The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Turkey:
Mounting Social Discontent and Strikes in Metal Industries

Jun 25, 2015

The following article on the strike wave is translated from the magazine Lutte de Classe, [Class Struggle] #169, July-August, 2015, published by Lutte Ouvrière, a revolutionary group of that name in France.

The June 7th 2015 general election marked a relative setback for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, for the first time since it came to power in 2002. The pro-Kurdish party HDP, which stood as spokesperson for a number of opposition currents, won 13% of the vote – more than the legal 10% minimum required to be represented in parliament. This election result is the reflection of a number of factors: not just of the wear and tear of the AKP regime in the midst of the economic crisis, but its support for the ISIS militia in Syria and Iraq, its increasing heavy-handedness – illustrated, in particular, by the brutal repression of the 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Gezi square – and its corruption. Although it remains the largest party in parliament, the AKP is now forced to seek partners to form a coalition government. The odds are, therefore, that this election will mark the end of a long period of political stability.

But far more important from the point of view of the working class was a powerful wave of strikes that spread across the metal industries in the run-up to the elections, forcing the bosses to make substantial concessions. This may also mark the end of a long period of social stability.

The days when the AKP presided over economic growth and rising wages, when the purchasing power of low-paid workers almost doubled in a decade, are long gone. In addition to the impact of the 2008 world crisis, the domestic economy was hit by specific regional problems, such as the loss by Turkish companies of most of their export markets in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish lira has lost 50% of its value against the euro since 2011, so inflation has soared, reaching 25% a year today. Not only has this situation reduced most of the gains made by workers during the previous period to nothing, but five million of them are now unable to meet their bills. And 350,000 are under threat of prison for indebtedness.

Predictably, therefore, discontent had been rising among workers. Several months ago, this began to manifest itself in the car industry, located mainly in the Bursa industrial zone, around 100 miles south of Istanbul, where 360,000 workers are employed. A strike wave started there in mid-May, before spreading to the town of Bursa, then to the industrial region around Istanbul and, finally, to other regions, such as those around Ankara and Izmir.

The backbone of the Turkish car industry is a number of joint ventures between local capitalist groups and car multinationals such as Ford, Toyota, Mercedes, Fiat, Renault, etc. In addition, in Bursa, these assembly plants are surrounded by large car components factories, directly supplying their assembly lines with the parts they need.

In one of these car components plants, owned by the German company Bosch, workers first demanded a large wage increase. Faced with their mobilization, the company quickly backed down by granting them most of their demands, which, after all, merely compensated them for the inflation of the previous years.

However, when workers raised the same demands in neighboring car factories, they were confronted with a stubborn refusal from the employers.

The Build-up to the Strike at Renault-Oyak

The next flashpoint was the Renault-Oyak assembly plant, which is next to the Bosch factory. It is a joint venture between the French car manufacturer and Oyak, the investment arm of the various Turkish army pension funds.

On December 17, 2014, the Türk-Metal-Iş union – a corrupt body affiliated to the Türk-Iş confederation of trade unions, which is entirely loyal to big business and linked to the far-right – signed an agreement with the bosses’ metal industries organization MESS, providing for tiny wage increases. This was meant to be a 3-year deal, contrary to the usual 2-year span and, of course, the 110,000 members of Türk-Iş were not consulted.

Turkey’s trade-union law is based on a kind of closed-shop system whereby there is only one recognized union in each factory and only its members benefit from the gains obtained through negotiation. In addition, there are strict limitations to the right to strike dependent on developments in current negotiations. Besides, the simple fact that the union bureaucracy is opposed to a strike is enough to make it illegal. But at times, such a wall against workers’ resistance can have the opposite effect and a small crack can open the way to a flood of demands.

The December 2014 deal led to more and more incidents in which workers showed their discontent. In some factories, including at Renault-Oyak, union leaders and foremen were taken to task by workers who made a point of saying what they thought of such a deal, at a time when their wages no longer allowed them to make ends meet and pay their bills. The only response they got was that they should wait until the next negotiations – in 3 years!

This only increased workers’ frustration. Due to the repressive methods of the bosses, this frustration led, at first, to gestures of defiance, which were symbolic, but massively supported. In one factory, for instance, large numbers of workers started to grow their beards; elsewhere, they staged a “noise protest” in the canteen by hitting their plates with their knives and forks; in another case, they boycotted the canteen; etc.

While the general anger was increasing, on April 15, 2015, the Bosch workers crossed the Rubicon by defying the law and walking out. They quickly won increases above 20% – far more than those offered by the December deal – and went back to work. However, despite the media blackout, the news spread like wildfire in the neighboring plants, especially Renault-Oyak.

