The awakening of the Turkish working class

The workers of Turkey are beginning to make the ruling class tremble. A strike wave is rapidly spreading across the country. Beginning among some of the most precariously employed workers, it has spread from factory to factory. From 6 January to 14 February, there have been 65 strikes across Turkey, with new strikes erupting every day. As the strike wave has progressed, it has threatened to draw in the heavy battalions of the working class, and has already brought in workers from Erdoğan’s own heartland.

A severe economic crisis is gripping the whole country, and the ruling class is attempting to make the workers pay for it. They have been left with no choice but to fight back.

And in the course of this fight, the consciousness of wide layers of the working class is transforming rapidly. Workers are beginning to feel their power. They are beginning to comprehend how vital they are to the production process. Strikes and work stoppages are taking place spontaneously as they begin pressing their demands, but workers are quickly going beyond sporadic strike action. Here and there, factory occupations have taken place, whilst workers engaged in local struggles have increasingly begun linking up.

This new, militant wave is beginning to draw a new layer of class fighters into the unions. And they are prepared to go much further than the old activists. Inevitably, these new militants are coming into conflict with the old leadership, giving an indication of what is being prepared beneath the surface of Turkish society.

This turn of workers to industrial militancy is a complete rupture with the past.

Massive courier strike wave

On 24 January, about 200 workers at Trendyol Express, the courier service of Trendyol, the largest e-commerce company in Turkey employing 12,000 couriers, sparked a country-wide strike after they walked off the job at the Maslak, Istanbul branch. Their walkout was in protest at an 11 percent wage increase, which is less than one third of the (then) official rate of inflation. By the next day, every Trendyol branch across the country was on strike.

The Trendyol workers’ victory served as a lighting rod in this hyper-exploited sector. A strike wave and a widespread union drive are rippling across the sector. On 27 January, couriers with Hepsijet walked off the job, followed by couriers with Scotty, Sürat Kargo and Aras Kargo, all demanding wages in line with inflation. Workers followed suit on 1 February Yemeksepeti, the largest food delivery service in the country with 8,000 couriers, and Yurtiçi Kargo. Nakliyat-İş (DİSK) is now leading the Yemeksepeti strike, where a union drive has been underway since October.

One of the Trendyol couriers said in a social media video: “Trendyol is a 10-year-old company. Have you seen a company grow this quickly in 10 years? It’s all because of us. If we exist, Trendyol exists”. In a very short period of struggle, workers have learned that it is they who create all the wealth in society, and that they also have the power to strike at the profits of the bosses.

There are about 900,000 couriers in Turkey, most of whom are employed as so-called ‘artisan-couriers’. That is to say, they are responsible for all operating costs and, being officially ‘self-employed’, they are not covered by labour laws. After expenses are covered, they are left with a wage that is on average half that of the current hunger limit. Workers in the sector are routinely forced to work in extremely poor conditions. Four couriers were killed on the job in a single day on 24 January when bosses refused to stop work amidst heavy snowfall. Meanwhile, the industry grew by 75.6 percent in the first half of 2021 alone, bringing in 161 billion Turkish Liras (TL) in just six months.

While the Trendyol workers won a 38.6 percent wage increase, the struggles of the other couriers is ongoing. Striking Yemeksepti workers have called for a boycott as the bosses are refusing to sit down for negotiations. The response has been incredible. Orders to Yemeksepeti have dropped by 70 percent, making this the largest worker-led boycott in Turkish history.

Such levels of nationwide sympathy and class solidarity are astonishing. In the past, precariously employed couriers, with next to no legal rights, were regarded as completely unorganisable. Now, these very same layers are an example of militancy and a cause célèbre of the entire working class.

The strike wave spreads

The courier strike has ignited a strike wave across factories, warehouses, ports and media companies. The growing strike wave has now spread to truck drivers, energy workers, construction workers, ship workers and municipality workers.

