Metin Kara (a pseudonym) worked on the staff of DISK, the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions. He now lives in exile in Brussels, and he works with the DISK liaison bureau there. His trade union work dates back to 1967, when he was a member of a DISK-affiliated union. From 1975 to 1978, he worked as a staff member in the publication and education bureaus of several DISK member unions. He was interviewed in late 1983 by Sami Kum, a Turkish citizen who now lives in the US and works with the Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Turkey.
How do you see the political history of the workers’ movement in Turkey after World War II?
The formation of the Democrat Party (DP) after the war served to express the discontent of various social classes with the ruling Republican Peoples’ Party (RPP). Laws banning workers’ organizations were abolished, but the regime responded to the rapid formation of these organizations with a law prepared by two British experts that forbade unions from striking, engaging in collective bargaining, or political activities. The RPP filled the leadership cadre of these unions with its own supporters. The opposition Democrats defended the right to strike and put it in their program in 1949, so workers supported the DP in the 1950 elections. Ten years of Democrat Party rule brought a period of American-type unionization, and the workers experienced the unions as quasi-state organizations. The discontent that developed against the DP government in the late 1950s was also directed against these unions. The military coup of May 1960 marked the beginning of a new era. With the new constitution promulgated in 1961, individuals and social groups gained many democratic rights and freedoms.
Was the 1960 coup entirely positive? What role did the workers play?
That coup brought many rights and freedoms, but it also served to preempt the popular ouster of a regime opposed by many different sectors of Turkish society. The Democrat Party was losing its electoral base in industrial cities such as Istanbul, Zonguldak and Adana. The youth at the universities and the intelligentsia were effectively united in opposition to DP rule. There was a logic of pacification to the coup. Without the coup, we might not have experienced the political richness of the 1960s, but we might not have had to endure the poverty of the 1980s, either.
It seems that the determining factors in the development of the workers’ movement have been imposed from above to a great extent. What was the response of the working class to these rights and freedoms after 1960?
True, the workers received the right to strike and to bargain collectively without waging a protracted struggle, and these rights were then taken back, again all of a sudden. But the workers’ movement played an important role in the developments after 1960. The strike in 1962 at the Kavel cable factory in Istanbul testified to the militancy of the workers’ movement, and hastened the promulgation in 1963 of the law on collective bargaining, strikes and lockouts.
Against this demonstrated militancy of union members was another trend of the 1960s, the preservation of the old leadership of the unions. American involvement continued. From 1961 to 1971, some 600 Turkish labor leaders were trained in the US under AFL-CIO auspices. During this period, the Türk-Iş leadership blatantly opposed several significant strikes initiated by member unions, such as the ones at Bozkurt Mensucat, an Istanbul textile factory, and Ataş, an oil refinery in Mersin. The union bureaucrats denounced the Kozlu mineworkers’ strike of 1965 as “provoked by the communists.”
The workers paid a price for their lack of experience in the struggle for unionization, as their demands to democratize the unions were constantly frustrated. The young and inexperienced left forces were not in a position to offer any help. Worker opposition to the “official” unions crystallized at the time of a strike at the Paşabahce glass factory near Istanbul in 1966. The open alliance between the government, the bosses and the Türk-Iş leadership led to the expulsion of the striking unions from Türk-Iş. This was the catalyst for the establishment in February 1967 of the Confederation of Progressive Workers’ Unions (DISK). It started with 30,000 members; a little more than a decade later, it had more than half a million members, plus the support of hundreds of thousands of teachers, civil servants and others who were not allowed to unionize.
What was the relationship between the unions and the political parties after 1961?
The law forbade official relations between unions and parties, though party members could join the unions. All the various political movements tried to establish positions of influence in the union bureaucracies. In practice, whenever leftists achieved some power in a union administration they were accused of violating the law, while rightists managed to engage in union politics without opposition from the government. Türk-Iş has always maintained good relations with the party in power. DISK always tried to raise the consciousness of its members in the direction of their class interests. As a result, leftist and social democratic tendencies were well represented in the DISK administration. DISK reflected the political heterogeneity of its membership base, rather than the homogeneity of the workers’ class interests.
