Worker rights in Turkey: the union is dead, long live the cooperative?

On May 13, 2014 an explosion occurred in a coal mine in Soma, a small town in western Turkey. The ensuing fire trapped hundreds of miners underground, eventually causing the death of 301 of them, while injuring 162 others.


 

Almost one year later, on April 13, the trial against the director of Soma Holding – the company in charge of exploiting the mine – and 44 company employees and engineers has started, but few of the survivors and relatives of the deceased miners cherish any hopes that the ones responsible for the disaster will be brought to justice.

Whereas the individuals currently on trial have undoubtedly played an important role in what many have come to view as a massacre rather than a disaster, the government officials who failed to protect the workers’ rights at the national level are the ones bearing final responsibility for the senseless and preventable loss of so many lives.

“The Soma trial of mine company employees offers victims a chance to get some measure of justice,” stated Emma Sinclair-Webb in a highly critical Human Rights Watch report, “but the trial does not address the responsibility of state agents who failed in their duty to protect mine workers’ lives.”

The working conditions in the mine were dire. While the miners were pressured to maximize production and overseers structurally neglected health and safety standards the head of Soma Holding boasted in a 2012 interview that his company had brought down the costs of coal from $130 to $24 per ton. The reduction in production costs was paralleled by a similar reduction in safe working conditions. According to survivors’ accounts included in the HRW report “state authorities charged with oversight and inspection were fully aware of the situation but ignored it.”

Just two weeks before the disaster a proposal by opposition parties in parliament that called for an investigation into previous accidents at the mines in Soma was rejected by the AKP government. The director and employees of Soma Holding are now on trial, but the officials in charge of inspection of the mines remain shielded from prosecution by their political superiors. Demands are made by the public that the government takes responsibility for its failure to protect the miners.

Unfortunately, whereas the deaths of so many workers in a single disaster is a rare event, fatal workplace accidents are all too common. In the first three months of 2015 alone, a total of 351 workers died as a result of work-related accidents. Labor unions in Turkey – in the mid-20th century still a force to be reckoned with – have seen their influence decline significantly over the past three decades ever since the introduction of neoliberal policies in the early 1980s.

With the labor unions sidelined and the current government pursuing an aggressive strategy of privatization and weakening labor rights and freedoms, the time has come to explore alternative ways to organize labor and empower the workers.

The banned metal workers strike

In the years since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 Turkey underwent an economic boom. Over the same period that the country saw an average annual GDP growth of 5,2 percent between 2002 and 2011 its citizens saw their income grow by 43 percent. But while many Turkish citizens have profited from the country’s economic prosperity, many more have suffered from the severe repressions of labor rights that came with it.

During its time in power, the AKP has restricted worker’s rights to organize and strike, intensified neoliberal employment policies, encouraged the practice of subcontracting and part-time work agreements and allowed for the structural violation of worker rights.

Workers in Turkey were once again reminded of their precarious position when at the end of January 15,000 metal workers planned to go on strike. After failing to reach an agreement with the employer’s union about better wages and the length of collective bargaining periods the workers announced that in 22 factories in ten different cities across the country they would lay down their tools and walk off the job.

However, the next day the strike was “suspended” when the government issued a Cabinet Decree deeming it a “threat to national security”. The suspension of the strike is in fact a strike ban in action. In order to prevent the workers from walking off the job, the government recalled a controversial law – approved in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup – which was designed to curtail the powers of the influential labor unions at the time.

The suspension of the strike came as no surprise, as it was in fact the third time in the last twelve months the government had used this tactic to undermine the workers’ right to strike, which is protected by ILO conventions 87 and 98, both of which have been ratified by Turkey. “The right to strike no longer exists in Turkey,” states Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union Assistant General Secretary. “This fundamental right, guaranteed by the Constitution of the country and international norms ratified by the government, exists only on paper, not in reality.”

The effective ban on all major strikes is exemplary of the limited means available to workers in Turkey to stand up for their rights and fight for better working conditions. The statistics speak for themselves regarding the urgent need for better safety regulations. Workers in Turkey are almost six times more likely to have a fatal accident at the workplace than their colleagues in the European Union. In 2014 alone, 1,886 people died in work-related accidents, bringing the total of worker deaths up to 15,396 since the AKP came to power.

Anti-union politics

Labor union membership– some would argue a worker’s most effective bulwark against exploitation – has enervated drastically in the past years. In the last decade union membership has fallen more in Turkey than in any other OECD country, with the latest statistics showing labor union density at 4,5 percent in 2012, down from 10,6 percent in 1999.

