Trade Unions and Turkey's Working Class

by Ronnie Margulies , Ergin Yildizoğlu
published in MER121

The emergence of the working class as a force on Turkey’s political scene is essentially a phenomenon of the years since World War II. The organized expression of this class, trade unions, also made their appearance in these years. Both these developments were closely related to the process of rapid industrialization in postwar Turkey. In the 1940s, industry and construction accounted for about 20 percent, and manufacturing for just over 10 percent, of national output. As of 1950, these shares began to rise, accompanied by falling ratios for the agricultural sector. By 1970, manufacturing accounted for a fifth of GNP, and by 1978 this sector was responsible for a greater share of GNP than agriculture.

Substantial internal migration accompanied this development of industry, swelling the country’s urban population. The rapid mechanization of Turkish agriculture in the early 1950s released large numbers of peasants from agricultural production. Kemal Karpat, in The Gecekondu: Rural Migration and Urbanization, estimated that “about one million farmers were dislocated by some 40,000 tractors introduced in this period.” Whereas in 1950 less than a fifth of the population lived in cities, by 1980 urban and rural population were roughly the same. About 40 percent of the economically active population were now employed in sectors other than agriculture.

Perhaps more than these general indicators, the number and size of factories, and the employment they account for, testify to the growth of the industrial working class in Turkey. In his detailed study of workplaces in manufacturing industry, Bademli distinguished between “factories” in the modern sense and “non-factory workplaces.” The number of manufacturing workplaces more than doubled in the 20 years following 1950. Those that can be rigorously defined as “factories” increased eightfold in the same period. Though small in number, the crucial importance of these factories is brought into relief when we look at their share of total manufacturing production and of workers employed in manufacturing. Thus, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the working class was increasingly concentrated in great numbers in modern, large factories. This occurred mainly in three geographical areas: the Istanbul/Kocaeli-Sakarya/Bursa triangle in the Marmara region; Izmir and its environs; and the Mersin/Adana/Iskenderun belt along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Emergence of the Trade Unions

Until the later 1940s, three separate pieces of legislation, adopted in 1925, 1936 and 1938, forbade the establishment of “professional organizations” and those “based on a social class.” The single-party state, cloaked in the Kemalist fiction of a “classless, casteless unified society,” showed a paternalistic interest in the problems of labor while it rigorously disallowed any self-organization of workers. In 1947, the government promulgated a new Unions Law allowing trade unions but not recognizing the right to strike. The timing of this law was probably related to several factors: Turkey’s attempt to take its place in the post-war “free world”; the government’s concern to win popular support prior to the first general election under the new multi-party regime; and concern to preempt any spontaneous self-organization by the working class, which had suffered disproportionately from the austerity of the war years. The potential for such self-organization was demonstrated the following year, when some 52,000 workers were organized in 73 unions. Only a decade later, nearly 300,000 workers were in trade unions.

In July 1952, numerous unions in Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and other industrial centers came together to form Türk-Iş, the Turkish Trade Unions Confederation, with a membership of around 150,000. From the very start, the credentials of Türk-Iş as an independent organization were dubious. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the American Federation of Labor provided funds, advisers and training in an attempt to foster the structures of American-style unions. The Minister of Labor attended the first Türk-Iş meeting in Izmir. This exemplified the heavy government influence on Türk-Iş, and the organization played a fundamentally restraining role on workers’ struggles as these expanded rapidly through the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1960s, in fact, represent something of a milestone in Turkish history, as leaps in economic development infused the sociopolitical sphere with a notable dynamism. Two factors intersected in this period to lend the decade particular complexity and interest. Firstly, the new constitution promulgated in 1961, after the military coup the year before, extended democratic rights. This provided much greater scope for social and political organizing, opposition and critical thought. The Turkish Workers Party was founded early in the decade and scored some rapid parliamentary successes. Militant youth organizations emerged. Publication and widespread discussion of socialist literature multiplied. Strikes, now legalized, became commonplace. These developments coincided with rapid economic development, a combination which imposed severe strains on the existing structures of Turkish society and gave expression to these strains.

