Ahmet (a pseudonym) was a founder of the Turkish People’s Liberation Front Party in 1971. He was imprisoned from 1972 to 1974, and released during the general amnesty. He worked with Türk-Iş (the state-endorsed trade union confederation) in the 1970s and helped publish the political journal Birikim. In 1979, he was invited by Abdullah Baştürk to transfer to work with DISK, the progressive confederation of trade unions. Ahmet resigned from DISK in April 1980. Today, Ahmet is underground, accused by the military government of “trying to overthrow the existing constitution by force” (a conviction which carries the death penalty), and of trying to organize unions, an activity which was legal under the 1961 constitution revoked by the military. Being underground, Ahmet cannot go to his family home, or work with Türk-Iş or as a journalist. He is working to establish a political journal aimed at a mass audience that could begin again to raise criticisms of the Turkish state. MERIP contributing editor Karen Pfeifer spoke with him in Ankara in late November 1983.
What are the important features of the trade union movement in Turkey in the last two decades?
From 1963 to 1969, there were many shop-level strikes around economic issues. These wildcats were illegal according to existing collective bargaining laws. They showed the extent of rank-and-file discontent, but they were not effective because they were not organized across the working class as a whole, and they did not raise any political demands. The key problem at this time was job security, owing to arbitrary and abrupt firings. The unions demanded increased compensation for dismissed workers. Employers agreed to this while preserving their right to fire workers at will and thus avoid keeping workers for the 25 years that would make them eligible for social security. DISK was formed in 1967 in response to these issues.
What were the major political currents in DISK?
They were influenced by the Turkish Labor Party, a socialist party. Between 1976 and 1978, the Communist Party of Turkey (CPT) exercised influence over DISK through its control of the key metal workers’ union. Organizationally, DISK was quite bureaucratic and conservative. The workers could participate very little in decision making.
In 1978, Abdullah Baştürk, the head of the public service workers, took his union out of Türk-Iş, and into DISK. This was an important infusion of numbers and political clout for DISK. Baştürk himself was known as a democratic socialist, and he was shifting leftward from the social democracy of the Republican Peoples’ Party (RPP) and Türk-Iş. The executive committee of DISK took on greater political character, with three RPP representatives, one Communist Party representative, one representative of the radical left groups, such as Dev Yol, and one democratic socialist, Baştürk. Baştürk then became general secretary. He consolidated his control over DISK, to the chagrin of the CPT, by inviting in his former co-organizers from Türk-Iş, such as myself. I resigned in 1980 over the failure of the DISK leadership to carry through a thorough democratization process—for example, in developing workers’ councils. Within the unions, the leaders used socialist jargon, but they did not follow socialist policies in relation to the members. The leftist parties were at fault in exercising influence over leaders, but not grounding it in rank-and-file organization.
What were the economic conditions that led to the coup, and how did the unions deal with them?
Between 1977 and 1980, labor income was increasing faster than property income in Turkey. The amount that capital had to pay workers as severance and retirement grew rapidly. Employers began to resist, and advocated changing the collective bargaining agreements. The unions resisted any such change, and there were several very long strikes with many days lost. This contributed to a serious economic crisis, at a time when there was no political solution to the class conflicts that lay behind the crisis.
The employers began to bring fascists into the factories to intimidate the workers. After 1978, the right-wing government began firing the RPP civil servants in state enterprises, and placing their own people in management jobs. Workers took over factories in protest—for example, the Tariş factory in Izmir. Demirel and his three rightist coalition parties used the state apparatus to promote their specific interests instead of to govern, a practice contrary to Turkish tradition, and to engage in unprecedented political assassinations. This led to mass resistance and armed defense by the left. The traditional “middle” in Turkish politics and the state disintegrated.
By 1980, there were only two possible outcomes. One was a “dialogue” between the RPP and the conservative coalition to somehow restrain the growing violent conflicts. The other was a military coup. Under either scenario, DISK’S activities were bound to be curtailed. There was a need to strengthen DISK at the shop-floor level, to shift power to the base through democratic workers’ councils. The leadership of the DISK unions resisted any dilution of their power. It was over this issue that I and my group broke with Baştürk.
How has the military coup affected the unions’ organization and ability to operate?
The right to strike has become impossible to exercise in practice. Collective bargaining is now subjected to the Supreme Arbitration Council under Naci Varlik, no friend of labor. All unions were required to reorganize themselves by the end of 1983. The union leaders now are all very tight with the military and government officials; they are part of the same clique. There are no “politics” allowed in the unions.
Under these conditions, and given the decline in the standard of living and in employment opportunities, I expect that working conditions will become a more focal issue in the future. For example, health councils are supposed to exist, but don’t. This is an important new area for militant activity.
You must understand that rights were never “taken” by the workers here. They were “given” by the state, in line with Turkey’s political tradition. Since the coup, unions have become irrelevant for protecting the workers’ rights. Workers just go directly to the employers. Workers don’t go to meetings now, and they don’t want to be delegates. But there is pressure from the shop floor to organize around working conditions, especially the health councils.
Is there any scope at all for political maneuver within the unions these days?
The government has decreed that the Türk-Iş unions must elect their leaders first, before DISK members will be allowed in. That way the DISK people cannot take over the leadership of the Türk-Iş unions. But there are still three possible avenues for progressive organization being discussed by DISK. One is to join Türk-Iş en masse. One is the set up another new confederation; three right-wing unions are also discussing this at the present time. The third option is to wait for the DISK trials to end and then to see if DISK can somehow continue.
Within Türk-Iş, 16 out of 34 unions—about 30 percent of the members—are under social democratic influence. But some of their leaders resigned—for example, the construction workers’ union president, Muzaffer Sarac—and joined SODEP, the new social democratic party. The social democratic elements within Türk-Iş are really our only hope at the moment. They are discussing how to form a democratic workers’ movement within Türk-Iş after elections have been held. But the emergence of SODEP has postponed this.
Can you bring us up to date on the DISK trials?
Of the 29 unions belonging to DISK in 1980, 23 have been prosecuted under Article 141, for “forming an organization to establish a hegemony of one social class over other social classes.” This statute, by the way, was borrowed from the Italian fascist penal code of 1929. One thousand five hundred ninety-one persons from these unions were accused. 212 were arrested and released, but all are being tried under Article 141. This is still in process. The punishments for convictions will be 8 to 20 years imprisonment for founders and 5 to 12 years for members.
There is also a case against DISK as a whole. Out of this there came three indictments. Fifty-two persons in the first indictment were accused under Article 146 of “attempting to overthrow the existing constitutional institutions and social order by force.” Although 21 of the 52 have been released from jail, all the cases are still pending and the punishment is death by hanging. 19 persons in the second indictment were accused under Article 146—ten under 146-1, which carries the death penalty, and nine under 146-3 which carries a penalty of 5 to 15 years in prison. These nine were released. In the third indictment, three persons were accused under 146-1 and two were released. Seventy-five other persons are now fugitives. There are search warrants out for them under Article 146-1. We expect that most will probably be changed to 146-3. Ultimately, we expect that all cases still pending will be changed to Article 141.
There is very little support from within Turkey for either those in jail or those at large. With the information blackout, it is very hard for people to find out what is going on.