This interview was conducted by Karen Pfeifer in Ankara during November 1983.
How would you like to be identified?
I have been in prison five times since the 1980 coup, so please don’t use my name. I was an activist in the construction workers’ union, a shop steward in one of the most progressive unions in the Türk-Iş federation. I started as an unskilled worker, making pavement. I worked for two years in a private company, then for 25 years in the state highway department.
What was your work day like?
We worked from 8 am to 5:30 pm, with one hour for lunch. This was not too bad. The travel time made it longer of course, one hour each way, but the state provided buses for us. And we were required to work overtime; the company preferred that to adding on more shifts. Still, it was better than in the private sector, where the employers could force unpaid and unrecorded overtime.
What about working conditions on the job?
The job was not too dangerous, except for the problem of directing the traffic flow around the work. Two of my co-workers were killed in traffic accidents on the job. The machinery is outmoded and the state has refused to invest in new equipment. Digging is done mostly by hand, as are painting roads and installing signs.
How is the work organized?
There are two seasons, summer construction and winter maintenance. We did the direct labor in seven- to eight-person teams. It should be 11 people on the team, but there has been no new hiring for several years, due to budget cuts. Since the coup, there is no longer pay for overtime—we are still required to do it, but the pay was “postponed.”
Each work team is assigned a foreman, usually the truck driver who brings the materials. He is a “skilled” worker because he has a license to drive; he is better paid than the rest of the team and does no direct manual labor himself. Before 1979, only the foreman and other skilled workers had year-round employment on a contract with job security. The other team members were only seasonally employed. Since 1979, all team members are on year-round employment, but there is no more job security for anyone.
Which workers belonged to the union?
Our union represented the team members, the skilled workers and the foreman. The engineers were not included. The union organized all public construction workers. The non- joiners in the public sector were all required to pay an agency fee.
Before the coup, the union had had 27 branches all over the country, for a total of 135,000 workers. Before the coup, the union attempted to organize the private sector construction workers also, but there were many obstacles. Small-scale firms would simply evaporate when a job was done, and subcontractors for major projects would turn over too rapidly for the unions to get a foothold. Under the law, a union needs to win 51 percent of the workers on the job at each workplace in order to represent them all. This was very difficult, with so much temporary employment. Also, much of the private sector work was subcontracted through the drivers, who would organize their teams through family and ethnic connections.
What sorts of benefits did the union provide?
One important project is the union’s housing cooperative. Five hundred fifty flats were built in Ankara alone under this program. The union members elected a board of directors for the cooperative from among themselves. The capital for construction came from fees paid by the workers earmarked for this fund, from general union funds, from the state, and from the European Council program for workers’ housing. Workers could also borrow directly from the union for their down payments. Since the coup, the state has filed a case against the housing co-op’s board of directors for “misuse of funds.” Now, city officials hassle the board. They neglect to provide permits for sewage and water, for example. Also, the state is holding up, the transfer of funds from the European Council and from the state coffers, even though these were promised long ago.
Another union benefit was the consumer cooperatives. Each local union branch was responsible for organizing one in its district. In Ankara, 4,000 workers belonged. This was a very strong one, the best in all of Turkey. The cooperatives provided their members with food and consumer durables at wholesale prices. Since the coup, the leaders of the producers’ cooperatives were convicted under Law 141 and sentenced to eight years in prison. The producers’ cooperatives were dissolved. Now the consumer cooperatives must buy from private wholesalers at “market” prices.
The union provided recreation facilities and sponsored social events which bring workers’ families together. The union maintained several summer vacation camps and planned to build a holiday village for international workers on an island that it owns. This was co-sponsored by a group of European unions, but the transfer of funds has been suspended since the coup.
The union had maintained a “worker risk” fund. Workers contributed 3 percent of their salaries and the employers paid a matching amount. Until 1977, the union invested this fund. From 1977 until 1980, it was used to finance workers’ housing and to provide educational scholarships for members’ children. Five hundred were given in 1980. After the coup, the state abolished this fund and the funds were distributed to the workers in cash payments.
How long were you a shop steward?
From 1970 until 1980.
What was it like being a shop steward in these years?
Before the coup, my duties involved dealing with problems right on the shop floor—for example, arranging work schedules. I worked on improving eating facilities and making time in the workday for union activities—for example, providing a substitute on the job to let one worker go to a meeting. Stewards were also very important in the hiring process and assigning workers to the available jobs. In all of these tasks, there was not much need to go to supervisors or even up in the union hierarchy for decisions. None of these things were true in the private sector.
How did the coup affect you?
After the coup the role of the shop steward ceased to exist, except on paper. The employers closed their offices. Now all decisions are made by a committee of four workers’ representatives and one shop steward, but the committee is directly responsible to management. Most shop stewards were put into detention for 45-day periods. I myself have been detained five times in the last three years: 45 days in the military prison at Mamak, 25 days in the police station’s “political branch” and three times for about one week each at the “political branch.” People are interrogated and tortured in these places. [He shows the cigarette burn scars in the palms of his hands.] I was accused of forming an illegal organization, of being a district leader of Dev Yol. No formal charges were ever pressed and no trial ever took place. After my first detention, I was fired under the martial law. This meant that not only did I lose my job but also my right to compensation. I took my case to the Supreme Civil Court, which gave my job back and got me compensation. After my later detentions, my job was changed and I was forced to stop being a shop steward. Then I became eligible to retire.
How has the coup affected the union overall?
Since the coup, 45,000 of our members have left to form a rival union under right-wing leadership approved by the military government. There is also a move by the National Religious Party to form a new union, and they have succeeded in attracting some of the seasonal workers. Among our former union comrades, there is still a spirit of solidarity despite the difficult conditions. We are beginning to win back some of those who left to join the government-backed union. Our attraction for the seasonal workers is weaker, though, and we have a long struggle ahead of us.