On 1 February, 2,000 workers at Alpin Çorap, a textile factory in Beylikdüzü, Istanbul stopped production against the imposition of poverty wages. By the following day, strikes were erupting throughout Istanbul, reaching as far as the neighbouring industrial cities of Gebze and Çorlu. From there the strike wave spread: from Çiğli, İzmir on the west coast, to Hopa, Artvin in the Black Sea region, through to Eskişehir and Afyon, touching the eastern province of Erzincan.

Once the strike wave reached the southeastern province of Gaziantep, a stronghold of the AKP, it spread like wildfire. On 2 February, workers at Zafer Tekstil, a textile factory in the Başpınar Industrial Park, walked off the job over low wages. Workers in 24 other factories have followed, with the participation of more than 10,000 workers. The predominantly unorganised workforce of the province is now being swept by a union drive by the Weaving and Leather Workers’ Union (BİRTEK-SEN), an independent union which was only formed one week ago.

While some of the strikes have now concluded, others are ongoing. Workers at Has Çuval factory won a 1,630 TL wage rise after bosses initially offered 1,000 TL.

Elsewhere, the workers have faced a brutal response from the bosses. All 150 workers at Ahmet Alansoy factory were fired on 15 February for participating in the 9 February strike. At Elyaf İplik factory where workers went on strike on 9 February, bosses have fired four of the leading workers. At Güler Çuval factory, ten workers have been fired.

At Melike Tekstil factory, workers went on strike on 3 February against a 5,200 TL pay offer, demanding 6,000 TL instead. The bosses agreed but asked for one week. Once workers returned to work to find they had been deceived and would be given just 5,600 TL. The results of strikes at Gürteks factory and at Bade Halı factory have been similar.

Workers are learning many lessons from their victories, as well as from their defeats. These lessons are feeding into the process of rising class consciousness. A worker at Gürteks spoke with the Evrensel Daily: “We weren’t organised, we are atomised. We need to strengthen our unity”. While a worker at Bade Halı gave a glimpse of the future: “We will prepare stronger. Our struggle is not over.”

Workplace occupations

In a number of factories and other workplaces, provoked by the repressive strike-breaking methods of the bosses, the workers have gone beyond strike action, taking more militant measures. In a number of such workplaces, we’ve seen workers occupy their factories, directly challenging the bosses’ rule at the factory level.

The spontaneous strike wave has also inspired a stoppage by workers at Migros – one of the largest supermarket chains in Turkey, where workers have been fighting for a living wage, the right to trade union representation, and for an end to the dismissals that took place throughout the pandemic. More than 400 workers at the Esenyurt, Istanbul warehouse stopped work demanding a wage increase on 3 February. When bosses refused to meet with the workers, they occupied the building.

The workers have come to very advanced conclusions over the course of their struggle. The strike leader at Migros spoke with Redfish, explaining:

“They have built this system for themselves, not for the working class. And they are trying to keep this system going. They are doing everything to silence us. They have brought six water cannons and around 10 police vehicles outside. They are blocking the 350 workers outside from joining us. We will wait here until the last drop of our blood! We will resist until the end. They don’t want us to be united. Unity is a bad thing for them. Money means everything for them.”

Police entered the building and brutally brought the occupation to an end, arresting over 150 workers, including 3 union officials. The bosses have fired 257 workers. Currently, the workers are protesting at the Migros headquarters under the banner of DGD-SEN, an independent union, which has begun a union drive at the workplace.

On 19 January, 600 workers at Farplas factory, a plastic automobile parts factory in Gebze, stopped production, demanding higher wages. Farplas comprises four factories in the TOSB industrial park and reportedly owned by 22 different subcontract companies. The walkout, which started with the night shift at the T2 factory spread to the morning shifts at the T1 and T3 factories. The bosses, fearing that the walkout would spread to other factories, manoeuvred, asking for one week to meet the workers’ demand for a wage increase.

The workers accepted the delay but began unionising with Birleşik Metal-İş (DİSK), to which the bosses responded by firing more than 150 workers in an effort to break the union drive. The workers occupied the factory demanding the dismissed workers be reinstated.