How many workers are there in Turkey? In which confederations are they unionized?
The workers included in the social security system numbered around 6 million in 1980. Since this number includes workplaces employing even a single worker, it can be considered fairly accurate. But the total work force that year was around 19 million, and there are no reliable statistics on agricultural workers. Of these 6 million, only 1.5 million were unionized: Türk-Iş had about 900,000 members and DISK around 500,000; the rest were divided between independent unions, MISK—a fascist confederation controlled by the Nationalist Action Party—and Hak-Iş, the Muslim fundamentalist confederation. Türk-Iş is mostly organized in the state sector and in state industrial enterprises. About half of its members are state employees. DISK is mostly organized in the private sector.
Why is Türk-Iş more organized in the state sector?
Türk-Iş being favored by the government, was always more effective in obtaining higher raises in wages and other benefits. In the early 1950s, most union organizing took place in the state sector. Private industry was insignificant. Türk-Iş has preserved this historical advantage well.
How many agricultural workers are unionized?
Only a small minority of the agricultural workers are employed by capitalist enterprises. Agricultural workers live and work under more severe conditions than do industrial workers. Unionization is mainly restricted to state breeding farms. The Law of Agricultural Labor has still not been passed, reflecting the slow development of capitalism in agriculture.
What measures have the unions taken to counter the problem of unemployment?
Since the state provides no unemployment benefits, one of the primary aims of the unions was to ensure job security. Adequate compensation to those fired and the formation of a council composed of employers and employees to decide on firings were two principal demands of the unions. Given that only 10 percent of the work force is unionized, the unions’ efforts to counter unemployment were very limited. Toward the end of the 1970s, the number of unemployed workers approached 3 million. The situation is much worse now. Most of these unemployed live in the cities selling fruit, vegetables and cigarettes on street corners. A considerable number were “employed” by the terrorist gangs of the late 1970s.
What is the attitude of those workers who emigrated to Europe toward unionization?
The number of workers in Germany alone is over a million. The Turkish workers in Europe spent years in silence because of problems such as language. A considerable number, coming from rural backgrounds, had no factory experience. Gradually, they adapted to the new surroundings and began to take part in unions. The role of the Turkish unions among these workers is restricted to relations with the European unions that have Turkish workers among their members. DISK applied for membership to the European Trade Unions Congress, but the 1980 military coup killed this application.
The economic recession has now forced the immigrant workers to return. The same workers that spent years adapting to German society now encounter difficulties adapting to Turkish society. But the workers returning from Europe have a potential to make positive contributions to the Turkish workers’ movement.
To what extent did DISK in its organization and practice emphasize the struggle for democracy?
Within DISK, the main aim was the unification of rules of inter-union democracy and their acceptance by all the member unions. At the Seventh General Convention of DISK, in June 1980, delegates were elected in accordance with these regulations.
What exactly were these new regulations changing?
According to the old regulations, the union administrations had the right to appoint some of the delegates for their conventions. The new democratic regulations restricted the power of the union administrations to appoint delegates, although it did not abolish this power altogether.
Can you compare the coups of 1971 and 1980 with respect to the workers’ movement?
The repression of the regime in 1971 was much more limited compared to that of the present regime. It restricted the application of certain union rights. The present regime has undertaken the task of restructuring the unions. The effective ban on DISK, systematic firing of DISK members, by the Assembly triggered the events of June 15-16: Hundreds of thousands of workers marched toward Istanbul from nearby industrial districts. As a result of the clashes with the security forces, three workers died and many were wounded. The government declared martial law and detained 21 DISK leaders. These events showed the determination of the workers’ movement to defend the rights it had gained in the 1961 constitution. The new trade union law of 1983 is very much like the one proposed in 1971 and rejected by the court as unconstitutional.
