Telekom: Autopsy of a Strike

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When the Turkish bosses woke up on 28th of November, they realized that things weren't going as they were used to. The lines of Istanbul Stock exchange were cut off due to an accident on a building site, and as there was a strike at that point at Turkish Telekom they weren't able to send a technical observer to the building firm and thus the stock exchanges first session couldn't open. This caused Ali Bahçucav, the chairman of the foundation of stock investors, a representative of fictious capital, to raise a very hard yet a very meaningful voice. According to Bahçuvan, either the Telekom administration had to "solve the problem, or Telekom had to be nationalized again". If the Oger Group[1] wasn't even capable of dealing with problems as such today, what were they going to do when there were "serious problems" in the area of "defense" tomorrow? Thus, the other factions of the bourgeoisie started pushing Telekom capital because of the key importance of Telekom. As a result, the "unsolvable" disagreements and the "impossible" trade-union demands were settled in a meeting where "there were no winners or losers" (as the trade-union leader said) of course with the "mediation" and rupture of the Minister of Communication. After the long negotiations, Telekom managers had presented their complaints to the minister who in turn gave the trade-union bureaucrats a slap on the head. And then what? Hurriyet[2] reports in 30 November that:

"After the agreement reached at the negotiations, Communications Minister Binali Yildirim, Turk-Is (Turkish-Work) Chairman Salih Kilic, Turkish News-Work Union Chairan Ali Akcan and chairman of the Turkish Telekom Managerial and Adminstrative Committee Paul Donay ate dinner at Beykoz Trautters and Tripes Saloon."

What was the issue?

We always need to remember that whenever the press, trade-unions, or bureaucrats of capital are in trouble, they try to reduce the matters to numbers and percentages by bringing out complicated statistics which they hope the workers won't understand. The problem started like this in the process of the Telekom strike. During the seventh round of the negotiations, the trade union and the Oger group had agreed on around twenty issues and had not agreed on about ninety issues. According to the union, the flexibility of work, subcontracts, the differences between the wages of unionized and non-unionized workers were the main problems. The trade-union portrayed those problems to the working class as an "attack" of international, foreign capital. However when examined it is easy to see that the problem is much more simple. Turk-Is[3] had always been shaped as a union by the divisions within the ruling class, that is the block in power and the mainstream bourgeois opposition. If the change in power in Turk-Is is observed, the fact that the majority of the confederation went to a pro-AKP direction while the minority has moved close to the nationalist opposition would verify this. Just before this change in power in at the general conference of the trade-union confederation, the "opposition" made up of Haber-Is[4], Petrol-Is and some other trade unions started blaming the pro-AKP trade-union for ‘submission'. Of course the bargaining behind the curtain could be interpreted as the negotiation of to what extent the nationalist trade-union bureaucrats will be liquified.

Thus it is not surprising that the pro-AKP wing took the administration right before the Telekom strike. In reality all the trade-unions in opposition (Haber-Is, Petrol-Is, Gida-Is[5]) are either organized in privatized workplaces, or workplaces that are in the process of privatization. In places where both cases are absent, those trade unions are trying to organize in sectors that have been developing recently, such as Novamed. In the first case, the trade-unions are facing the danger of losing the representative position they have with the state. As seen at Telekom, the bosses in privatized workplaces are giving the workers who quit the trade-unions certain privileges and thus are liquidizing traditional state unionism. In the second case, we can see the efforts of trade-unions connected to Turk-Is to organize, and this partially conflicts with the government policy of cheap labor in free trade zones.

Thus when certain trade-unions within Turk-Is are confronted with the possibility of being liquidized by the state, they respond by bothering and threatening the state with strikes. It could be helpful to examine the history of Turk-Is in order to understand this tendency within it.

Turk-Is: An Abomination Created by State Capitalism and American Imperialism

As soon as it was founded as a trade-union confederation, Turk-Is became a product of the political struggle between the DP (Democratic Party)[6] and the CHP (Republican People's Party) and their conquest to establish their rule over the working class. In this sense, the bourgeois faction that had the majority in parliament always ended up in power within Turk-Is. In this sense Turk-Is assumed the role of the most solid Trojan horse of the dominant bourgeois ideology within the working class. What is more is that Turk-Is was created specifically for this purpose and this purpose only! Inspired to the AFL-CIO in America, Turk-Is was directly formed, funded and shaped by American imperialism. Even the "anti-imperialist" nationalists who are in the nationalist wing of Turk-Is today had said this in the past, although now obviously the situation is different (!)

All those facts show that Turk-Is was formed in order to manipulate the workers movement arising in 1950's in Turkey after the long counter revolution starting at the end of 1920's. The bi-polar imperialist struggle under the name of Cold War after the end of the Second World War required satellite countries to be shaped in a statist manner. While this was done in the name of "socialism" in Russia and it's satellites, in states directed by the US it was done under the name of "democracy". This transformation after the 1950's that pushed the Turkish state into wearing a "democratic and western" mask against the USSR was reflected in the trade-unions and in the mid fifties the heating tensions made an organ such as Turk-Is necessary for the interests of the state and of the bourgeoisie. In order to replace the previous ideological understanding which was almost a fascist corporatist ideological understanding which stated that the state represented all classes, and even that classes didn't exist in Turkey with a Western model which included the "the freedom of expression and organization", laws regarding trade unions and strikes were started to be regulated. However ironically in this period while the trade-union rights rapidly expanded, the right to strike was tightened and the structure of ‘referee' rules was changed in order to increase the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the workers.