The bosses then called in the police, who entered the factory, firing rubber bullets and pepper spray at the workers, before beating them with batons and dragging them into a police bus, which had been driven into the factory. More than 200 workers were taken into custody. The workers are continuing their protests at the Industrial Park for the reinstatement of the fired workers and their right to trade union representation.

Metalworkers

Most concerning of all for the Turkish ruling class, the present strike wave has threatened to draw the heavy battalions of the working class into the struggle: the metalworkers.

On 14 January, 835 workers at Çimsataş factory, in the southern city of Mersin, went on a wildcat strike after workers refused to accept a new collective agreement contract involving 140,000 metalworkers, which had been signed collectively by Birleşik Metal-İş (DİSK), Türk Metal (Türk-İş), Özçelik-İş (Hak-İş) and the Turkish Employers’ Association of Metal Industries (MESS).

The metal workers had rejected the initial 6 percent wage increase, and instead demanded 50 percent. The leadership however signed an agreement for 27 percent increase for the first 6 months and 30 percent for the second 6 months. While the trade union leaders initially took a militant stance, their aim was clearly to defuse the metalworkers’ movement. The fact that this strike wave threatens to spread to the metalworkers, which represent an extremely powerful, and the best-organised section of the Turking working class, is a cause for enormous alarm among the ruling class.

The bosses are depending on the trade union leaders to hold back the struggle of these layers. In the next period, the trade union leaders will either be forced to support the struggles of the workers or be pushed out. In January, before the deal was signed, ten metal factories had voted for strike action. This discontent will reemerge on a higher level.

Struggles linking up

As the strike wave has progressed, the Turkish working class has come to see the need for uniting, and linking up these stormy, spontaneous movements.

This is clear in the healthcare sector, for instance. Workers in the Turkish national health system have been staging ongoing strikes and protests throughout the pandemic for better conditions, protections, benefits and wage increases in line with inflation. The workers have learned the limitations of their individual struggle and are now uniting their struggles under a common programme of demands.

The Turkish Medical Association (TTB), a trade union for physicians, and Health and Social Service Workers’ Union (SES) have led multiple separate strikes, protests and marches to the capital to press their demands have now joined forces. They have also brought other health care workers under their banner.

Healthcare workers represented by the TTB, SES, Turkish Dental Association (TDB), Revolutionary Health Workers Union (Dev Sağlık-İş), All Radiology Technicians and Technicians Association (TÜMRAD-DER), and The Service Professionals Association (SHUDER), led a one-day, country-wide strike on 8 February. The strike, which excluded emergency and intensive care workers, brought the national health system to a standstill.

We are also seeing the linking up of the struggles of municipal employees across Turkey, partly in reaction to the efforts of class-collaborationist union leaders, who have tried to keep each struggle restricted to the local level.

In early 2021, a strike wave in the municipalities had been stopped in its tracks when union leaders collaborated with the municipalities to demobilise the movement.

While 2,300 workers at the Kadikoy, Istanbul Municipality were on strike, the leadership of Genel-İş (DİSK) signed the collective agreement contract (TİS) with the municipality. The same thing happened when 1,500 workers at Maltepe Municipality went on strike. When workers at Atasehir municipality in Istanbul voted for strike action after negotiations broke down, the leadership of Genel-İş signed the TİS one day before the strike was to begin. At the Kartal Municipality the TİS was signed hours before the strike was to take place. The union leaderships have collaborated with other municipalities too to prevent strikes. In the process, they have exposed themselves and the workers are now looking to move past these leaders.

The 450,000 municipal workers in Turkey – a majority of which are subcontract workers – have come back with a united campaign under the heading ‘Additional Agreement’ (Ek Protokol) demanding wages be raised in line with inflation.

Some sectors are experiencing the first union drives in their history, as workers join up to the unions, looking for a way out of the crisis.