This decline in trade union membership follows a global trend of decreasing organized labor, but the active opposition to unionization by Turkish employers has significantly sped up the process. A range of tactics is deployed by employers to discourage their employees from joining a union on the one hand, and marginalize those who have done so already on the other. Union activists are often fired, demoted or simply denied promotions while employers are rarely punished for unjustly dismissing their workers for union activities.

“Dismissals during union organizing is everyday practice in Turkey,” explains Selcuk Goktas, General Secretary of Birleşik Metal-Iş, the trade union which called for the recent strike. “When an employer learns about organizing efforts at their workplace, their first response is to dismiss active union members and to hold meetings at the workplace in order to intimidate workers.”

Another obstacle Turkish workers face in organizing effectively is the widespread existence of so-called “yellow unions” – unions under the direct influence of employers. These yellow unions often undermine the bargaining power of independent unions by signing weak collective agreements that fall short of meeting worker demands. The agreement between the metal worker unions Turk Metal and Celik-Iş and the employers’ union MESS – while Birleşik Metal-Iş failed to reach an agreement and called for a strike – is a case in point which illustrates how yellow unions agree to terms that independent unions do not support.

After the Soma disaster many miners renounced their membership of the local union, which they believed had been collaborating with the mining company and had failed to protect the safety and rights of the workers. “Many miners call Maden-Iş a yellow union, but the problem is the officials, who are not chosen by the workers, but appointed from above,” one miner was quoted as saying after the disaster, adding that the union leaders are “in bed with the company”.By addressing the lack of democracy and the easy co-option of (yellow) union leaders by the employers and the political powers that protect them, the miner’s statement gets at the heart of the matter.

The lack of real democracy and bottom-up organization in many labor unions and the complicity of some union leaders with the exploitation of workers by their employers in combination with a pro-labor rights legislation which is in place but is structurally ignored, circumvented and overruled have led some workers to give up hope that any improvements in the current situation can be won in the same arena where they already have been defeated many times before.

Instead of demanding their rights, these workers have taken them; instead of hoping for the right leadership they have abolished hierarchy altogether; and instead of striking for better wages, they have occupied their workplace, recuperated the machines and started producing for themselves.

Textile workers taking over

When in January 2013 the 94 workers of the Kazova Textile factory in Istanbul’s central Sisli neighborhood were collectively fired under false pretenses after their bosses had neglected to pay their salaries for four consecutive months, a small group of workers decided to resist. They organized regular protest marches and set up of a tent in front of the factory to prevent their former bosses from stripping the factory of anything of value.

Emboldened by the nationwide Gezi protests which rocked the country in the summer that year, the Kazova workers prepared for the next step and occupied their former workplace.

What followed was almost two years of struggles in which the resisting workers were beaten by hired thugs, tear gassed by the police and were caught up in an exhausting legal case in an attempt to claim legal ownership over the textile machinery that would allow them to provide in their own livelihoods.

Inspired by the many solidarity visits they received and the stories of other worker struggles such as the National Movement of Recuperated Businesses in Argentina and the occupied Vio.Me factory in Greece the Kazova workers adopted the slogan of the Landless Movement in Brazil ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce!’ and started organizing themselves as a cooperative.

Currently the Free Kazova workers’ cooperative is in its third month of autonomous production. The cooperative is still faced with many hardships, but the boss-less life is something that fills the members of the cooperative with great satisfaction. Their only fear is that the state might eventually turn against them.

“The Turkish state is pro-bosses, it just wants them to make profit,” argues Aynur Aydemir, one of the members of the cooperative. “Therefore it would never agree upon a workers’ cooperative of production. They want slaves, new slaves, young slaves. That’s why they promote the women to sit at home and to have three, four, five children so that they will have new slaves for the bosses.”

The Free Kazova cooperative is but one single oasis in a very large desert, but nonetheless it has the power and the potential to guide and inspire others. The Kazova workers’ history of exploitation, repression and injustice is one that is all too familiar for the millions of workers caught up in a cycle of daily recurring struggles to make ends meet. However, where so many of these struggles only end to see the next one starting the Kazova workers have managed to break the cycle by taking matters into their own hands. As such, their story can fulfill the role of a beacon of hope that another way of organizing labor is possible.

Even if the state agents responsible for the life-threatening working conditions in the Soma mine will be brought to justice, and even if the metal workers strike is allowed to continue, any possible outcome will only serve to patch up an already broken system. A government that does not adhere to its own laws will rarely listen to the demands of its subordinates. The only option to bring about real change workers are left with is to take matters into their own hands. As the Free Kazova cooperative has shown, the path they’ve chosen might not be easy and success is far from guaranteed, but at the end of the day theirs might be the only true alternative.

This article was originally published at TeleSUR English.

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