Tekel- Turkey: Passing on the experience of the class struggle

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At the end of 2009 a workers’ struggle began in Turkey, which became known far beyond its borders, not least because a delegation of the strikers visited Western Europe in June and July 2010. It came to report on its experiences and to draw lessons together with those interested in doing so.

A short recapitulation: thousands of workers from Tekel, the former State tobacco and liquor enterprises, protested against the privatisation of the company and above all against the attacks which went with it, in particular wage cuts and lay-offs. The workers came together to protest in the capital city Ankara, and received lots of sympathy and solidarity from the local population. In addition they sought the support of wider sectors of the working class, in particular in those plants in Turkey, where struggles were already going on.  In the course of their protests and attempts to extend the struggle, the Tekel workers came up against the resistance of the trade unions, who revealed themselves to be part of the State apparatus. Along with striking workers of other state enterprises (for instance dockers, building workers and fire fighters) they founded, in Istanbul, an alliance of struggling workers. At the May Day demonstration in Taskim Square, in Istanbul, where 350.000 people were present they occupied the stage and read out a declaration against the complicity of the trade unions with the state. The trade union leaders led from the stage and sent the police against the workers. Despite the support which the Tekel struggle was given, it did not succeed in the end to the extent that the privatisation and the attacks were not withdrawn.

But the combatants decided that their experience ought to be passed on to other workers, not only in Turkey, but beyond its borders. Already during these struggles contacts had been established with politicised people in other countries. This was particularly the case regarding Germany, where the largest number of migrant workers is to be found and where the struggle was followed with particular sympathy. Thanks to the support from different groups from the anarchist and left-communist milieus a tour through Germany and Switzerland was made possible. A delegation from the Tekel workers visited ten cities in Germany and in Switzerland, where a variety of participants benefited from the information and the discussions that took place, about which we now want to report.

The tour


The venues of this tour, which took place between mid-June and the beginning of July 2010, were Hanover, Berlin, Brunswick, Hamburg, Duisburg, Cologne, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Zürich. It was above all the ICC which made this trip to Europe possible. Most of the meetings were organised by the Freie ArbeiterInnen Union (FAU/Free Workers Union), in Berlin by the Social Revolutionary Discussion Circle, whereas the meeting in Zürich was organised by the group Karakök Autonomy. These and other groups mobilised with combined forced for these meetings. The number of participants varied between 10 and around 40. It must be taken into consideration that at the same moment the World Cup was going on in South Africa, and the matches were often being televised at the same time as the meetings were taking place. The people, who came, were for the most part young, but not exclusively. In those cities where a lot of Turkish and Kurdish workers live, the parental generation of these 20-30 year old people was also present.
A worker from Tekel gave a presentation explaining the history of the struggle between December 2009 and May 2010. In a lively manner he reported about the experience of the struggling workers, how they tried in vain to push the trade unions to declare a general strike of the state employed workers, about the short-lived occupation of the Türki-Is trade union headquarters in Ankara, and how the police protected the trade unions, about the tent city in Ankara and the solidarity of the local population. He told about how the struggle of the Tekel workers allowed the overcoming of the divisions between Kurds and Turks or between men and women, or between the voters of this or that party.  For example the police stopped the buses, carrying 8,000 workers, in front of the gates of Ankara and declared that they would only let those through who did not come from the Tekel plants in the Kurdish areas. In reply to this all the strikers got off the buses together and began marching towards the distant city centre, to the astonishment of the police. For them a division between Kurdish and Turkish workers did not come into question.