Service workers in the hospitality sector, who were left without any income during the pandemic, have launched a campaign under the banner ‘Team Contract’ (‘Takım Sözleşmesi’), against precarious and unregistered work. A union drive has begun through the independent Hotel and Tourism Workers’ Union.

In the construction sector – another sector that is heavily subcontracted – the two construction unions, İnşaat-İş, an independent union, and Dev Yapı-İş (DİSK), started an organising drive on 1 February under the banner “Enough is enough, we want our usurped rights” (“Artık Yeter, Gasp Edilen Haklarımızı İstiyoruz").

The way is being paved for the development of an independent, organised working-class movement in Turkey.

“We are hungry! We cannot get by!”

The unbearable, crushing weight of the economic crisis has accelerated the drive towards the unions. Skyrocketing inflation, in particular, is playing havoc with millions of people’s lives.

Turks rang in the new year with a new round of price hikes on essential services and goods. The new hikes, announced just before midnight on new year’s eve as Turks were seeing out the old year, went into effect on new year’s day.

The price of natural gas was hiked by 25-50 percent, while electricity was hiked by 50-125 percent. Since 2018, electricity prices have increased by 370 percent and natural gas prices by 147 percent, while the price of fuel has more than doubled in the last year.

The energy price hikes have in turn led to another round of price increases to all forms of transportation. We have explained elsewhere how this crisis is tormenting the masses. Things continue to worsen by the week. It has arrived at the stage where shopkeepers in some places no longer bother putting price tags on items because they have to change them so often, while supermarket clerks say they can’t keep up with the price changes.

An increasing cross-section of the population are now relying on government-subsidised bread. There are more than 1,500 bread kiosks in Istanbul alone. The masses are crying out: “We are hungry!”

The word “Geçinemiyoruz”, which means, “we can’t get by,” in Turkish has become a slogan for the labour movement, a hashtag on social media, and can be seen plastered around Turkey’s streets.

Turkey is facing the highest levels of inflation it has seen in nearly two decades. The currency lost 45 percent of its value in 2021 alone. The state agency, Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), has reported that inflation is now at 48.7 percent, yet that staggering number is being refuted by the Inflation Research Group (ENAG), an independent body, which calculated real inflation to be in triple digits at 114.87 percent. This is approaching hyperinflation.

In order to curb rising social unrest, the Erdoğan regime increased the minimum wage by 50 percent to 4,250 TL in December, which went into effect simultaneously with the price hikes. While the previous minimum wage of 2,825 TL was worth $384 in January 2021, the increased minimum wage is now worth $275.

The most recent hunger and poverty limits by the United Public-Business Confederation (Kamu-İş) state the hunger limit has now reached 4,924 TL and the poverty limit has reached 15,013 TL. The minimum wage, which was slightly above the hunger limit when it was announced in December, fell below the hunger limit before it even went into effect.

A worker in Kayseri, the heartland of the AKP’s traditional base, spoke with the Evrensel Daily about the minimum wage:

“If the price at the market does not fall, who cares if you make the minimum wage, 5,000 liras or 10,000 liras. What difference does it make? Two days ago I bought rice for 8 liras, today it is 12 liras. I do not have 1 lira in my pocket, today is the 23rd of the month, I do not get paid for another 15 days. What am I going to do? But go and take a look at the pockets of the Members of Parliament, they are loaded with dollars”.

Erdoğan is getting desperate

This crisis has driven support for Erdoğan to all-time lows. When Erdoğan came to power he presented himself as a ‘man of the people’, in opposition to the corruption-plagued Kemalist establishment. At the time, the AKP was a party with the support of millions of activists. The economic boom that the regime oversaw led to a general rise in living standards, especially for the Anatolian masses who had been marginalised by the Kemalist establishment.

But while the bourgeois press was hailing Erdoğan’s ‘economic miracle’, there was deep inequality in terms of who benefited from this growth. The richest 10 percent in Turkey owns 54.5 percent of the country's total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent owns 12 percent.