All those changes gave birth to Turk-Is and the trade-unions that are a part of it, the trade-union confederation was born as the main weapon of the new "democratic" and anti-communist Turkey within the American imperialist block. Afterwards, Turk-Is became a loyal guard dog against the Stalinist left and trade-unions close to it in the imperialist struggle and has been the main weapon of absorbing workers struggles. Although certainly not the only examples, the 1980 coup d'etat is an important example in its striking nature. During the coup, Turk-Is supported the junta effectively, and the chairman of the union was even rewarded with being made the Minister of Work in the temporary government formed by the army! This situation changed with the "normalization" at the end of the eighties with the reappearance of the of disagreements within the different factions of the bourgeoisie. Afterwards Turk-Is started losing it's privileged position rapidly. Just like the ungrateful masters who take the guard dog home when they are scared but then kick it out of the house when they are not scared anymore, the Turkish state left Turk-Is way behind in it's calculations. Because after all, the working class had been suppressed bloodily, and with the worldwide weakening of the so called "socialist" Stalinist political tendencies and of Russian imperialism and the fact that bloody practices was added to this made the marginalization complete.

Thus Turk-Is both had to find a way to keep the working class silent in line with the interests of the state, and also try to get back its place and reestablish it's significance within the state and legitimacy among the bourgeoisie. In this direction it started to conduct a "democratic" opposition which tried to show its strength to the state by threatening to take certain actions and tried to put the workers off in the meanwhile. The tactics of Turk-Is in the Telekom strike can be traced back to this. Of course those tactics became ineffective with the workers offensive at the end of the eighties and Turk-Is fell massively in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, but this matter exceeds the limits of this articles subject. The basic point which we want to emphasize is that in cases where it is pushed away from significance, Turk-Is occasionally threatening a certain faction of the bourgeoisie with fake shows that end up in a way that it is at the expanse of workers exhaustion is a very old tactic.

And what of the workers?

Of course, we can't reach a healthy conclusion if we only judge a strike from the perspective of the bourgeoisie and its tools within the working class. Nevertheless, the Telekom strike was important not just for Telekom workers but for the entire class. This strike both strengthened the illusions of trade unions supporting workers and also imprisoned workers class needs in one sector and prevented them from spreading their struggle to the rest of the class. In reality, the question that needs to be asked is the following: when does a strike win? One has to ask if the necessary environment for a strike to occur in Telekom was ready. It is clear that even in Telekom, workers were put against each other by the union and the bosses. When the unionized workers accused workers who were outside of the union or had left the union before of selfishness, they were clearly under the impact of the trade-unions and an environment of discussion wasn't present before the strike to enable those two different "sides" to act in solidarity with each other. As a result, the trade union pointed out the workers who left it for a sound reason such as getting more wages as a target to their own class brothers and sisters.

What is more, the trade union increased the dose of chauvinism and nationalist demagogy against every attack of the bourgeois media and thus succeeded in fooling the workers again. By portraying the sale of Telekom to a foreign group as an act of "treason to the fatherland", the trade-union put nationalization in front of the interests of workers. Hence accepting at the negotiations the same 10% which was offered by the bosses before the strike was justified in the name of the fatherland. When the boss of the Haber-Is trade union shamelessly declared that "the strike was economically a defeat but politically a victory" when he was speaking in the Middle Eastern Technical University, it was this situation he had in reality admitted, and he ran away quickly following the critical questions of a few students.

And this is the situation for the workers. A strike that lasted more than a month... and which brought no improvement in living standards and only served to deepen the division within the class. When the AKP government announced a 10% wage rise at the end of the year, the situation went to it's peak and this time the trade-unions in opposition hypocritically accuse the confederation chairmanship of "being sell-outs"...

The balance sheet

Just like the fact that communist revolutionaries need to take lessons from the victories of the working class, they need to take lessons from the defeats and have to defend them in other areas of class struggle. In order to do this, it is necessary for communists to be clear on every mistake they make and to use criticism as a weapon in every situation. Discussion is one of the most important tools for communists, just like it is for the working class in general. We need to accept that the Telekom strike did not end up in a victory in any way. The basic internal reasons for this are the following;

  1. This strike deepened the divisions within the working class created by the working class and put mistrust among unionized and non-unionized workers
  2. The Telekom strike, by forcing workers to put workers non-existing "national" interests in front of their class interests, served the political goals of the trade-union.
  3. As the strike wasn't prepared sufficiently before and as enough solidarity wasn't built among other sectors of the working class, it led to the rising will to struggle in among the class as a whole to be partially wasted and it strengthened trade-unionist illusions among workers

All this doesn't mean that we won't support strikes like this to the end. It just shows that we need to internalize that the first task of communists in strikes manipulated by trade-unions for their political goals, is to propagate an active solidarity among other workers with workers who are in the struggle in order to break trade-unionist bonds for them to obtain their interests. Only in this way can the workers start to see how empty the illusions regarding the trade unions are and where real victory lies in. For us communists, this lesson is one we need to protect and determinedly defend. In this sense, there is no doubt that the discussion created by the Telekom strike among the EKS will have a positive result.

Temel

[1] Owners of the Turk Telekom company.

[2] "Liberty", a mainstream bourgeois newspaper

[3] Turk-Is, literally Turkish-Work, is the main trade union confederation in Turkey.

[4] Haber-Is, literally News-Work union is the telecommunication workers union in Turk-Is confederation and the union which was involved with the strike.

[5] Petrol-Is and Gida-Is, literally Petrol-Work and Nourishment-Work are petroleum and nourishment workers unions in Turk-Is.

[6] The old "Democratic Party" was in power in the fiftees after they beat the Republican People's Party in the elections. They were booted out of power with a coup, which resulted in the main leader of the party and prime minister Adnan Menderes being executed. The party was banned afterwards. All mainstream center-right and parliamentary Islamic right-wing parties have historical links with this party.