“Work - bread - freedom!”, “There will be no peace without work and bread!”, “Inflation - repression - torture - this is the AKP!” - these are some of the slogans shouted by hundreds of Tekel workers at a protest in Ankara today, who have been in struggle for 57 days to defend their jobs and conditions. These slogans were heard at a demonstration, near the ‘tent city’, in which several thousand workers are staying, in front of the Turk-Is (Turkey’s biggest trade union confederation) headquarters in Ankara.
Late last year, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, led by Erdogan, announced that all formerly state owned tobacco and alcohol factories which remained in state hands, after Tekel was sold to BAT in 2008, would be closed at the end of January. The workers responded with strike action.
Tekel workers in Ankara
The struggle of the Tekel workers has engulfed the whole of Turkey. Not only because workers of many different regions have been affected, but also because of the solidarity shown by workers in other industries for their struggle. The struggles highest point so far was the general strike of 4 February.
Here in Ankara, there is an unbelievable mood of solidarity. The workers and their supporters have turned this part of Ankara into a ‘town of struggle’. Although opponents of the workers claimed that their action would disturb the activities of local shops and businesses, the last weeks have seen workers and local shopkeepers united in solidarity. These shops provide the workers with food. A bar close to the tent city has closed and is now only serving tea and food for workers and their supporters at cost price, as well as accommodation.
It cannot be emphasised enough that this struggle has seen Turkish and Kurdish workers fighting shoulder to shoulder. A significant number of Turkish workers who travelled to Ankara were originally supporters of the MHP and the ‘grey wolves’ (fascist group), but have now begun to break with nationalism.
Prime Minister, Erdogan, claimed that the Tekel workers’ struggle was being infiltrated by the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party, leading guerrilla war). In response, the workers, Turkish and Kurdish, at today’s demonstration shouted the names of cities in Eastern Turkey (Kurdish area) from which different TEKEL workers had come. They chanted about the ‘brotherhood of all peoples’.
Many workers were close to retirement when they found that their jobs would be lost. However, they decided to fight side by side with their younger colleagues.
After the nationwide strikes of 4 February, the question is how can the struggle be taken forward?
The trade union confederations have said that they will decide on the next steps for the struggle on 12 February, until which time they will continue to negotiate with the government.
It seems that the workers are determined to continue with their struggle until victory. Workers feel some scepticism with regard to their union leaders. Since the general strike 4 February, which did not lead immediately to success, some workers have had their confidence in victory shaken, and are becoming increasingly desperate. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that the TEKEL factories have been effectively closed since the end of January. Before, the workers’ hunger strikes have only been of 3 days duration, but now, some have begun to fast indefinitely. A worker from Samsun told us, “it’s better to die than to surrender”, a feeling which is shared by many.
All those with whom we have spoken have said that another, bigger, general strike is necessary, involving the wider working class, especially in the private sector, but also the teachers, who did not take part in the 4 Feb strike due to the Winter holidays. The workers also think that the struggle should take up broader demands, beyond those directly related to their struggle.