Lessons from the Tekel strikes: class solidarity and ethnic (in)difference

Lessons from the Tekel strikes: class solidarity and ethnic (in)difference

Kadir Ateş and Toros Korkmaz analyse the Tekel tobacco plant strikes in Turkey between 2009 and 2010.

Our aim here is to analyze in brief the recent Tekel worker struggles in Turkey at the level of national economy. The Tekel strikes which began on 15 December 2009 and ended on 26 May 2010 was the result of an ongoing privatization process which had been in effect since 1980.1 In 1999, through “an IMF restructuring program, privatization continued at a more accelerated pace and came to a peak through the application of Article 4/C, of Law No. 657 enacted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).”2 What started out as demands by the Tekel workers grew into strikes as the AKP government rejected any concessions. In taking such a firm stance as the government had, the strikes multiplied in their participation as well as intensity, which culminated into forming a brief tent commune in the middle of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Police and other security forces were eventually dispatched to quell the striking workers, whose violent confrontation led a few of the workers to question the nature of the police in a class society.3 These strikes were important in the sense that contrary to the prevailing Huntingtonian paradigm, which asserts that the dominant conflict in contemporary society is based upon cultural and religious divisions, such a paradigm is inefficient in explaining one of the largest strikes in modern Turkish labor history. In Turkey, where the working class is deeply divided4 along such lines, the Tekel workers managed to overcome these internal divisions when confronted with unfavorable changes in the existing material conditions.
Tekel, which translates to “monopoly” in Turkish, has its origins as a Franco-German company specializing in tobacco production.5 After the 1923 Izmir Economic Congress, which established corporatism as the newly-formed economic policy of the Republic of Turkey, the new Republican ruling class nationalized many private foreign companies. In February of 1925,6 Tekel along with other companies, passed under state-control. The factories are scattered throughout the country, particularly along the Black Sea cities of Samsun and Tokat, which are majority Sunni Turk and in the southeastern cities of Bitlis, Malatya, and Adıyaman, where both Sunni and Alevi Turks as well as Sunni and Alevi Kurds are present. In 1999, under orders from the IMF, the Turkish agricultural industry was to be subjected to deregulation.7 With the rise of the neoliberal AK Party in November 2002, the pace of globalization increased dramatically in Turkey, and by December of 2003, “[s]everal Tekel plants were sold to MEY, a national consortium for $292 million.8 In the following years since, the company was resold to several other international holding companies such as the Texas Pacific Group ($900 million)9 and as of February 2008, British American Tobacco ($1.72 billion).”10 BAT managed to acquire “six factories, which employed 15,313 workers. Only one out of the five factories was to remain operational, the rest were closed down, displacing some 12,000 workers.”11
On 14 December 2009, the Tekel workers struck in reaction to Article 4/C of Law No. 657, a labor law which was previously applied to professionals who worked in the public sector on a contractual basis, was extended to public employees whose workplaces were being privatized. This offer was proposed as an alternative to the Tekel workers who had otherwise quit or found work elsewhere. However, 4/C included included several conditions, which the workers had to accept, such as:
Ceding the right to organize.
Accepting a sharp decline in wages
The elimination of severance pay and health benefits.
Workers would be allowed to work for 10 months without any guarantee of job security and alotted two sick days within this time period.
Workers would be forbidden to work a second job during these 10 months.
Employers would have the power to dimiss their employees at any time.12
The results of BAT’s purchase of Tekel in combination with the newly-enforced 4/C resulted in confrontation between the workers and a government they once firmly supported. For many of Tekel workers, the dismissive response from the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was met with greater hostility and to an extent disappointment. As Fuat Karlıkaya, a worker from a Tekel plantation in Tokat explained, “the majority of my work friends voted for AKP. Now they are very regretful. Remember, many of my friends who wear the headscarf are participating in the strike.”13 AKP, many of whose members were formerly part of the now-defunct Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), which was the ruling party in 1996-97 until the military had threatened to oust them from power, attracts many working class votes through its use of religious rhetoric and promotion of conservative values. As the protests escalated in January of 2010, it became apparent that AKP was not interested in brokering any favorable terms to the workers. As Erdoğan notoriously said in response to the growing unrest: “[The workers] just sit there doing nothing.”14
Following orders from the ruling government, the police used a variety of brutal methods to break the mounting resistance of workers, such as tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, clubs and mass arrests. In one instance, “workers escaping tear gas were forced into a nearby lake, where the police subjected them to water cannons in the middle of winter.”15 This however, did not deter the workers from responding in kind. Part of what made the Tekel strike particularly notable was strength and extent of the resistance. News reports of workers conducting hunger strikes or what they called “death fasts” were widespread and the establishment of a tent commune on Sakarya Street where the workers gathered lasted for about 40 days.16 Free of the “meddlesome trade union bureaucrats, workers were able to discuss amongst themselves and sympathizers began to rethink their initial perceptions about socialism.”17 In one instance, the Tekel workers living in the commune were “joined by an additional 30,000 workers who spontaneously showed up to express their solidarity.”18 Yet after more deliberations by the government, one of the last radical acts which occured during the strike was the occupation of the Istanbul branch office of Türk-İş, the largest labor union confederation. In May, approximately 200 workers stormed the union’s office and hung slogans outside of the building Istanbul office of Türk-İş, the largest labor union confederation, and “hung slogans outside of the building in support of the 40 hunger-striking workers.”19
The results of the strikes resulted in little material gains however, as the work period was extended from 10 to 11 months and their salaries increased by about 80 Lira.20 The most significant victory by the workers was the application of Article 4/C to the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial authority in Turkey. Today, the struggles have formally ended, yet the outcome of this court trial could trigger further protests if the demands of the workers are not satisfied.
In our estimation however these gains were greatly outweighed by the overcoming of pronvincialism, racism and religious bigotry which had been (and still is) present among the working class in Turkey. Ramazan Ercan, one such worker who had taken part in the protest, remarked that differences between easterners and westerners in Turkey diminished. “A worker from Samsun said that ‘I had a different opinion of Easterners. And I said that I also had a different opinion about those from Samsun. The state does such a thing that everybody becomes an enemy of each other. When you get to know each other, you understand that our fate is the same.”21 Or, as Mustafa Alacalıoğlu, another worker put it: “There are no differences between Kurds, Alevis, Sunnis and Turks. We have no party.”22

