Turkish car workers take on bosses, state and yellow union

Turkish car workers battle for better wages and conditions; photo: Cihan
Turkish car workers battle for better wages and conditions; photo: Cihan

by Esen Uslu

Bursa, the heartland of the car industry in Turkey, has once more become the centre of working class resistance against the domination of transnational companies – a domination maintained through anti-trade union laws, through crooked industrial inspectorates and courts, and through Türk-Metal, the fascist-dominated yellow union forced upon workers by the state. Despite the intervention of union bosses and their thugs, 14,000 workers have resigned from Türk-Metal and gone on strike in key plants, including the assembly units of the local Renault and Fiat subsidiaries, as well as suppliers of components.

A similar movement ripped through the nascent automotive industry in the early 70s when Maden-İş, the union affiliated to DİSK (Revolutionary Trade Union Confederation), broke the domination of Türk-Metal and other yellow unions, and began to win recognition. Despite the attacks of Türk-Metal thugs, which included shooting down workers at the factory gates under the benign eyes of the ‘security’ services, the DİSK Maden-İş snowball has continued to roll on. The strikes in the 70s ended in substantial gains and a sea change in industrial relations.

The 1980 fascist military coup suppressed the organised working class movement with brute force. As the long-time president of the chamber of employers said at the time, “Up to now we have been crying and the workers were laughing at our expense; now the time has come when we start laughing!”

The principal lawyer of Maden-İş was killed under torture after he was detained at the union offices – his body thrown out of the fifth-floor window of the security HQ. Almost all the shop stewards at the same factories that are on strike today were detained, tortured, hauled before martial-law courts and given long jail sentences. Some of them died in the junta jails, and those who were eventually released were blacklisted.

Legacy of junta

The export-oriented industrial policy developed by finance capital during the junta years and after saw a rapid development of the car industry. Bursa was the centre of this industrial development, which also extended into neighbouring provinces. The industrial zones and export harbours mushroomed, connected by new motorways in line with the requirements of just-in-time production, the necessary infrastructure investment provided by the state.

The success of this export-oriented industry depended on low wages, aided by the anti-union legislation brought in by the junta, while nationalist-fascist ‘unions’ maintained the charade of ‘industrial relations’. Genuine collective bargaining and strikes had to be avoided at all costs, and any independent organising activity was dispersed through union-assisted lay-offs. When the intimidation and thuggery of the union bosses proved to be insufficient, it was replaced by a police regime.

These policies were quite successful. Car exports became one of the largest foreign currency earners of the Turkish economy. And tax revenues increased in line with domestic sales, backed by easy credit. There were no major strikes and tame two- or three-year deals were regularly signed.

Company loyalty and job-security in the developing industry had been quite strong, but this was tested during the dip that followed the financial crisis of 2008, when production levels were reduced. Workers were squeezed: they were asked if they preferred redundancy with compensation, or a shorter working week with reduced pay. The great majority of workers accepted lower pay levels.

These developments, of course, took place in a country where the dirty war in Kurdistan has marred any attempt to win democratic rights. Türk-Metal, meanwhile, maintained good connections with the army top brass and nationalist-fascist forces. The former president of the union was unchallenged from 1971 to 2009 and became the richest trade unionist in Turkish history. He was renowned for his cooperation with the nationalist-fascist forces entrenched in the state security apparatus. Thanks to misappropriated union funds, he ended up owning a nationalist satellite TV channel broadcasting in North Cyprus as well as over the Turkic lands of central Asia. He also formed and led nationalist organisations extending into those countries. In line with the wishes of the army top brass he formed the My Turkey association, grouping together 600 nationalist organisations and prominent former army officers.

Eventually he came a cropper in the infamous Ergenekon coup conspiracy trials, along with retired and serving officers. He lost his position in the union, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment (although he was eventually released on medical grounds). He once described Türk-Metal as “the union of those who are aware of Allah, the Quran and their Turkishness”. And this was the union that dominated all metal manufacturing, including the car industry, up to 2012.

The changed fortunes of Türk-Metal began with the 2012 wage round. The rank and file refused to accept the union dictats in cooperation with the employers and the state. There was an attempt to nip the discontent in the bud and scores of dissenting workers were laid off. However, the industry-wide wage standard was broken, with large factories such as Renault paying even lower wages than rival companies.

But union members refused to accept the terms agreed by the bureaucracy. In December, workers at some smaller factories tried to organise in a different union and decided to strike.

Strike and sit-in

In the changed political climate the union tops can no longer get away with their traditional thuggery – workers freely voted to reject the proposed deal and go on strike. At the last moment, the government stepped in to impose a ‘cooling off period’ on the grounds that a strike in the automotive industry would be “harmful to the national interests”. The government also forced upon the workers compulsory arbitration to end the dispute.