Economic growth, and particularly industrial growth, was very rapid in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1970 the GDP index rose from 63.6 to 110.5, while the index of industrial GDP rose even more sharply from 45.0 to 113.5. In the same period, manufacturing workplaces more than doubled. By 1970, 173,000 workers, 20 percent of the industrial work force, worked in factories employing more than 1,000 workers.

The impact of these developments on the working class was great. The 1960s witnessed the transformation of a young and inexperienced working class into a very militant and highly organized sector. The number of unionized workers increased in leaps and bounds, reaching the one-million mark at the end of the decade. Strikes involved larger numbers of workers and were more prolonged, particularly in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

The Advent of DISK

In this atmosphere of increasing and frequently spontaneous worker militancy and radicalization, the Türk-Iş leadership found it steadily more difficult to play successfully their role as a safety valve for the working class movement. Events repeatedly exposed the greater concern of Turk-Is bureaucracy for maintaining good relations with the government than for harnessing the workers’ movement from below to wrest better wages and conditions. Groups of workers in struggle often found themselves at odds with Türk-Iş leaders. One particularly telling example occurred in 1965, when striking Kozlu coal miners had to battle with security forces (with two miners shot) and then hear Halil Tunç, general secretary of Türk-Iş, denounce the strike as illegal and the strikers as communist provocateurs. This scenario was repeated in early 1966, in the strike at the Paşabahce glass factory. There a local union, Kristal-Iş, attempted to break through the existing industry-wide agreement. Türk-Iş agreed with the employers’ rejection of this. A number of Türk-Iş affiliated unions nevertheless supported the strikers and in the 83 days of the strike they collected 460,000 Turkish liras in an impressive show of solidarity for the striking workers. Türk-Iş responded by suspending six unions from the confederation. A few months later, in February 1967, some of the suspended unions—Maden-Iş (metal workers), Bain-Iş (printing workers), Lastik-Iş (food industry workers), Bank-Iş (bank workers), Yapi-Iş (construction workers)—came together to form DISK, the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions.

From its foundation until it was suspended by the military in September 1980, DISK remained the independent organization of the most advanced sections of the working class. As such, its importance is undeniable and its glorification by the Turkish left is understandable. It is worth noting, however, that the foundation of DISK as a separate confederation also represented a division among organized working class forces. Converging developments foreclosed the historical opportunity to build a unified trade union movement. Whether the young working class movement and its budding socialist cadres had the resources and capability to grasp this opportunity by remaining within Türk-Iş and transforming it is debatable. The question was to some extent irrelevant during DISK’s existence and successful growth. It has returned to the agenda today.

DISK’s years were a time of increasing radicalization among students and intellectuals, as the class struggle in Turkey assumed greater visibility. The economic crisis began to make itself felt as early as 1967. Unionization continued to grow rapidly, both within DISK and Türk-Iş. DISK-affiliated unions distinguished themselves by their successful leadership of long and bitter strikes.

As the economic crisis eroded rates of profit, Turkey’s ruling class perceived an urgent need to curb working-class resistance. One high priority in this campaign was to stem the growth and influence of DISK and re-establish the ascendancy of Türk-Iş as the paramount labor organization, amenable to employers’ demands. Parliament took up discussion of laws to achieve this result, and the Unions Law was amended accordingly on June 12, 1970. The crucial amendment specified that a trade union could organize nationally only if it represented at least one third of the workers in that particular branch of industry. The minister of labor announced that “unions which have become tools of ideological movements [i.e., DISK-affiliated unions] will automatically be abolished as soon as the law is passed.”

Working-class response, particularly among DISK members in and around Istanbul, was immediate and caught both the ruling class and the socialist left by surprise. Hundreds of thousands of workers blocked the Istanbul-Ankara highway. Armed with clubs, they fought pitched battles with police and soldiers on June 15 and 16. Three workers were killed; many other workers and police were injured. These first spontaneous, large-scale and political actions of the working class in Turkey signaled the coming of age of this class and of DISK.