The events between the coup in 1971 preparation of blacklists to prevent their rehiring, the death penalties requested at the trial of the DISK leaders—these are all steps toward this aim. Collective bargaining and strikes are banned. In the 1970s, mainly due to the economic recession, the freedoms guaranteed by the 1961 constitution became unacceptable to the ruling classes. The strikes that had disastrous effects on small businesses were beginning to threaten the large monopolies. In 1970 the government submitted to the National Assembly a new draft law that was aimed to change the existing union law. The draft accepted and that in 1980 are tragic. It is very difficult for me to talk about this period. We lived in a period where all the democratic rules were corrupted in the name of democracy, a period where all the instruments of propaganda were used to smash an inexperienced opposition. One of the justifications of the generals was to curb terrorism, but they had the means to curb terrorism before taking power. Martial law was in effect since 1978. Everybody knew about the arms smuggling and the gangster activities. And virtually within two weeks of their taking power, the problem of terrorism was solved.
What are the most significant features of the new union law?
The new law bans any union from collective bargaining unless it has the membership of 10 percent of the workers in that sector. The workers will naturally prefer the existing unions, so this effectively precludes the formation of any alternative union.
What was the reaction of the social democratic wing of Türk-Iş, to this law?
The law was prepared under the auspices of the government in which Sadik Side, secretary-general of Türk-Iş, was a minister.
Why weren’t there any reactions to the military regime, at least from the workers?
The 1971 interim regime created an atmosphere where the meaning of democracy was better understood. Ecevit’s RPP, with its left slogans, won the 1973 elections as the party of “hope.” With the breakup of the RPP’s coalition with the National Salvation Party in 1974, right after the Cyprus invasion, the downturn began. The fascist cadres formed by the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), a member of the coalition government formed by the right-wing Justice Party, began to organize very rapidly and systematically.
Severe economic conditions after the 1973 oil crisis hastened the pace of political polarization. The National Front government strived to turn this polarization into armed confrontation. Youth organizations of the NAP were carrying out silencing operations in universities and factories. Many people perceived an RPP government as the solution. Striking workers, for instance, expected Ecevit to win the 1977 elections and force the employers to yield to the workers’ demands. The RPP won the plurality, but fell short of the necessary 226 deputies to form a single-party government. The summer of 1977 was a hard time for the masses, who had patiently awaited the day after the elections. A period of terror started. Coffee shops, buses and private houses were targets of attack.
At this same time, the RPP government began to lose its wide mass support, due to its helplessness before the demands for economic austerity from the International Monetary Fund. At the beginning of 1980, the RPP government fell following the resignation of the ten independent ministers. Demirel’s Justice Party formed a minority government with the support of the former Nationalist Front parties and endorsed the IMF proposals. The new period was very hard for the unions. DISK members were determined to struggle against the freezing of wages; DISK was the main obstacle to overcome, because Türk-Iş had accepted the proposed social contract as early as 1978.
Employers opposed the modest wage increases demanded by DISK unions, so the workers were forced to strike. Their number increased steadily—50,876 workers at 184 factories were on strike in June 1980. These long strikes took their toll on the unions economically. At this juncture, DISK’s struggle was not restricted to the strikes only. It had become an organization that was struggling for the basic demands for democratization of the masses. “Democracy rallies” organized by DISK in various cities attracted tens of thousands.
But a silent majority stood by, watching the murders, the terrorist attacks, the bombings, like a horror movie. The workers were on strike and the parliament at a standstill. People with children at universities, high schools and even primary schools lived with the fear of receiving news of the death of their children. One could hear the machine guns and bombs every hour of the day. The coup on September 12, 1980 came in such a situation. Because of this, it was silently accepted. The atmosphere was one of defeat, a social defeat. You try to mobilize people around certain demands. The ruling classes get organized not to give any. You could feel day by day that you were losing. The workers were tired, squeezed into a corner. We realized that a powerful and determined attack was underway, and the means to resist this attack did not exist. A military takeover was not necessary. A coalition between the Justice Party and the RPP could have achieved the same results. The point is that the workers as a class were defeated. The treaty could take any form.
What was the function of the “democracy rallies”?