Erdogan Image kremlin.ruOnce the system entered into crisis, all the contradictions burst to the surface and Erdoğan’s ‘economic miracle’ turned into an economic nightmare / Image: kremlin.ru

Once the system entered into crisis, all the contradictions burst to the surface and Erdoğan’s ‘economic miracle’ turned into an economic nightmare.

During a televised speech in November, Erdoğan addressed criticism of his mishandling of the economic crisis saying: “They say the people are hungry. We wrote the book on the economy!”

When the AKP, the party of the junior wing of the Turkish bourgeoisie, the Anatolian bourgeoisie, came to power, they carried out reforms that oriented the Turkish economy away from the domestic market and towards the international market, opening it up to foreign capital and trade.

The AKP was lucky that its rise to power coincided with the world economic boom of the early 2000s, which led to an unprecedented boom in Turkey. But the boom was based on Turkey being a source of cheap labour at the edge of Europe for the advanced nations to exploit.

While the AKP embraced the free market, they were methodically atomising the working class and weakening the labour movement. In 2003, two months after Erdoğan took office as prime minister, he passed the ‘New Labour Law’, expanding the subcontracting system, undermining unionisation and promoting privatisation. Since coming to power, Erdogan’s regime has used the state of emergency law on 17 occasions to stop strikes involving 194,000 workers. The law goes back to the repressive measures carried out after the 1980 military coup.

But despite all the repressive and atomising means that the Erdogan regime imposed upon it, measures which cynics might have imagined had rendered struggle impossible, the Turkish working class is beginning to rise to its feet. Workers in heavily subcontracted sectors are now turning to the unions and the formation of united campaigns. The pressure of the workers is becoming so immense that the trade unions, including regime-linked unions, are struggling to contain the rank-and-file in the way they once did.

The bosses and the government may be able to temporarily quell the workers’ movement with manoeuvres and repression. But even where the workers are temporarily defeated, they are learning powerful lessons: about their power, about the need for class unity, the role of the state, etc. Successive waves of strikes are preparing the ground for an almighty explosion that will rock Turkish capitalism to its foundations.

In December Erdoğan announced a “new economic model” in which his regime will adopt the “Chinese model” of the economy to “lure foreign investors” because “Turkey has more advantages compared with China, we are closer to the market”.

Erdoğan’s fantastic plan to turn Turkey into a paradise for capitalists to exploit, so he can continue to live in opulent wealth at the expense of the toiling masses fails to take one factor into account: the Turkish working class. The working class in Turkey has grown by the millions under his rule alone, and since 1980 it has suffered no defeats. Now it is beginning to move.

A crisis deepening by the day

The crisis of Turkish capitalism is deepening by the day. Even where the workers win wage increases, they quickly melt away, sometimes before they have even come into effect. Every single one of these struggles is rooted in the crisis of capitalism. The solution lies in uprooting this system, which condemns millions of people to poverty and misery for the sake of profits for the property-owning class.

There is a significant change in consciousness taking place among wide layers of the masses. More and more workers understand that unity is needed to win their struggles. A significant layer of the working class is beginning to feel its strength. This is further feeding into a process of radicalisation and a growing revolutionary consciousness among the most advanced layers.

In order to defeat the bosses, these struggles need to break out of their isolation and come under a united banner with a common programme.

The labour movement must start from the objective needs of the workers themselves, and connect these struggles to the struggle for socialism. A programme of transitional demands is necessary: for the nationalisation of the energy companies, the major monopolies, and the banks under workers’ control.

The bosses and their representatives are sharpening their weapons for the developing wave of class struggle. But their weapons are no match for the weapons the working class possesses: their ability to withhold their labour, their numbers, and their growing unity. What is needed now is a revolutionary Marxist programme to guide the movement to action.

There is no power that is stronger than the power of the organised working class. The Turkish working class is the largest and most powerful working class in the Middle East. Once it is armed with a clear Marxist programme it can bring down the Erdoğan regime with ease, and with it the entire capitalist system that condemns the masses to misery.

In the words of the striking Yemeksepeti workers: “If the workers are united, the world will shake!”