The Coup of 1971

The economic and increasingly political crisis of the late 1960s culminated in the military takeover of March 1971. While the student/socialist movement was smashed without much ado, the military had little success in their attempts to crush the working class movement. The regime established martial law in ll provinces, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and other industrial centers. The resulting ban on strikes, though, was not enforced in Istanbul and was soon lifted in Izmir. While fewer workers went on strike in 1971 and 1972 than in 1970, days lost in strikes increased by 100 percent in 1971 and by another 50 percent in 1972. Apart from the temporary arrest of some DISK bureaucrats, direct attacks on the working class were limited. In part this was because the military were unable to establish a coherent and stable regime: contradictions within the ruling alliance proved impossible to resolve in the short term, resulting in parliamentary chaos and failure to create a national consensus. More importantly, the continued opposition of the petty bourgeoisie deprived the military of a social base.

For these reasons, the military allowed a general election in 1973 and returned to their barracks. Their inability to do anything more than temporarily put the lid on social opposition became even clearer retrospectively, as a whole variety of socialist groups and parties reemerged, this time with a much-expanded audience. The Republican Peoples Party (RPP), under its new social-democratic leader and program, formed a government. These years also saw an impressive though brief economic recovery. Fixed capital investment in the private sector doubled from 10 liras billion in 1971 to 20 billion in 1974. Greatly increased remittances from Turkish workers abroad and the easy availability of large foreign loans enabled investment to rise steeply and to remain at a high level until 1976. Parallel to this, manufacturing output increased by 7.2 percent in 1973-1974, 8.7 percent in 1974-1975 and 9.5 percent in 1975-1976.

Throughout this period, unionization proceeded rapidly. DISK, in particular, was involved in a number of epic struggles, many of them openly political in nature. Working class morale and confidence remained high: in 1974, a record number of workers were on strike and in 1977 a record number of days were lost in strikes. Real average daily wages (in 1970 prices) increased from 21 liras in 1973 to 27 in 1976. (The rate of exchange of the Turkish lira moved from 9 Turkish liras = $1 in August 1970 to 15 liras = $1 in October 1975 and 25 liras = $1 in March 1978.) The failure of the RPP’s populist rhetoric to contain the combativeness of the working class led to two right-wing coalition governments between 1975 and 1977, and the simultaneous growth of a belligerent fascist movement.

The first and second Nationalist Front governments brought together small religious fundamentalist and fascist parties under the leadership of the conservative Justice Party. Attempts by these and the 1979-1980 Justice Party government to contain and push back the working class movement precipitated a number of large-scale struggles. In 1976, the Nationalist Front government proposed to maintain in existence the state security courts established under military rule in 1971. In these courts, two out of three judges were appointed by the military; the courts functioned under military procedures and were clearly designed to dispatch political cases. DISK vigorously opposed any move to retain these courts. In September, 300,000 workers responded to DISK’s call for a general strike and demonstrated in Istanbul while the parliament debated the move. This stiffened the RPP deputies in their opposition, and the courts were quietly shelved. In 1977, 80,000 members of Maden-Iş, the metal workers union, struck for eight months for economic demands, in a showdown with the employers’ federation. The same year 12,000 coal miners in the east occupied and ran the mines for several months. For three consecutive years—1976, 1977, 1978—half a million people gathered in the center of Istanbul in May Day demonstrations organized by DISK. In 1979, martial law authorities banned the demonstration and enforced it with a 28-hour curfew.

Throughout this period, the fascist movement grew large. Emboldened by their participation in the Nationalist Front governments and by the support of sections of the ruling class, the fascists escalated street violence. They were responsible for up to 1,200 deaths in 1978 alone. Not strong enough to confront the organized working class openly, they penetrated workplaces where they could, terrorized individual trade unionists and increasingly acted to break strikes.

The strike at Tariş in January 1980 brought into relief many important features of the working class movement on the eve of the military coup of the following September. This agricultural processing complex near Izmir employed some 10,000 workers. Over the previous few years, several socialist organizations had managed to establish a presence among the workforce. The strike erupted when workers found out that the new Justice Party government planned to sack some of the workers and employ its own supporters, including many fascist militants, in their place. The spontaneous strike turned into an occupation and soon gathered wide support from the surrounding working-class districts. The government sent in the military, equipped with armored vehicles and helicopters, to break the occupation. Pitched battles erupted and spread to the shantytowns of Izmir. The DISK leadership refused to broaden the struggle beyond Izmir, and the strike they called in Izmir itself was somewhat half-hearted and ineffective.

