We received this article from a reader of marxist.com about the ongoing struggle of the Tekel workers in Turkey. Tekel is a tobacco and alcohol producing company which has announced the closure of plants affecting 12,000 workers. This is a very militant struggle and desreves the attention and support of workers around the world.
“Dear Editor of marxist.com,
“Here is the article that I have written about the situation of Tekel workers' resistance in Turkey. Today (January 15) the families of 12,000 workers have travelled to the capital, Ankara to join the resistance. The plan is this: 12,000 workers with their families will start a 3-day sit-in action; after that they will go on a 3-day long hunger strike. If they still can not get an answer from the government to their demands (the alcohol and tobacco factories they are working were sold to BAT and 12 factories will be closed down at the end of the month, they want to maintain their rights with respect to salary and other benefits) they will go on a death fast. I want the IMT to show its solidarity with the Tekel workers in Turkey.”
Workers, their family members and supporters have been demonstrating in near-freezing temperatures in protest against a snap government decision to close their workplaces at the end of January 2010.
The protest began in front of the headquarters of the AKP (the political party in power in Turkey since 2002 and which has Islamic roots ), but the police cleared the area on 16 December and forced the demonstrators to a nearby park. The following day, police put up barricades around the park and then used water hoses and tear gas against the demonstrators. Police violence escalated and truncheons were used against the demonstrators, many of whom had to be hospitalised. Mustafa Türkel, president of IUF-affiliate Tekgida-Is, which represents these workers, and general secretary of the national confederation Türk-Is, was arrested, but then released later that evening.
The police violence caused an outcry in the Turkish Parliament, but the ruling party continues to refuse to accede to the workers' demand that they be given alternative employment with their full employement benefits, as the law on privatisation provides.
The protesters are now gathered in front of the headquarters of the Türk-Is national trade union confederation, while about a dozen workers remain in the the park on hunger strike (picture below). Despite police attempts to prevent further busloads of TEKEL workers from entering the city, their numbers are steadily increasing. The city of Ankara has provided them with shelter in sports facilities and Tekgida-Is is providing food and transport.
The TEKEL workers in Turkey have decided to start a hunger strike without water (a death fast) next Thursday. A death fast kills people much more quickly than a hunger strike, in a matter of days.
To be honest I don't really know how to react to this. There is nothing in my political experience that could prepare me for 12,000 workers starving themselves to death in the city centre.
First of all, I think it would be in order to summarize the dispute. TEKEL used to be the state monopoly company of all tobacco and alcohol producing factories in Turkey. The government has been shutting down these factories for some time and lately decided to go on with shutting all of the remaining factories. The remaining workers of TEKEL, numbering roughly 12 thousand, were offered the possibility of remaining in the public sector, but only with a job guarantee of 10 months (the government mockingly increased this number to 11 months recently) and a massive pay cut from what the workers used to get. This offer is called 4-C and workers from other sectors have been and are to be treated likewise. On the 14th of December 2009, about half of the remaining workers from all TEKEL factories all over Turkey, gathered in Ankara, and started protesting the government. Before this, on the 25th of November, the leftist trade-unions had organized a one day general strike and this action of the TEKEL workers coincided with the demonstrations of the firemen in Istanbul who were to lose their jobs soon, and the one day strike of railway workers in several different cities, in protest of over a dozen railway workers getting fired because they went on strike on the 25th of November.
The response of the state against all these struggles which happened basically at the same time was incredibly brutal. The riot police attacked the workers with tear gas, water cannons, beat up the workers and made arrests. The railway workers’ strike was heavily crushed, the number of workers who lost their jobs increased to nearly fifty and under the conditions of repression as well as the reactions of the passengers, provoked against the strikers by the management and possibly also the police, prevented the railway workers from doing anything further. The firemen also seemed crushed, and did not have any further demonstrations for a while.
The TEKEL workers on the other hand, were further radicalized rather than crushed by the brutal actions of the police. Initially (I think on the first day) they had tried to organize their demonstrations in front of the ruling Justice and Development Party national headquarters where they were attacked, and then (I think on the second day) they had tried to demonstrate in a large park where struggling workers traditionally demonstrate in the center of Ankara where they also were attacked brutally, the police going so far as pushing workers into the pond in the park, which was something pretty dangerous for the health of the workers due to the ice cold winter in Ankara.
Following this incident, workers managed to spontaneously regroup in front of the headquarters of Türk-İş, Confederation of Turkish trade-unions, the oldest and largest trade-union confederation in Turkey which has, as other posters noted, quite an infamous history. The workers were to remain outside the Türk-İş headquarters since then, demonstrating everyday. The Union of Tobacco, Alcoholic Beverage, Food and Related Industry Workers (TekGıda-İş) President Mustafa Türkel said on Thursday that Tekel workers would have a sit-in in front of the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş) headquarters and hold a hunger strike unless a solution is reached with the government.
As the first wave of demonstrations by workers who were laid off in the privatization of Tekel, Turkey’s alcohol and tobacco monopoly, is ending today without any prospect of resolution, a second wave is set to start on Friday, during which protestors have plans to hold a hunger strike, the Anka news agency has said.