The Discussions

The discussions which followed the presentation showed a lively interest of the participants in the struggle in Turkey. The atmosphere was fraternal, full of solidarity and empathy – tears were also shed. Most of the participants identified themselves with the goal of the Tekel workers. Those among them, who did not yet know much about the struggle posed concrete questions showing that in Germany and Switzerland people had also been thinking about these struggles.
The unity of the workers across the different visible and invisible frontiers was greeted in almost all the discussions as having been of great importance. The Turkish state tried to divide up the combatants, but the workers did not allow this to take place. On the contrary, they sought for the greatest possible solidarity with other sections of the class. Only in this manner could a feeling of strength arise, but also a real balance of forces in our favour. The struggle in Turkey, it is true, did not achieve the goals it had set itself, but the direction it went in was the right one. Precisely in such a country, where from all kinds of groups and the state, Turkish and Kurdish (but also Armenian) nationalism has been whipped up; such a development towards unity is particularly remarkable.
For many, the trade union question was central. At the level of the immediate experience there was agreement: the Türki-Is fulfilled in this struggle a similar role to that which we know so well in other countries. They tried to render the workers passive, only mobilising action under pressure from the workers themselves, and in such a manner that their energies would be dissipated. At that same moment, the struggles were going on in Greece, where the big Trade union confederations were playing a similar role, and revealing themselves as defenders of the ruling order and of the State. In Germany and in Switzerland also this role of the Trade unions is well known. The public at the Tekel meetings were impressed by the way in which the Tekel workers, and those who took up their struggle, had opposed the unions and openly combated them, but would they not have needed trade unions “of their own”? Did the Tekel struggle not fail because of the lack of this? At almost all the discussions which the FAU had organised the question cropped up whether or not new, “revolutionary” or “anarchist” trade unions should not be founded.  In some cities, for example in Duisburg, comrades from among the supporters of the FAU theorised the fact that Tekel had been less a strike movement and more a demonstration and protest combat. Is this not to be explained by the fact that a proletarian trade union was missing? The Tekel worker, who had held the introductory presentation, did not share this point of view.  He based his argumentation on his own experience, showing that the trade unions, on account of their role, would in the last instance, always place themselves on the side of the State, even if they had been founded by workers or revolutionaries, and initially might serve the immediate needs of the struggle. But what other possibilities do we have? How should we organise our struggle? The answer given by the Tekel worker was through struggle or strike committees. As long as the struggle is going on, they ought to be organised by the workers themselves through delegates who are revocable at any moment. The mass assemblies should vote a strike committee which has to give back its mandate to the assemblies. As opposed to this any permanent representation which is independent of the mobilisation of the combatants is condemned to becoming a “normal” bureaucratic trade union. This discussion was not held everywhere with the same clarity and profoundness. But for example in Brunswick these alternatives were posed in this manner, and the majority of those present seemed quite convinced by the point of view of the comrades. In other words, the majority tended to agree that the possibility of founding “revolutionary” trade unions should be dismissed. This discussion about the trade union question, using the experience of the Tekel struggle, as its point of departure, seems to us all the more important and topical, since, as we know, within the anarcho-syndicalist milieu in Germany a somewhat controversial discussion is going on about whether or not to attempt to get recognition from the State as an official trade union (the FAU in Berlin even went to court to this end)? Not only from the marxist, left communist point of view but also from the point of view of anarcho-syndicalism itself, this appears to be a self-contradiction.
Another question which came up in the discussion in the different cities was that of factory occupations. Why did the workers not occupy the factories? Why did they not run these plants themselves without the bosses? These questions were posed against the background of certain struggles in recent times in Germany, Italy and Switzerland, where the employees were faced with the problem of factories being closed down. At Tekel this is not exactly the case, since a lot of the plants were not being closed down but privatised. There, production went on under the bosses. Nevertheless, the delegate of the Tekel workers underlined that the strength of the movement consisted precisely in the fact that the workers had not withdrawn into the Tekel plants, isolated in various parts of the country, but had gone together to Ankara.  Only by bringing together thousands of workers was it possible that the feeling of strength could arise which was necessary for the struggle (even though it did not end with a material victory).

What remains?


Has this series of public meetings brought us beyond their point of departure? We think that from different points of view advances can be identified.
For one thing it deserves to be mentioned that, on the occasion of this tour, different groups collaborated together for the first time in public, in particular  the anarcho-syndicalist FAU and the left communist ICC. The collaboration with internationalist anarchists has long been rooted in our own tradition, but here and on this occasion, it was concretised anew – something which, for us, is not coincidental. The common work achieved here is a sign that the need for unity on a proletarian basis is awakening, a need of the working class to overcome a certain group egoism. Of course we already knew each other beforehand and had used other occasions already to discuss this or that question. But a collaboration such as came into being in the early summer of this year was something new.
The pursuit of the unity of the working class, of the overcoming of divisions, was from the beginning the basis of the initiative for the Tekel tour. This trip had the goal of passing on the experiences and the lessons of a struggle far beyond the local or
national level. The international dimension was at the heart of this. The point was not to present Turkish speciality to the world as something exotic, but rather to look for points in common at the international level and to discuss them. As it turned out the experience of the Tekel workers with the trade unions and how they reacted to them, was not something isolated, but a tendency which has long been announced and which again and again expresses itself. During the struggles in the spring in Greece, the workers also came up against the trade unions and began to exert themselves against them. In France, during the mobilisation against the “pension reforms”, above all young people came together in different cities, called for assemblies at the end of demonstrations in order to discuss the following:  how can we develop our struggle independently of the unions?  How can we overcome the divisions within the working class between the different professions, between pensioners and those still active, between the unemployed and those who still have a job, between precarious labour and those who still have contracts? What is the goal of our struggles? How can we come closer to the goal of a classless society?
In Italy, in June and in October of this year, two assemblies of combative workers from all over Italy took place in Milan, the so-called “autoconvocazioni”. Around one hundred people took part and discussed very similar questions: how can the divisions between the working class be overcome, how to resist the sabotage of the trade unions? How to overcome this crisis ridden capitalist system?
Turkey, Greece, France, Italy – four examples which show that the working class in Europe, since the beginning of 2010, has started to overcome the state  of paralysis which affected it after the financial crisis of 2008. The class as a whole still does not feel confident enough to take the struggle into its own hands. But minorities of the class are posing themselves precisely these questions and trying to move forward. The fact that such discussions take place simultaneously in different places illustrates that this is a need which goes beyond borders. The Tekel tour was one answer to this need. The Tekel delegation had the goal of showing the international dimension of our local struggles and discussions. Solidarity is the feeling which expresses the unity of the working class. On many occasions during these meetings the question was posed:  how can we support the struggles “abroad”? The answer of the Tekel worker was: by taking up the struggle yourselves.

The political minorities of the working class are beginning to sense the fact that the struggle is worldwide, and that it has to be waged as such in a conscious manner. The reports about the solidarity with the Tekel struggle were an inspiration for those participating at these meetings. And it is our intention to pass on this message as best we can. The politicised and combative minorities of the class are catalysers of the future struggles. The struggle at Tekel was not in vain, even if the lay-offs could not be prevented. 
ICC 23/11/10