The events at Tariş made clear that the spontaneous, rank-and-file combativeness of the working class went well beyond what the DISK leadership was prepared to lead. This episode also demonstrated that the revolutionary left had begun to reach a wide audience and acquire a certain degree of influence within the working class. In this period the working class repeatedly came up against the military might of the state. In such confrontations the DISK leadership often beat a retreat. As in the Tariş instance, this was covered by much radical and triumphalist rhetoric. The DISK bureaucrats were determined to preserve their position as respectable, law-abiding negotiators and not antagonize the state beyond a certain point.

Toward the Coup

By the time of the Tariş strike, the Turkish economy was in a shambles. Industrial output declined more than five percent in both 1979 and 1980. Fixed capital investment fell by similar amounts. In the first nine months of 1980, industry operated on average at a mere 49.3 percent of capacity. While producers could not produce, the ruling class found it increasingly difficult to rule. Parliament turned into a charade: The main parties failed to agree on a new president in hundreds of rounds of voting over a ten-month period. In the streets, chaos and violence reigned as fascist activity escalated, and many small provincial towns came under the sway of fascists or leftist forces.

This was the atmosphere when the biennial collective bargaining period arrived in mid-1980. Employers were resolved to concede as little as possible; workers were determined to protect their living standards from the vagaries of economic crisis. The strike figures for 1978-1980 express this confrontation. From 1979 to 1980 there was an almost sevenfold increase in the numbers of days lost. 1980 witnessed the highest numbers of strikes and workers on strike ever. The ruling class response to the problems of the economy was formulated in a package of economic measures published in January 1980. The inability of the civilian government to implement these measures was one of the main reasons for the military takeover of September 12. This is clear from the continuity of economic policy before and after the coup.

Upon taking power in September 1980, the military quickly embarked on their by now familiar job of suppressing all opposition and establishing “law and order” with the customary mix of brutality and intimidation. The upper echelons of the socialist movement were effectively wiped out, and the intelligentsia cowed into submission and silence.

The suppression of “anarchy” was the major plank of the junta’s well-publicized mission, but restructuring the economy along the lines of the January 1980 package was, in objective terms, the more important of their aims. Unlike the generals of 1971, the 1980 junta had an identifiable economic program. It envisaged a departure from the path of import substitution, aiming at a closer integration with international capital. Concretely, this involved the redirection of economic resources towards those sections of capital most able to adapt to this reorientation. Several large holding companies have been reaping handsome rewards from the new economic policies.

Any achievement of these long-term aims, however, hinged upon solutions to low levels of profitability and low utilization of capacity in Turkish industry as a whole. Both these problems required a successful assault on the wage levels of the working class. The junta proceeded to tackle these matters firmly and effectively. They suspended all “trade union activity” indefinitely. DISK was suspended and hundreds of its leading militants arrested. Among these were 52 top-level bureaucrats, including the general secretary, whose trial still continues with the prosecution demanding the death sentence. Türk-Iş was not outlawed, but cannot engage in trade union activity!

After marginalizing the trade unions, the junta announced a one-time wage hike of 70 percent for those workers whose collective bargaining had not been completed at the time of the coup. Inflation was then running at around 100 percent. The generals then established a High Court of Arbitration to handle further wage negotiations until new legislation on trade unions and collective bargaining could be designed.

New Trade Unions and Collective Bargaining Legislation

In 1982, the new constitution drafted by the generals’ consultative assembly laid down basic principles of industrial relations and trade union activity. Clauses 51 to 54 ban “political aims” and “political activity” for trade unions, and forbid links between unions and political parties.

Once the constitution was approved in a well-managed plebiscite, the Confederation of Turkish Employers Unions argued that the rights and wage levels gained by workers in previous rounds of collective bargaining exceeded those warranted by the new constitution. To redress this alleged miscarriage of economic justice, Law 2821 on Trade Unions, Collective Bargaining, Strikes and Lockouts was passed on May 5, 1983.