Over the following month, the level of restlessness increased in Bursa’s two main industrial areas, that is, Renault-Oyak and Fiat-Tofaş, a joint venture between the Italian company Fiat and the Turkish capitalist group Koç. In dozens of plants, especially car components factories (Coşkunöz, Mako, Ototrim, Delfi, Valeo, SKT, Farba, etc.), 20,000 workers staged various symbolic protests of the kind mentioned above.

On April 21st, workers at Renault-Oyak and Fiat-Tofaş took advantage of the shift changeovers to stage protests, shouting slogans against Türk-Iş and demanding similar concessions like those won by the Bosch workers.

In the first days of May, some workers from the various plants involved decided to resign their membership of Türk-Iş collectively. On May 5th, some of these workers who were about to clock in for the night shift at Renault-Oyak, discovered that their badges had been invalidated. This meant that they could no longer enter the plant and were effectively fired! In other words, the Renault-Oyak management had chosen to deal with the discontent in the same old way – by firing those it considered the ringleaders in hopes that this would discourage the others. Except that, this time, the workers anticipated management’s reaction. For several days before, the workers had been gathering in front of the gates ahead of their shift before going through security, to make sure that no one was being fired. When they saw that two of their co-workers had been fired, they refused to enter the plant and the late shift, which was still inside, refused to leave.

Faced with this collective reaction, the management reinstated the two fired workers after 2 hours. However, the plant manager had to rush out of his bed in the middle of the night in order to confirm to the 2,000 workers who were blocking the gates that the firings had been cancelled. At this point, work resumed, but the workers had measured their strength and how effective it could be in forcing the company to give in.

A 10-day Strike Led by the Workers Themselves

But the wage issue remained. The plant management requested 15 days to consult with the company’s general management. However, workers didn’t have to wait that long. On Thursday, May 14th, management called a meeting of the morning shift to tell them that they should expect nothing more than the December deal. However this announcement caused a swift reaction. The next evening, the whole of the night shift refused to go into the plant and gathered outside the gates, while the late shift was occupying all the lines and workshops inside the plant. On Friday, the morning shift joined the night shift in refusing to enter the plant. From this point on, all 3 shifts were on strike and production was stopped. The plant was occupied by the night shift and the two other shifts would gather at the gates. Then management tried a diversion: they announced a holiday until the following Monday. The ruse was a bit too obvious and it didn’t work. The strikers all remained at their posts.

Something similar had taken place at Renault, 3 years before, during the negotiation of the local agreement. Hundreds of workers, who were dissatisfied with their wages and working conditions, had expressed their determination to leave the Türk-Metal-Iş union since it was ignoring their problems. Except that, for another union to be recognized instead of Türk-Metal-Iş, at least 50% of the workforce would have had to support this demand. The Renault-Oyak workers had even tried to get the support of the Birleşik-Metal-Iş union, an affiliate of the confederation DISK, without any success. At the time, this dispute had resulted in dozens of workers being fired. Despite the heavy cost of this experience, the workers had learned a lot from it, especially the need for serious preparation in order to win their demands.

Over the months preceding the May 2015 events, the Renault workers organized themselves in the background. Among other things, they elected representatives: each unit of 20 workers elected their delegates, who then elected a departmental rep. By the end of this process across all departments, the 5,700 workers of the plant were represented by an elected committee of 8. It was this committee that was given the responsibility of representing the workforce with the management and state authorities.

Despite much pressure and maneuvering, management failed to get the workers to return to work. After several pointless meetings at the state prefecture, the 8 delegates got fed up and declared that, from then onwards, if the prefect wanted to talk to them, he would have to come to the plant. The strikers, in order to pre-empt any provocation by the company or the authorities, started manning checkpoints at the gates, making sure that only those with a plant ID were allowed in. However, in the course of the workshop meetings that followed the mass meeting, six characters were found carrying a plant ID without having anything to do with the plant. These spies were firmly shown the way out. But after that, security was tightened up by restricting access to workers only.

There was a lot of support for the strikers. Their families and neighbors came to the plant to bring them food and boost their morale. Workers in the neighboring factories – mostly components factories – expressed their support by refusing to do any overtime, by boycotting their canteens, by demonstrating outside the Renault plant in solidarity with the strikers, defying the threats of the police. The large number of strike signs left outside the gates was a testimony to the workers’ sympathy for the strike and a symptom of the fact that it was becoming contagious.

The Strike Spreads Across the Car Industry

The example set by Renault was followed by workers in the other large assembly plant in Bursa, the Fiat-Tofaş factory. Its workforce – over 6,500 workers – came out on strike over wages, at the same time as 2,000 workers at the Coşkunöz factory and 1,200 workers at Mako. They were followed by those from Valeo and Delphi. By May15th, 16,000 workers were out on strike in Bursa.

