We publish below an article from sozialismus.info (the website of the SAV, CWI in Germany) published on 28 January. Today, 1 February, new proposals from the Turkish government to “resolve” the dispute are expected to be announced. Initially, Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, (AKP) made sharp comments, saying that the government would not “dole out money to workers for not producing anything”. After the threat from the country’s biggest trade union federation, Turk-Is, to organise a general strike next Wednesday, Erdogan changed his approach and ordered the financial and the labour minister to find a solution to the dispute by today.
12,000 workers are threatened with lower-paid, temporary jobs as a result of the ruling AKP’s programmes to privatise state-owned companies. Tekel, formerly the state’s tobacco monopoly, was sold to the US company, BAT (British American Tobacco).
Determined struggle of the TEKEL workers
The TEKEL workers are continuing their struggle and their demand for a general strike to be called has forced the trade union leadership to act. After a meeting of six trade union federations, the call for a general strike on 3 February was made, which will be held if there is no satisfying result from the arranged meeting with Prime Minister, Erdogan, on 28 January.
For more than 43 days, the workers of the Turkish tobacco and alcohol sector have been fighting against the consequences of privatisation. Their battle has taken on an historic meaning for the Turkish workers’ movement. With its determination, not only against the conservative government, but also their own trade union leaders, they give an example for the working class internationally.
The government wanted to close all forty collection points for tobacco leaves and raw tobacco which remain in public ownership by the end of January and want to transfer the workers into other industries. Through this, workers are threatened with so-called “4/C” status - massive wage cutbacks, the loss of bargaining and social rights and unsecured, fixed-term employment contracts for 12,000 workers. Workers were asked to “choose” between these conditions and unemployment. But they selected a third option: to fight until their demands are met!
Such determination has not been seen in the Turkish workers’ movement for twenty years or more. On 15 December, workers came from more than one hundred provinces throughout Turkey to Ankara and met in front of the party headquarters of the ruling AKP. They had the expectation that the party, which many of them had voted for years, would listen to them. It didn’t take long for them to realise that to regard the AKP as a party for workers and ordinary people as they have tried to portray themselves for years, would be an illusion. The workers were received with police batons, tear gas and water cannons. Prime Minister, Erdogan, showed his true face when he reproached them, saying that they lazy, not working etc. This strengthened the preparedness of the workers to struggle rather than weakening it. They have announced that they will remain in Ankara and fight on.
General strike and the role of the trade union leadership
The workers demand a general strike. The bureaucratic leadership of the trade union federation, TURK IS, and the conservative union, TEK GIDA IS, in which the TEKEL workers are organised, try to negotiate with the government and to prevent further radicalisation of the strike. The conciliatory methods of the trade union bureaucracy and the lack of consistent support from them makes the workers yet more suspicious of their leadership. The workers have made it clear on every occasion that they will not accept cowardly compromises.
The fury of the strikers against the union bureaucracy reached its peak on the 17 January, at a demonstration in Ankara of almost 100,000. The chairperson of the TURK IS, Mustafa Kumlu, spoke neither of the strike nor of a general strike in his speech, provoking a group of TEKEL workers to occupy the stage and demand a statement of Kumlu calling for a general strike. At the same time, the mass of the demonstrators began to shout, "general strike!". Only half an hour later, after the HARB-IS chairperson promised a general strike, they concluded the action. After enormous pressure from below, six trade union federations – TURK-IS, HAK-IS, DISK, MEMUR-SEN, KAMU-SEN, KESK – concluded a meeting on 26 January. At this meeting it was decided to announce a one-day general strike on 3 of February if, in the planned meeting with Erdogan, no progress is obtained.
The Kurdish and Turkish TEKEL workers, who for days, in spite of cold weather, snow and rain stayed on the streets and in the park in Ankara in their tents, have received great respect and sympathy from ordinary people throughout Turkey. Other workers, like fire fighters in Istanbul or railroad workers have shown solidarity, both through solidarity declarations and taking concrete steps, warning strike action in support of them. School students, students, teachers and social organisations have also expressed their solidarity. In the beginning, opposition parties like the nationalistic party, MHP, and the Kemal’ist party, CHP, tried to use the struggle against the AKP. But, as the struggle has radicalised day by day, they disappeared.
The importance of the TEKEL struggle
The TEKEL workers have not yet won, but they have already changed a lot. The capitalists in Turkey are again afraid of the working class. The expected battles in the coming months against privatisations, redundancies, poverty and social misery will certainly become more determined and will be more radical than before. It will be no longer only a struggle against the consequences of privatisations (which are planned for other public services in the next months and years) but a battle against privatisation itself.
This strike has exposed the true face of the government in front of the whole country and the AKP will lose support amongst the population.
They showed how to fight in spite of the role of the trade union bureaucracy, and how to put pressure on these ‘leaders’.
The discussions of the last forty days have also brought a lot of clarity to the consciousness of the workers. The workers, who have had to listen to nationalist, anti-Kurdish and anti-socialist slogans for years from the government and the state, had an entirely conflicting experience, when they fought shoulder to shoulder with their Kurdish colleagues and got enormous support from socialist activists.
That is also the best proof that struggle can accelerate the development of the political and class consciousness of the working class.
This battle also showed that the so-called "Kurdish" or "democratic evolution" that the government propagates as a solution of the Kurdish national question in the last months, will not be successful if imposed from above. A solution to this question has to be established from below, by the Turkish and Kurdish workers and farmers themselves.