The Soma mining disaster shocked Turkey; the official number of death toll is 301. Some trade unions, NGOs and political parties are claiming that it could be much higher. It is the worst mining disaster in Turkish history, the worst in the world in 40 years, and the 19th worst in world history.
Soma is a town and district of Manisa province of Turkey and thousands of residents work in the coal mines. The Soma mining incident started on 12 May 2014 at 3:10pm. Government officials and ministers announced that at the time of disaster, 787 miners were working in the mine, but even the manager and the owner of the coal mine are unsure about how many miners were trapped inside, because of the widespread and notorious use of uninsured subcontracted workers.
They also don’t know what exactly caused this disaster. The last government inspection was done only two months ago, and inspectors say they didn’t find any safety problems inside the mine. Some mining engineers claim that this coal mine is one of the best coal mines in Turkey in terms of technology and safety regulations.
In 2013, Turkey was the worst country in Europe and the third worst country in the world when it comes to deaths in work-related accidents. 1,235 workers died last year because of work accidents. Turkey is among three countries in the world which hasn’t signed the ILO’s (International Labour Organisation) safety regulations about the mining sector - the other countries being Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of this, under Turkey’s laws, there isn’t any obligation to build safety rooms inside the mines.
Prime Minister Erdogan visited the Soma mine on 15 May, and made a public statement about the disaster. He said that mining working has a destiny or nature of possibility of death, adding that similar mining disasters occurred in history eg 1862 in England, 1907 in France, etc.
This statement from Erdogan, the problems in rescue operation, and the lack of clear official information, created an explosion of anger in Soma.
Relatives of dead and rescued miners started to protest against Erdogan and other government officials in the city, they started kicking the cars of government officials, shouting: “Erdogan has to resign”, “Erdogan the thief”, “Erdogan the murderer” and hooting at Erdogan when he was passing inside the city.
Erdogan went out from his car and tried and talk with protesters with his special security, and said: “If you hoot at me you will be slapped”. His advisor kicked a relative of a dead miner, who was protesting, on the ground. This situation enraged protesters even more, and Erdogan had to take refuge in a market on the road with his special security men. He then punched a protester twice in this market.
This offensive and utterly contemptuous behaviour of state officials created huge anger throughout Turkey.
Workers and youth move into action
Because of pressure from their members, three out of six trade union confederations called a one-day general strike on Thursday 14 May and for demonstrations in city centres. But due to the bureaucratic structures of most trade unions and the low percentage of unionisation rates in Turkey, this general strike was not very effective. However, workers in big factories like Bosch, Renault and Ford went on strike for the first time in a decade.
There was a massive demonstration in Soma, also in other big cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and as expected, the riot police violently attacked these demonstrations.
In three universities, two of them in Istanbul and one in Ankara, students started occupations of the mining engineering faculty buildings in their campuses. These demonstrations and occupations are continuing, although with a decreasing intensity. Some of the student occupations have ended because their demands were conceded. Their demands called for the university authorities to make a statement about the mining disaster and to dismiss a professor who was an advisor for the mining company.
Meanwhile, the miners in Soma have been on strike without any agreement or endorsement from their official trade union. Their strike is still continuing, despite the pressure and threats from the mining company owners. Last week they started a sit-in protest in front of the town’s prefecture to demand improvements in their working conditions and for the people responsible for the disaster to stand trial.
The sit-in protest ended on Monday, but the miners didn’t go back to work. Hundreds of them went on to occupy the local headquarters of the Mine Workers’ Union (Maden-İş), demanding that the main trade union officials - who have been more involved in collaborating with the mining company than in protecting their members’ rights - step down.
The regional trade union leader Tamer Küçükgencay subsequently offered his resignation in an attempt to try and calm the crowd. However, the workers continued their protests, calling for all five board members of the union to resign. The board members then declared their resignations as well!
The miners in the village then started protesting in front of the national mining organisation, their main demand being the renationalisation of the mines.
This last example shows the way forward; determined collective action and clear demands can bring results. The demands and concerns of the Soma miners are also felt and shared by many miners and other workers across the country - as similar disasters could have happened in other ’death traps’ where working conditions are, fundamentally, no better.
This is why it is vital that the inspiring struggle of the Soma workers does not stay isolated but is enlarged and replicated across Turkey, in a powerful and organised mass movement to bring down the present murderous and corrupt AKP regime.
A national day of strike action in the entire mining industry to demand the nationalisation of the whole industry, under the miners’ control, could be a first step in enlarging the present movement.