After a countrywide referendum conducted last week among workers resulted in a decision to continue the protest, then on its 24th day, the Tobacco Beverage Food Workers’ Union (TEKGIDA-İŞ) called on workers employed in Tekel workplaces across the country to join the strike in Ankara starting on Friday. According to the plan, the workers will have a sit-in for the first three days. If a solution is not reached, workers will continue their protest by holding a hunger strike for three days and will eventually forego all food and water. The second wave of demonstrations is expected to be joined by more workers and will be tougher compared to the first wave, which started on December 15 and lasted for a month.
I think it would be a good idea here to give some information on the nature of the TEKEL struggle. Was the TEKEL struggle organized by the trade-union? This question came up here, and was the first question we ourselves inquired. TEKEL is completely unionized.
What happened in the TEKEL struggle was this: the shop stewards from all branches had a meeting and decided to form a strike committee, since they thought it was obvious that the trade-union or the confederation wasn’t likely to do anything. Over thirty shop stewards talked about what to do, and how to react against the union and so forth. When the time to act, to stand up to the union came, however, the overwhelming majority of the shop stewards made a u-turn and took the side of the union against those shop stewards who gave us an account of what had happened. This failed experience, of course, did not make the shop stewards who made the u-turn less of workers, nor did it mark a fundamental, a final choosing of sides, but one could say it was one of the numerous incidents leading to a complete break with the union, or a complete alignment with the union on the part of the shop stewards in a struggle. I would predict that something as such would take place within a struggle on the part of shop stewards when the trade-union starts actively calling for workers to go back.
The atmosphere in front of the Türk-İş headquarters is worth mentioning briefly, to give a feel of how the TEKEL struggle is developing and the conditions under which we intervened. The building itself, now decorated with loads of posters, slogans and banners, some of them prepared by the workers themselves, looks a bit like the way the GSEE [in Greece] building looked like after being occupied by the workers in December 2008. There were initially some Turkish flags, but there aren’t anymore. Probably as many Kurdish workers as Turkish workers are involved in the struggle, and one of the slogans the workers had been shouting was “Kurdish and Turkish workers together!” The workers have no mass assembly, but the little street in front of the Türk-İş headquarters is something of an informal but constant mass assembly where workers from different factories all over Turkey, as well as proletarians who came to support the TEKEL workers, and of course revolutionaries are constantly discussing with each other, evaluating the situation, trying to figure out the way to go forward with the struggle. The most frequent topic of discussion is the idea of a general strike.
Anyway, as I said, initially the workers were having problems finding places to stay, and lots of proletarians, mostly students from a working class background, had started to do their best to host TEKEL workers. This was what we did as well, and by chance we had the honor of hosting workers who are among the most militant and class conscious workers involved in the TEKEL struggle. Also we visited the workers on numerous occasions, talked to them, discussed with them, went to cafes and pubs with them to discuss further and so forth, and we formed good relations with lots of militant workers who we did not have the chance to host as well.
As communists, but also as revolutionary proletarians, we see all workers struggles as the struggles of the whole class and thus, our struggles also. This perspective we had also helped us form mutual bonds of solidarity and camaraderie with militant workers on a human level. TEKEL workers are very much aware that they are doomed if the rest of the class doesn’t come in their support and they are very happy that at least some people are in solidarity with them, but are also thinking of the best ways to break out of isolation. They are looking for class solidarity, not only in Turkey but internationally. The first TEKEL worker I had a conversation with, for example proudly told me that he saw on the news that there was going to be a strike in Switzerland in support of the TEKEL struggle. Thus a lot of what we discussed with the workers was on the basis of how we can expand the struggle and how we can take the struggle in our hands. Some of the ideas we came up with was organizing a solidarity fund which will be directly under the control of the workers and not of the union, and workers going to others struggling. Another idea we discussed with the workers was that of workers trying to expand the struggle themselves and directly, rather than trying to force Türk-İş to do it, and taking steps like forming links with the firemen and railway workers as well as other sectors which will soon face the same 4-C conditions, like the sugar industry. Indeed some links have been formed between the TEKEL workers and the firemen who, drawing strength from the determination of the TEKEL workers, started demonstrating again. Nevertheless, there hasn’t been much action taken on this yet, and the discussions are ongoing. We produced a leaflet and actually found the chance to discuss it with some of the most militant workers before printing it. The leaflet which we hope to translate eventually, was pretty well taken and some workers talked about it among themselves and decided to ask for a few dozen leaflets after we had stopped distributing them, in order to send it to the city of Adıyaman with a worker who was going there, for it to be distributed there among the workers. Regardless of all this, which has been very exciting for us, obviously the influence of our intervention in the struggle, considering our limited numerical strength, is minimal.
The TEKEL struggle is still going on, and it is not the time to draw all the lessons of it. Yet we would be making a fatal mistake if we opposed theory to the lessons developed from and the analyses made in practice, and by doing this we would be missing the fact that communist theory is nothing but a body of analyses made on, and lessons and formulations drawn from, the living practice of working class struggles.
[Some of the information in this article has been sourced from the IUF trade union federation.]