  • 1. On 12 September 1980, a CIA-backed right-wing military coup led by General Kenan Evren overthrew the existing government and began the process of privatization of state-owned manufacturing facilities in Turkey.
  • 2. Erinç Yeldan, “Awakening of the Proletariat in Turkey,” Sendika.org 30 January 2010. 16 August 2010.
  • 3. In one revealing part of a group interview conducted by Express magazine, two of the workers said the following: Fadıl Elçi: “The police attacked us with [tear] gas, but the blame should be put on those who gave the order. Except the police officer is also part of the people. If he were to disobey [orders] they would fire him.” Ramazan Ercan: “Fadıl, besides the rich man’s son would never be part of the police. But the police who had come forgot their class.” “Sömürgelerdeki köleler gibiyiz,” Express 01-15 January 2010, Issue No. 1: 19.
  • 4. Turkey is divided along two broad ethnic and confessional lines, which are Turks v. Kurds and Sunni Islam v. Alevism.
  • 5. Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey: Volume II, Reform, Revolution and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey 1808-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 506; 233.
  • 6. Ibid., 506.
  • 7. Erinç Yeldan, “Awakening of the Proletariat in Turkey.”
  • 8. Ibid. Yeldan notes that the produced stocks of the plants which had been sold were valued at $126 million.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ali Berat Meric and Thomas Mulier, “BAT bids $1.72 billion to Win Turkey’s Tekel Auction,” Turkishjournal.com, 22 February 2008. 16 August 2010.
  • 11. İzgi Güngör, “Turkish experts divided over Tekel privatization dispute,” Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, 1 February 2010. 16 August 2010.
  • 12. Tolga Korut, “Tekel Workers Have Final Say for End of Resistance,” Bağımsız İletişim Ağı (BIAnet.org), 24 January 2010, 16 August 2010.
  • 13. “Ağaç bile kaderine hükmetmeye çalışır,” Express 01-15 January 2010, Issue No. 1: 17.
  • 14. “Boş boş oturuyorlar” in Turkish.
  • 15. “Polis tekel işçilerini göle doktu,” Taraf, 18 December 2010, 24 August 2010.
  • 16. Sungur Savran, “The Tekel Strike in Turkey,” Center for Research on Globalization (Globalresearch.ca), 17 March 2010, 22 August 2010.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. “Tekel işçileri Türk-İş’i işgal etti,” CNNTürk, 25 May 2010, 6 August 2010.
  • 20. Labor activist Yunus Öztürk, telephone interview regarding on Article 4/C of Law No. 657. 16 August 2010.
  • 21. “Sömürgelerdeki köleler gibiyiz,” Express, 19.
  • 22. Ibid., Express.