DISK was trying to show that it had a large and determined support among the working masses. These rallies were a reaction to the political layoffs. They were organized in cities where large numbers of political layoffs were on the agenda. To remain silent against these layoffs was to lose all the credibility that was built up in years. After the massacre in Kahramanmaraş we prepared a “democratic platform” that would bring together the professional associations such as the teachers’, engineers’, civil servants’ and doctors’ associations. Today these preparations are one of the primary prosecution charges in the DISK trial.
What political alliances was DISK ready to enter?
There were different political lines in the executive committee of DISK, from the supporters of the RPP to those more radical. Chairman Baştürk was authorized by the executive committee to enter into negotiations with all the progressive, democratic political lines, excluding the Maoists. Some responses were affirmative, but some were not able to grasp the urgency of the unified actions. Some thought that there was a “revolutionary situation” and did not care much about defensive measures. We should not forget that prior to the September 12, 1980 coup, members of opposing factions were killing each other to get control of small districts.
At any point do you think the DISK leadership could have intervened to assert its political influence?
DISK was never able to intervene in the events to the extent of reversing or influencing developments. Most of those involved in the working-class movement were young. Most had rural backgrounds. They were first-generation workers. The working-class movement in Turkey was on the defensive, despite the offensive rhetoric that was used frequently.
Did you expect a military coup?
Yes. During the coalition talks, when Ecevit gave all the concessions and Demirel held back, there were consistent rumors that Demirel was not making an agreement because of such expectations. Of course, Demirel did not expect that he would be barred from politics for 10 years. He must have expected a coup akin to that of 1971.
The fascists’ whole strategy was based on provocations—political turmoil which would result in a military takeover. I still remember a headline from the right-wing columnist Ergun Göze in the daily Tercüman: “We want Indonesia.” The fascists expected massacres of leftists and militant workers.
What preparations were taken by the DISK leadership?
There weren’t any. About 50,000 workers were on strike. The unions had to feed them, to pay them; the unions were exhausted. The workers were also exhausted. The workers weren’t too concerned about the possibility of a military takeover. Their living conditions were so bad that it was almost impossible for them to imagine them worse. There were no means to organize against a coup. A trade union, at its best, can only be a support for a political movement, but cannot organize resistance to a political attack on this scale. Look what happened to Solidarity in Poland.
What was the reaction of the DISK leadership and of the workers to the coup? Was there the expectation that the takeover was a kind of “interim” regime like the one in 1971, and that DISK would somehow be able to survive?
The coup was announced that morning on the radio. In this announcement, the authorities demanded that all the DISK leaders, including the shop-floor representatives, surrender. I immediately left home and stayed at different places for a couple of days. A week later, I left the country. I did not see anyone. I am not in the position to assess the reactions of the workers or of the leadership.
I personally expected that DISK might survive, with some restrictions. It was hardly necessary to suspend the activities of DISK: It was hopelessly tied up in itself anyway. The military used DISK, and especially the DISK trial, as an instrument of political propaganda, to justify its own existence to the middle class.
What alternatives do you see for the development of a workers’ movement in Turkey?
I have been away from the country for three years, and I don’t know exactly what the sentiment is at the shop-floor level. The fate of DISK is uncertain; it is not yet closed down officially, but it probably will be. One alternative may be working within Türk-Iş. But from what I have heard lately, Türk-Iş is not allowing former members of DISK to elect representatives or serve as representatives in a new union.
Another alternative may be forming independent unions. Since these unions will not be allowed to enter into collective bargaining until they represent at least 10 percent of all the workers in that sector, they may seek to build their strength by winning concessions from the individual employers through work actions not specifically forbidden by law, such as arriving late or extending the lunch break. Factory occupations and wildcat strikes are likely developments. I am sure these workers will be able to channel their accumulated grievances into new, creative means of struggle.
From 1960 to 1980 Turkey had a lively democratic experience which was quite unique in the Third World. The past three years had taught many of us the real meaning of democracy. I cannot be pessimistic about a society that has acquired such a tradition.