to 18 percent, which also sent inflation soaring at the fastest pace in two-and-a-half years.
In order to curb rising social unrest at the start of the pandemic, the Erdoğan regime passed a Covid-19 law banning layoffs but allowing employers to send workers on “unpaid leave” until July 2021. Along with the unpaid leave law, employers have been weaponising a slew of labour laws against workers. What makes the dismissals with the labour laws so brutal is that workers do not qualify for employment insurance or any kind of workers’ compensation and cannot seek employment elsewhere.
According to a report by Turkey’s Health and Safety Labour Watch (İSİG), within a year of the pandemic, workers who had been fired under ‘Code-29’ (a morality law) increased by 70 percent. DİSK reports that 3.7 million workers were put on “short-time” leave, workers whose hours have been cut or have been put on temporary leave, and 2.5 million were put on unpaid leave. Since the ban on layoffs ended on 1 July, unemployment has spiked even higher. DİSK reports unemployment at 27.2 percent, with more than 9.7 million people unemployed. The end of the government wage support programs in July, both the unpaid leave wage support and the short-time wage support, left millions of workers without a livelihood. More than 55 percent of the workforce in Turkey make minimum wage. While the minimum wage is 2,825 Turkish Liras (TL), the hunger limit is 3,049 TL and the poverty limit is 9,931 TL. According to the World Bank 1.6 million Turks were pushed into poverty in 2020 alone.
While workers are being pushed into poverty and brought closer and closer to starvation in order to prop up the system, the ruling class has added billions to their wealth. According to the BIST, 157 companies on the Istanbul Stock Exchange increased their profits by 32 percent in 2020.
AKP regime attempts to atomise workers
The 2021 Global Rights Index by the International Trade Union Confederation lists Turkey among the 10 worst countries for workers. Protections for workers are nearly non-existent in Turkey. In order to bargain with employers, unions must represent 1 percent of workers in the relevant economic sector as well as a majority of the employees at the workplace. Strikes are only allowed in the case of a bargaining impasse.
The current labour laws have their basis in the 1980 military coup that ultimately brought an end to Turkey’s biggest revolutionary movement. The development of capitalism in the post-war period brought with it the development of the working class and the class struggle. The emergence of the trade union movement and the development of independent workers’ organisations was a reflection of the fact that the working class was looking for a way out of its misery. The working class was poised to take power in Turkey, but the mistakes of the leadership of the movement led the movement to defeat. It was crushed and the revolution was set back. Trade unions were shut down, thousands of workers’ organisations were destroyed, strikes were banned, the right to collective bargaining was suspended, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, and thousands were killed. The leaders of DİSK were put on trial and faced execution, while the union itself was tied up in an 11-year battle against being completely shut down. The strong, well-organised labour movement – in which more than 40 percent of workers were unionised – was to a large extent destroyed.
According to DİSK, the unionisation rate was 12 percent in 2002, and declined to 6 percent under the rule of the AKP. According to official numbers from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security the unionisation rate is currently 14.78 percent but collective labour agreements cover only 7 percent of unionised workers.
Among OECD member countries, Turkey is one of the countries with the lowest unionisation and collective bargaining coverage.
On the back of the pre-2008 world economic boom, the Turkish economy rapidly grew and with it the working class. While the AKP oversaw this boom and industrialisation, and allowed for some concessions, they have been actively working to disarm the working class and weaken the labour movement in Turkey, which is a source of cheap labour for domestic and foreign capital. Through detentions, intimidation tactics and maneuvers, the AKP regime has been preventing the development of the independent workers’ organisations.
Independent trade unions, and the two most left-leaning, DİSK and the Confederation of Public Workers Unions (KESK), have consistently been targeted. DİSK leaders and members are continuously arrested and their offices are raided. KESK, which organizes public sector workers, has also been the target of detentions and investigations. Thousands of KESK members have been laid off in recent years without any due process.
While the independent trade unions are targeted by the state, regime-led unions are being bolstered. The Hak-İş union confederation, which is a regime-led union and which organises public sector workers, has been propped-up: of the 857,000 workers who were unionised between 2013 and 2019, 517,000 joined Hak-İş, with 266,000 joining Türk-İş which is a semi-state union, and only 71,000 joining the left-leaning DİSK.
Even though the revolutionary movement of the 1960s and 1970s went down in defeat, it continues to strike fear in the ruling class of the power of the organised working class. The capitalist class has been using every weapon in their arsenal against organised labour to prevent another movement on that scale from developing. But the Turkish working class is awakening and it has significantly grown in the past decades. In spite of the barriers and repression workers are confronted with, unionisation has begun creeping upward – albeit gradually for now – from 13.66 percent in July 2020 to 14.78 percent in July 2021.
Despite the fact that most unionised workers currently belong to unions under the influence of the ruling elite, the leaders are being pushed to support the workers’ struggles in many cases. By promoting regime-linked unions, the ruling elite is trying to divert the rising class consciousness down a path that does not threaten its interests. However, as we can see with many radical strikes being organised by Türk-İş affiliated unions, tricks and diversions might be able to temporarily reroute the class struggle, but they cannot stop it from finding an expression. An immense amount of pressure is building beneath the surface of society and sooner or later it will express itself in an explosive manner.
As the economic crisis deepens, Erdoğan's base continues to erode. He is resorting to increasingly desperate and sudden measures. His popularity among wide layers of the population whose support he once enjoyed has been sinking. There is widespread anger among wide layers, while the depth of the crisis has torn the illusions Erdoğan’s traditional base had in a regime they once associated with rising living standards. In an attempt to halt anger amongst the masses, Erdoğan has ordered agricultural cooperatives to open 1,000 food coops to offer “suitable prices”. This is only a small plaster on a gaping wound, it does however indicate how acute the crisis is. In the coming period, all the factors that led to this crisis will only intensify and the workers, youth and poor will be asked to pay.
The attempts of the ruling class to make the workers pay for the crisis is already provoking a fight back. The pressure from the rank and file is pushing the leadership forward in many cases, and the partial victories from strikes and protests are serving to transform a layer of the working class. The renewed militancy amongst the working class is producing a new generation of militants. Rank and file militants must organise from the bottom up and demand the unions stand in the frontlines to defend their rights.
The bosses and their representatives in the government will continue to attempt to intimidate and suppress the movement but this is only exposing the true nature of the regime to more layers of the workers, pushing them into opposition. The working class can only rely on its own forces. What is necessary is to bring all of the developing struggles under a united banner of a struggle against the regime itself.
The workers already understand the need for uniting their struggles. What is required is a conscious campaign to connect the different struggles on a local and national basis, as well as the development of a common programme of demands, including, among other things: the right to democratic trade union representation; the right to collective bargaining; the right to strike and protest; living wages in line with inflation; all dismissed workers to be reinstated; the removal of all unjust laws; better working conditions, benefits, compensation, payment of all back wages and compensation, and ensure that workers do not suffer or pay for this capitalist crisis. Furthermore, this movement must put itself at the head of the struggle for democratic rights, which have been under attack throughout the country.
Not only would a programme on this scale, linking all the isolated struggles together into a national movement, bring Erdoğan and his ruling AKP to its knees, it would be able to bring the entire capitalist system to its knees.