The law restricts the establishment of new trade unions, and places constraints on the right to strike. Clause 13 of the law stipulates that a trade union, in order to gain collective bargaining rights in a workplace, must have 10 percent of all workers in that branch of industry and 51 percent of workers in the particular workplace. Thus, when the suspension of trade union activity is lifted, Türk-Iş will remain unchallenged as the sole trade union confederation, as it already has 10 percent of workers in most industries. According to Clause 22, a new membership must be certified through a notary; five copies of the documents must be made, including one each for the employer, the ministry of labor and the regional inspectorate of labor. Joining a union is thus bureaucratically cumbersome and also risky. The employer is immediately informed and there is no stipulation in the law against dismissal for trade union membership. Trade union membership is further discouraged by the provision (Clause 9) that all workers, whether union members or not, will benefit from the outcome of collective bargaining.

The law not only makes the establishment of trade unions difficult. They can now be closed down at the least excuse. Clause 58 states that crimes covered by articles 125, 141, 144, 155, 163, 168, 171, 172, 313, 499/2 of the state’s Penal Code warrant the closure of a trade union. The crime need not be committed by the “union,” but by any of its individual officials, and the above articles may be interpreted to cover almost any trade union activity. In case of closure, the state confiscates the union’s funds.

A second set of restrictions limits the occupations and workplaces where strike action may be taken. The following are occupations in which workers cannot strike: “The rescue services, including life and property; funeral services; water, electricity, gas, coal, natural gas, oil exploration, extraction, refining and distribution services; public sector firefighting, street cleaning, garbage removal and transport (land, sea and air) services” (Clause 29). No strike action can be taken in the following workplaces: “vaccine and serum producers, hospitals, clinics, sanatoriums, dispensaries, chemists shops and other places related to health services; institutions of education and child care, homes for the elderly; cemeteries; workplaces operated by the Ministry of Defense, the High Command of the Gendarmerie and the Coast Guard” (Clause 30). Clause 31 specifies numerous instances when strikes may be temporarily banned, including war, fires, floods, avalanches and earthquakes, and Clause 33 recognizes the cabinet’s authority to postpone strikes for up to 60 days where public health or national security are threatened. In 1980, a similar clause was used to postpone a strike in a soft drinks manufacturing factory!

Finally, the law regulates the conduct of those strikes it theoretically permits. A trade union must announce a strike action at least six days in advance. No more than two pickets are allowed outside a workplace, and these are not allowed to erect a “hut, shack or tent” in the vicinity. The union is held responsible for any damage to machinery or premises sustained during the strike.

There is no doubt that the three years since the coup have witnessed a substantial shift in the balance of class forces against the working class. Having lost its organizations, the class has been atomized to a great extent, and remains passive. Isolated acts of resistance, such as the slowdowns and lunch boycotts at large factories like Arcelik, Phillips, Nasas, Profilo and Cevizli Tekel in mid-1982, indicate worker discontent. These incidents, and many others which doubtless go unreported, represent a potential but not immediately serious resistance. Along with and partly because of the destruction of its organizations, Turkey’s working class has suffered serious economic setbacks. According to official figures, which grossly understate the situation, unemployment has risen from 16.9 percent in 1981 to 18.2 percent in 1982, moving over the three-million mark. Real wages fell by about 25 percent between 1979 and 1982. Real wages fell particularly drastically in 1980 as collective bargaining negotiations for about 80,000 workers were postponed by martial law authorities prior to the coup. Negotiations were about to take place for a further 200,000 workers at the time of the coup and were therefore also postponed. Thus, large numbers of workers received no wage increases between 1979 and 1981, when the overall price index (1963:100) rose from 1,231 to 3,488.

In this light, the current passivity of the working class should be seen as temporary. With any relative democratization of the regime, such as the establishment of political parties, elections and the resumption of trade union activity, working class discontent will surface and find political expression. The junta has declared that these relaxations are on its short-term agenda. When they do take place, the working class will face the rebuilding of the trade union movement as its most urgent task.

Because the new Unions Law has made unionization impossible outside of Türk-Iş, the question will be how the half a million or more members of DISK will reorganize. There appear to be three possible routes: rebuild the DISK tradition within Türk-Iş; reorganize within Türk-Iş on Türk-Iş terms; engage in protracted struggles to build unions outside Türk-Iş. The last of these options would delay the organization of many workers and perhaps channel their energies into futile struggles. The second would be a regression from the level of organization achieved in the 1970s; this is indeed what the new law is designed to bring about. Only the first course of action is likely to enable the working class to grasp the opportunity of building a unified trade union movement in light of the lessons of the 1960s.

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