During the postponement and arbitration process Türk-Metal managed to reach agreements at some factories, while others resisted. The outcome was more uneven pay levels for similar skill sets, and growing discontent. The workers at the Bosch factory managed to get a better deal than the rest of the industry, and this proved to be the turning point. Factory committees were elected with a view to negotiations independent of the union bureaucracy, and there was a campaign for workers to resign from Türk-Metal en masse.

The anti-union legislation requires individual workers to sign a resignation form before a public notary. So visiting a notary became a form of demonstration and on May 5 the first large-scale demonstration was staged. Knowing that state forces were likely to intervene to suppress this resistance, the workers knew that their only defence would be to act unitedly in an organised way. So the factory committees bypassed the union shop stewards to organise the majority of the workers. After a few half-hearted attempts at thuggery and intimidation, the union realised it could achieve nothing and gave up.

When they saw the result of organisation and the capacity to act effectively, workers raised the need to renegotiate current agreements. The bosses were caught unawares and tried to play for time, using consultations with overseas parent companies as a delaying tactic. The union tried to dissuade the workers, claiming that no alteration to agreements was permitted under union legislation, and that non-members were still obliged to pay dues to the union, as they were ‘benefiting’ from the current agreements.

These developments brought about meetings to coordinate action across different factories, and eventually an inter-factory committee was formed. During those meetings four common demands were adopted: the workers must be represented in negotiations; there must be no ‘solidarity dues’ paid to the union; the bosses must agree to level up wages for similar skill sets; and there must be no lay-offs in retribution.

The bosses rejected those demands – Renault sacked some individual leaders, removing them from the card entry system without notifying them. When the morning shift arrived at the factory gates, they were not able to get in and the workers’ anger suddenly boiled over. They refused to enter the factory, and the shift leaving refused to leave. A spontaneous demonstration gathered in front of the factory, while a sit-in was staged inside.

Within a few hours four large factories were on strike, enforced by sit-ins. The workers who stayed outside marched to other workplaces, asking their comrades in those factories to join the strike. The families of the workers joined in, and there was support and solidarity from every part of the community.

To date the police have not intervened. Normally in such circumstances the state is ready to act with brutality to suppress such resistance at an early stage, but this time the regional governor attempted to mediate between the workers and companies. To no avail – the workers were determined to follow through their demands. The bosses’ organisations and the ministry tried to appease them by accepting their demands about the union, but not on pay. That did not work and on May 19 4,000 workers at the Ford subsidiary in İzmit, the neighbouring province, decided to join in the strike.

But there are signs that the bosses’ attitude has hardened. The workers sitting in began to be harassed and the police started to deploy reinforcements around the factory gates. The tone of press releases and warnings issued to the workers has started to change.

Storm clouds

What the coming days will bring is hard to predict. The workers’ determination and level of organisation seems strong, and the support from other factories appears more and more solid. There are textile plants and those of associated industries in the same industrial zones, where the workers are suffering similar conditions, so there is a possibility that the strikes could spread.

The June 7 elections are going to be critical, since the support enjoyed by the HDP (People’s Democracy Party) is hovering around the threshold for representation in parliament. If it gets the 10% it needs, this would put the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) into a position where it would be very difficult to govern. However, if the AKP manages to push the HDP vote down by a percentage point or so, it may have a majority sufficient to change the constitution in order to introduce a presidential system. So the AKP is treading a very careful line, so as not to alienate its core voters in western Turkey, including the workers of Bursa and its environs. In any case, the support gathered by the HDP has created a new wave of optimism amongst the lower strata of working people.

The AKP government also has to prove its capability to manage the crisis to the transnational automotive companies. It may try to benefit from the anti-Türk-Metal mood by abandoning it, and replacing it with an Islamist-dominated union closer to its liking. However, any substantial increase in pay would be an anathema for the transnationals – although the government has other means at its disposal to sugar that bitter pill, such as relief on taxation and import duties, and other incentives and subsidies. Such measures would require careful planning, since the Turkish economy has been visibly slowing down, and ‘excessive public spending’ during election year has added to the deficit in the balance of payments.

Then there is the Syrian crisis, which has reached a new level of intensity. Turkey has been acting in unison with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, trying to wage a more effective campaign against the Assad regime, but the US has been attempting to win it to the fight against Islamic State. Managing such conflicting interests is indeed putting great pressure on the AKP government.

While the car workers’ demands are limited to economic issues at present, it is entirely possible that they will realise very quickly that in order to win they must wage a political struggle. In other words, these are days of hope. How much of it will be realised will be determined by the consciousness, organisation and determination of the workers themselves.

In any case, what has been achieved to date is already beyond the expectations of many observers. The spell cast by the junta has been broken, and the genie is out of the bottle. It will be impossible to put it back and return to the certainties of yesterday.

The above article is taken from the May 21 issue of the British Marxist paper Weekly Worker.

One comment

Comments are closed.