Solidarity visit to the striking Tekel workers in Ankara by German trade unionists

A delegation of German workers from several trade unions recently visited the Tekel workers in Turkey to express to them their support and solidarity. Here we publish a report of the event which show the tremendous impact the Turkish and Kurdish workers in struggle had on these German workers. True workers internationalism in action.

After several days of a solidarity visit to the workers who are fighting for their jobs at the privatised former state-owned Turkish tobacco monopoly Tekel, six trade unionists from Bremen (Germany) of IG Metall, ver.di and NGG returned this weekend to their Hanseatic city.

"This is genuine class struggle", stated Carsten Groenke, NGG shop steward at the Beck's brewery, deeply impressed on his return. The delegation from Bremen had given donations, messages of solidarity and their backing to the protest camps in Ankara, where 3,000 workers have endured the wet and cold weather for around two months in makeshift, barely heated tents. The response of trade unionists in Ankara was "overwhelming," said Groenke.

The delegation from Bremen also visited the hunger strikers who are housed in the local trade union building. The doctors described their condition as "critical". "No work, no bread, no peace," - this is the motto of the struggle which will stick firmly in the minds of the solidarity delegation.

Groenke was particularly impressed that "Kurdish and Turkish Tekel workers fight together for their rights", while national and religious differences and different political affiliations "do not split this unity". The efforts of businessmen and politicians to divide the workers according to the motto "divide and rule" are of no avail. "They who have recognised their own situation, how are they to be stopped?" ‑ a quote by Bertolt Brecht – was on the banner of the workers of the Daimler factory in Bremen that they took with them to Ankara.

"The commercial media has barely reported on the Tekel strike," criticises Groenke, who, according to his own statement, experienced a "boost of motivation" during his stay in Ankara. Apparently most of the media wanted to avoid this example making worldwide news, one that serves as a "model for the labour movement throughout Europe," said the trade unionist. He also noticed while he was there that a lot of the stereotypes that exist in Europe do not reflect reality. This especially applies to the "self-confident Tekel women", whose active and leading role in the struggle and in the participating unions is fully accepted by the men.

For many Tekel workers the struggle is also about the future of their children, for their education, for which they often sacrifice a significant part of their wages. They wanted to "work in dignity and with decency" and had recognised that they depend on coherence. These colleagues had already experienced tear gas and painful blows with batons by the police and are therefore without fear. This also applies to the threat by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan who wants to break up the "tent city" of the strikers in downtown Ankara with force, because their industrial action "aspires to the overthrow of the government." Many Tekel workers are former Erdogan voters, but had now gone through a good lesson, observed Carsten Groenke on site.

The solidarity delegation from Bremen gave a report about their impressions of the trip in a discussion and film evening on Thursday at the trade union house in Bremen.

Report of trip by Gerwin Goldstein, representative of IG Metall [metal workers’ union] and shop steward

On Wednesday, 2 February 2010, three fellow trade unionists from the Mercedes plant in Bremen, two from the Beck's brewery in Bremen and one from the Bremerhaven harbour flew to Ankara to visit the striking workers, who have been on strike for more than 60 days. For more than 60 days several thousand workers have been occupying part of the shopping and pedestrian area where they have set up tents. Therewith they are protesting against the Turkish government and especially against Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The government has sold the former state owned tobacco industry to a British-American Tobacco group and offered the workers apart from very small amount of severance pay no further employment in the public service. As the US-American tobacco company only wants to hire new employees, the Tekel workers will be without money and jobs at the latest within 11 months (this is until the workers stop receiving their small compensatory wage). The workers have time until 28 February to agree to this blackmail, otherwise the occupation will be forcibly evacuated by the Special Forces and there will be no severance pay at all.

On Thursday afternoon we went to the Trade Union House. This is where the strikers began their occupation with tents in the first place. After discussions with several trade union officials who told us the current state of negotiations, we put our banner up in front of the House and stood next to the striking workers. There was a solidarity rally held in this same moment. When we six then showed ourselves on the stairs with our banner (whose inscription read: "They who have recognised their own situation, how are they to be stopped?" and "Workers from Mercedes, Becks and Harbour" in German and Turkish language) we were enthusiastically received by the workers. In brief solidarity statements we explained why we were there and explained that we supported their fight for their jobs and against the Turkish government. Personally, I have rarely experienced such an emotional rally in my more than 35 years of trade union membership. I have never seen such a determined workforce that is prepared to fight until victory. After 60 days of fighting against this government, which responded to the demands of the demonstrators with police truncheons, water cannons and tear gas, I have the highest respect for these people.

After the solidarity picket we were led to the 18 workers who are on hunger strike. In the Trade Union House, in a large meeting hall, we could then ask a few brief questions to the hunger strikers. It was a strange atmosphere. These workers want to achieve with the dedication of their lives to be allowed to work again. I will not forget for a long time the look of their eyes. Their look only said one thing: We need your solidarity. Without your solidarity in Germany, actually in the whole world, we will not be able to win this fight. This I have promised the workers. All the workers in the world have to learn about how Turkish Capital and its government are treating these workers.

Shortly after our visit to the hunger strikers one of them was taken by ambulance outside of the hall. He had collapsed from exhaustion.

We then witnessed again and again in many conversations in the tents how they are all willing to carry on with this fight. Turks and Kurds, men and women - these workers are fighting together against their dismissal. Again and again we were asked about our opinion about this strike. Again and again questions were raised, such as: is our struggle well known in Germany, are there solidarity actions in Germany? Unfortunately we had to inform these workers that most of our media is silent about this struggle.

And our trade union leaders do everything possible to make sure that instead of class struggle against Capital there is co-management and negotiation with the employers. Also, we had to report that our trade union leadership - with no mandate from the workforce - led negotiations with employers about wage cuts for alleged workplace safety and that we in Germany do not have the class consciousness of the Tekel workers.

"No work, no bread, no peace", this slogan we heard again and again. In numerous discussions with the strikers I have observed: These workers “have recognised their own situation”, namely, that they can only rely on their own strength and not on officials, who only pursue their own interests.

Late in the evening approximately 2,500 demonstrators marched with torches through the huge pedestrian zone. Heavily armed police officers lined our way to the rally. We were accorded the huge honour of marching with our banner at the very front of the demonstration and we were repeatedly applauded by workers. Everyone wanted to touch the banner. Time and again slogans were shouted. Not a funeral, like most demonstrations of our union, but a representation of determination and fighting courage.

After the rally we talked through the night and at around half past two we fell asleep in the union building on mattresses, exhausted, but with the knowledge that we have contributed with our solidarity a small part to the international solidarity amongst workers.

What do I personally take with me from Ankara for my trade union work? Very simple. Not with co-management between the trade unions and Capital, but only with class struggle against capitalism and the government, can the working class change their situation. And here in Germany this is not much different than what we saw in Turkey and Ankara. Unemployment, poverty, Hartz IV [1€ jobs; extremely low unemployment benefit] and on the other side wealth at the expense of working people. I recognised my own situation and I will fight it.

Gerwin Goldstein, representative of IG Metall [metal workers union] and shop steward, one of the fellow travellers of Mercedes Bremen

The original article in German can be found here.