But the struggle should also appeal to the growing numbers of workers and young people who are fed up with the present state of things. A massive and well-prepared general strike could, in that sense, shake the government to its foundations and bring the struggle to a new, qualitatively different level. Setting up action committees should be the order of the day, to coordinate this struggle and its aftermath and to prepare the basis for replacing the present pro-capitalist government of the AKP by a workers’ government.
Changes of line and divisions in the AKP
This government is exposed and damaged. Initially, all ministers, government officials, mining company owners and managers said that no one had committed any malpractice. And no one in the government resigned, because the AKP government feared that taking one step back or admitting any governmental responsibility would run the risk of a collapse of their rule. Their political power, despite the good results of the AKP in the local elections last March, is in a very fragile state after last year’s Gezi Park protests, the corruption probes, May Day restrictions and police violence. Because of that, all the AKP members acted in the first days very arrogantly and in unison.
However, under the effects of the protest movement, cracks have now begun to appear within the Turkish ruling class on which way to follow. Despite the evident collusion between the mine bosses and the AKP authorities, 26 mine executives were arrested on Sunday 17 May, in an attempt by the regime to calm down the people’s rage and to push the blame away from itself.
Since then, open divisions within the government have also emerged with, in particular, the Labour and Energy Ministers blaming each other for the disaster and the Energy Minister accusing the ruling party for having changed policy “three times” since the disaster occurred.
There will be a presidential election next August, and Erdogan was expecting to win this election too. But because of the chronic unsolved economic, social and political problems, which have been mostly created by the AKP government in the last 12 years, and the anger fuelled by the late disaster, the layer of people opposing the AKP government is growing. Many working class areas with a traditionally AKP-leaning vote have now turned against the government.
Some might feel a bit frustrated after the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the last local elections because of the lack of change. But despite the complicated feelings of the masses, a year of massive struggles, demonstrations and strikes has caused a huge leap forward in the political consciousness of all layers in society; a sweep of change we haven’t seen in the last 35 years in Turkey.
This is an unexpected situation for the AKP government and the Turkish bourgeoisie as they thought that they had consolidated their power, and that the economic situation of Turkey was good compared with other countries in the Middle East and Europe. They thought that Turkey was a safety harbour in a whole region of countries fighting with financial crisis, mass uprisings, civil wars and military interventions. But this political and economic stability has been based on a systematic pressure on society and extensive exploitation of the working class. The years of economic growth have bounced back in the face of the ruling class, as the Turkish working class with more boldness has demanded its share of the cake.
The ruling class was feeling very confident because of the lack of powerful opposition parties, of a mass workers’ alternative and because of politically controlled trade unions. Because of this disorganisation of the working class and the left, the masses rose up spontaneously, so both the government and all the organisations of the working class have been caught out.
The increasing fragility of the AKP’s power has undermined the self-confidence of the rulers and they cannot find solutions for minor political problems; conversely they are enlarging problems every day.
On the other hand, because of the bureaucratic structures of most of the trade unions and the sectarian attitude of the leadership of the main left parties (who are mostly struggling with each other), it means that their primary intention remains their narrow organisational interests, instead of advancing the movement and the demands of the masses.
These problems inside the left parties have caused a decline in the number of leading activists and members in recent years. However, the ongoing mass movement will create a new, vibrant political atmosphere in which the idea of a new, mass and fighting working class party can develop among broader layers of workers and young people. The politically active and genuine grassroots members of the left parties have an important role to play in pushing things in this direction.
Socialist Alternative, the Turkish section of the CWI, is anticipating the development of a working class mass movement in the very near future. As a small political group, we are trying to intervene in the present struggles and are formulating demands to consolidate the developing anger, for changing not only the government but also the whole economic structure upon which it relies; the profit-driven and crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Our demands are:
- The formation of an independent commission of inquiry consisting of representatives of mineworkers, trade unions and democratic civil society organisations. Such a commission should have full transparency on its activities– all its findings must be made public!
- The company owners, along with the government, must be held responsible and liable for what has happened, a criminal investigation must be started immediately!
- Free medical assistance must be provided to the survivors and to the families of the victims, along with substantial financial compensation.
- End the temporary employment agencies, imposing neoliberal, deregulated and flexible working conditions. No more child labour. Pay the miners a living wage.
- Remove all legal and practical obstacles to trade union membership and encourage union membership.
- Disclose the Soma mining company’s finances. The mine owners have enriched themselves in recent years on the backs of the workers – all these profits should be returned to the workers!
- Soma and all privatised companies must be renationalised, without compensation, under democratic workers’ control and management.
- Down with Erdogan and AKP rule! For the building of a mass movement of workers and youth to bring down this authoritarian clique of thieves and murderers!
- A one-day strike in the whole mining sector, as a first step in the building of mass general strike movement against the government
- A government of workers’ and poor people, based on socialist policies