The contagion spread quickly to the other industrial areas located in western Turkey – around Istanbul and Izmit – first in the car industry and then in other sectors of the metal industries. The strike wave also spread to central Turkey, with a strike at another plant of the Koç group, the Türk Traktör factory near Ankara. In this latter case, the strike was entirely organized by a committee of elected delegates, including the provision of meals. Then, on May 18th, in Izmit (north-west Turkey), the 8,000 workers of the Ford-Otosan plant (also a joint-venture between the Koç group and Ford) adopted the demands of the Renault strikers, went out on strike, resigned their membership of Türk-Metal-Iş and elected their own representatives.

Then the metal industry bosses tried a trick: on May 22nd, the newspaper headlines announced that workers at Renault-Oyak and Fiat-Tofaş had resumed work. It was a lie. The fact was that the bosses and the government were not confident enough to use the police against the strikers, although they were positioned close to striking factories.

In fact, the strike wave spread to other towns, like Izmir (south-west Turkey) where workers at the CMS wheel rim factory won a 1,000 lira bonus ($334) following the distribution of a leaflet threatening to walk out! The 1,900 workers of the Petkim refinery, who went on strike protesting an insulting 5% wage offer, won most of their demands after just a week of plant occupation. As a result, workers from Izmir’s four industrial zones came out on strike over the same wage demands. And in the same town, the 3,500 workers of the municipal gas and electricity company Izenerji, whose wage negotiations had been stalled for 2 years, took to the streets for an immediate wage increase, before going on strike on June 7th. Also in Izmir, workers at IDC and Ege Çelik were pleased to discover that 1,000 liras had been paid into their bank accounts in response to the unrest beginning to develop in these companies.

As a testimony to the depth of the movement, it was not just the big cities that were affected. Smaller towns were hit as well, such as Eskişehir where the home appliances factory Arçelik went on strike on May 26th, although the strikers were soon evacuated by the police.

The Bosses Are Forced to Concede

At Renault-Oyak, workers returned to work on May 27th, following a 9-point agreement, that included, among other things, no disciplinary action taken against strikers; the strikers’ elected delegates recognized as their only representatives and Türk-Metal-Iş, which had only 60 members left among the 5,700-strong workforce, would no longer be the only recognized union. Concerning wages, Renault conceded a guaranteed annual bonus worth $217, an immediate payment of $546, their wages for the period of the strike, and a commitment to negotiate a wage increase before the end of June.

After this, workers returned to work in the factories for which the Renault-Oyak strike had served as a beacon. Almost everywhere the strikers had won a bonus of at least 1,000 liras ($334) and the end of the trade-union monopoly of Türk-Metal-Iş. Of course, not all the workers’ demands have been met and the bosses haven’t totally capitulated, by far. In fact, only 2 days after the Renault-Oyak workers went back to work, plant management tried to fire two workers who had played a leading role in the strike. But this time again, there was an immediate unanimous response by the workers and the company had to back down.

Finally, Renault-Oyak’s wage offer, which also concerned the 110,000 workers covered by last December’s deal between MESS and Türk-Metal-Iş, was announced at the end of June. Its main element was a one-time bonus worth $500 in 2015, a similar one in 2016 and a $250 bonus in 2017. Predictably, these totally inadequate proposals immediately led to a resumption of restlessness at Renault-Oyak. Almost immediately, management, who did not want the strike to start again, announced new proposals that more or less doubled the previous ones.

However, the odds are that the bosses’ tentative counter-offensive is only beginning. While they have been forced to make some concessions at Renault-Oyak, it is not the case in many other factories, in particular at Fiat-Tofaş where the company announced its plan to fire 82 workers on June 23rd. The subsidiaries have announced the firing of dozens of others.

The confrontation is therefore not yet over. The workers who, in a matter weeks have acquired significant organizational experience in the course of struggle and realized what they could achieve by using their collective strength, now face a capitalist class forced to make some concessions, but which would like to restore the order disrupted by the strike wave. In particular, the fact that the bosses have been forced to negotiate with the delegates elected by the strikers – not just at Renault-Oyak, but also in many other factories – puts into question the role of the union bureaucracies. The apparatus of Türk-Iş is far too discredited to be able to exercise any control over the working class when it goes into action, while DISK is far too weak in the plants to be able to play this role. And, faced with these union bureaucracies that are largely indifferent to their preoccupations, the workers are increasingly showing they want the right to organize themselves, and are even exercising it.

The majority of the working class, including among the workers who took part in this strike wave, still identify with the traditional parties, including with Erdogan’s AKP. But the recent events show how quickly, under certain circumstances, the working class can rediscover its past fighting traditions, those of the 1970s in particular. This period saw many massive, determined strikes, in which workers fearlessly stood up against the brutal repression of the state and far-right thugs. During those struggles, links were built between workers from different factories and industries that eventually provided the basis for a real political class consciousness. As it turns out, neither the years of military dictatorship nor, more recently, the era of Erdogan’s Islamist rule, have succeeded in eradicating these traditions or this consciousness. And it may well be that in the coming period of political and social crisis in Turkey, the working class once again plays the decisive role that it did in the past.