For a moment in May 2014, following a mine explosion that killed 301 coal miners in the western Turkish city of Soma, international attention was focused on the plight of the country’s workers. But that spotlight soon shifted, and though the Turkish government finally ratified an international agreement on mine safety late last month, hopes of substantially reforming labor policy in the “New Turkey” have been authoritatively dashed. In fact, with the crucial aid of the state, capital’s offensive against labor has only intensified.
Turkey is indeed a dangerous place for workers — in the first twelve years of the twenty-first century, an astonishing 12,686 workers lost their lives due to work accidents. Last year alone, 1,886 workers died on the job. Protests by miners and construction workers in the aftermath of industrial homicides have been met with tear gas and water cannons from national security forces.
And now the state is attacking the right of labor to use its most potent weapon — the strike. On January 14, Turkey’s United Metalworkers’ Union (Birleşik Metal-İş) announced strikes at forty workplaces after failed negotiations with the Turkish Metal Employers’ Federation (MESS). Following the MESS’s rebuffing of union demands for better wages and more uniform salaries for industry laborers, about fifteen thousand metalworkers prepared to engage in massive work stoppages on January 29 and February 19.
On January 30, acceding to employer calls for such action, the government suspended the strike, citing a law that says the council of ministers may halt a strike for sixty days if it is deemed “prejudicial to public health or national security.”
As important as the ability to “postpone” the strike itself, the law states that if an agreement is not reached before the end of the sixty-day period, the High Board of Arbitration can settle the dispute at the request of either party. If there is still no agreement, “the competence of the workers’ trade union shall be void.” The law’s anti-labor bias could scarcely be clearer.
MESS’s appeal for state action in support of industry owners was not without precedent. Since a military coup in 1980, the government has regularly utilized the national security decree, especially over the last fifteen years. Between May 2000 and January 2015, ten major strikes were suspended for ostensible reasons of public health or national security. Prior to putting the metalworkers’ strike on ice, last summer the government prevented 5,800 workers in Kristal-İş (Glass, Cement, Ceramic and Soil Industries Workers’ Union of Turkey) from striking at ten factories belonging to the country’s largest glass producer, Şişecam.
In effect, the strike has been banned in Turkey. The state’s intervention on the side of employers exacerbates the massive imbalance in power between capital and labor, with horrendous consequences for workers throughout the country. While at present there isn’t a left capable of resisting the state-capital alliance, fundamental workplace struggles like those of the metalworkers could serve to broaden and transform a loose culture of opposition into a unified democratic socialist movement.
The current weakness of the Turkish left is a dramatic change from the 1960s and ’70s, when workers forged a powerful and increasingly radical labor movement. The formation of an urban working class coincided with growing numbers of unionized workers, a dramatic increase in strike activity, and improved working conditions. Leftist ideas among the intelligentsia and on university campuses proliferated, though the growth of right-wing nationalist forces made the battle between right and left an increasingly violent one.
Then in the late 1970s, spurred on by the International Monetary Fund, neoliberal reforms came to Turkey. The next blow to the Left came with the 1980 coup; the constitution created by coup forces in 1982 severely curtailed worker and trade union rights, while stifling civil liberties and dissent more generally. Thereafter the repression of organized labor contributed to the creation of what historian Erik Zürcher has called a “capitalist free-for-all.”
Another post-coup strategy that neutralized the Left was the state’s promotion of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, an ideology that encourages the cultural fusion of Turkish nationalism and Islam (and ironic given the establishment’s historic support for secularism.)
With the rise of Islamic populism — the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) appropriated leftist strategy and discourse — the Turkish unions and the Left lost power. During the 1980s the number of unions plummeted from more than seven hundred to less than one hundred, with a corresponding decline in strikes. Informal and precarious work expanded dramatically.
The assault only intensified when the RP’s successor and the country’s current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power in the early 2000s; between 2001 and 2012, the country’s union density fell more than 50 percent. Though unionization rates have dropped across OECD member states in recent decades, the Turkish state’s anti-strike strategy has been draconian even by neoliberal standards, drawing condemnations from IndustriALL Global Union and the European Trade Union Confederation. According to the OECD, Turkey now has the lowest union density in the capitalist club, at just 4.5 percent.
But despite the AKP’s offensive against labor, the first large-scale challenge to its rule did not come from Turkish unions. Rather, in the summer of 2013, a small protest in Istanbul in opposition to the destruction of Gezi Park (one of the last remaining common spaces in the city center) blossomed into a nationwide opposition movement. Ultimately, an estimated 2.5 million people would participate in anti-government protests across the country. Largely absent, however, were working-class (as well as traditionally left-wing Kurdish) organizations, although labor federations belatedly supported the uprisings.
The following year, after the Soma mine explosion, worker protests and demonstrations spread across the country. Unlike Gezi, however, no mass upheaval materialized. While the Gezi movement was in a fundamental sense a protest against the neoliberal privatization of the commons, activists have thus far been unable to forge links with trade unions and the broader — and far larger — unorganized working class.
In terms of formal politics, opposition political parties have provided no alternative to neoliberalism, and have therefore been unable to seriously threaten AKP hegemony. At the moment, and despite the promising creation in 2012 of the left-wing People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the AKP appears set to maintain its political dominance in June’s parliamentary elections.
In Turkey, as elsewhere, the revival of a left capable of challenging capitalist hegemony must forge a movement culture with roots in the experiences of working people. But the extraordinarily complex political landscape in Turkey presents its own challenges in uniting a broad Turkish left.
Seizing on the metalworkers’ cause — and tying labor rights to violations of civil liberties and the social rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, and others — is vital for a Turkish left looking to rise from its slumber since 1980. Crucially, this will require, if not a total rejection of electoral politics, at least a prioritization of grassroots organization at the local level — precisely the kind of activism undertaken by the RP and AKP in recent decades. The right of working people, whether unionized or not, to act collectively to improve their material conditions should be a rallying cry for all activists.
What the immediate future holds for the workers of Birleşik Metal-İş will become clear soon enough. The union, a member of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), is a class-conscious organization; prior to the decree, union leader Adnan Serdaroğlu stated: “the struggle in this union is set to transform from a struggle for rights into a class struggle.”
As the end of the suspension period nears, the metalworkers union is no doubt weighing its limited options carefully. During their strike suspension in 2014 the glassworkers union lodged a complaint against the government with the International Labour Organization, while workers and their supporters staged demonstrations in protest of the State Council’s pro-government ruling. As a result, the union won reinstatement of 350 previously sacked members, retroactive pay increases for 2003 and 2004, and recognition of the union at most Şişecam glass factories. But the strike ban loomed over negotiations.
In the context of the decades-long assaults on workers’ living standards and working conditions, in the context of the curtailment of trade unionists’ basic rights, the metalworkers’ fight should be seen as a struggle for workers throughout Turkey. Their struggle is vital in reversing the fortunes of the country’s labor movement and in rebuilding the Turkish left.