The TEKEL resistance movement: reminiscences on class struggle.

Author:Ozugurlu, Metin
Position:Behind the News - Report


Some brief information on TEKEL workers' resistance

TEKEL is a privatised former state economic enterprise--the state monopoly of tobacco and alcoholic beverages--which employs 12,000 workers in 43 factories and workplaces in 21 cities across Turkey. British-American Tobacco, the new owners, sacked thousands of workers at the beginning of 2009. TEKEL workers decided to resist the '4-C' status by which their average monthly wages were reduced from TL1,200 (roughly US$800) to TL800 (roughly US$550), and the fact that they were offered job contracts of 10 months, with no guarantee of renewal. They gathered in Ankara, the capital city, occupied the streets of one of its central squares, Sakarya, and lived there in makeshift tents in the freezing cold of winter for 78 days, from 15 December 2009 to 2 March 2010. For more information, see Savran (2010a) and Yeldan (2010).



Andrew Sayer (2005) begins his book, The Moral Significance of Class, by writing, 'Class is an embarrassing and unsettling subject'. It is a fair point, since in the present day there is probably no other state of sociality like the class that includes us, while at the same time so rarely imposing its focal characteristics on us. The reverse is probably unthinkable, since with our subjectivities, embedded in unequal relations of exploitation and power, if it were to be declared to our faces each and every moment of our daily lives that we were mortals whose labour is daily exploited and who are always oppressed, we would be living either as obedient slaves or as rebels. 'Obedience and revolt' is the name of a less debated study by Barrington Moore whose full name is Injustice: The Social Basis of Obedience and Revolt. There, he examines the tragedy of the German working class which ends with fascism, and the question to which he seeks an answer is the following: 'Why do the people not revolt, but obey?' Following a correct strategy, he first looks into the roots of revolt. Turkey's TEKEL workers' resistance tents (1) are extremely relevant to the answers at which Moore arrived, and I will return to this point.

Those whose fates unite while their lives are being fragmented

Contemporary class studies concentrate on the internal differentiation, fracturing and dissolution of the class capacity. To shift the analytical interest from similarities and commonalities to differences has become a methodological obsession in mainstream social science approaches. Yet we cannot explain the current content of contemporary class studies only through this tendency. The main reasons for differentiation within the working class are related to the characteristics of the labour market, both inside and outside the firm, which have turned out to be highly flexible. This is a fact. But there is another fact as well: that there is a major tendency that horizontally cuts across the segmented labour market and diversified forms of employment, and consequently once more homogenises differences within the class over a common line of fate. This tendency is the precarisation of work. The point to remember is that the new working class consists of those whose destinies are being united while their lives are being fragmented. The TEKEL workers' resistance tents made the way this class dialectic operates visible.

In and around the makeshift tent encampment of the TEKEL workers, which lasted from December 2009 to March 2010, I was able to observe how the workers, who are part of the traditional manufacturing industry strata that has been already largely liquidated, conform so closely to the newly emerging worker typology. The traditional manufacturing industry worker, who also forms the backbone of the trade union movement in Turkey, is phlegmatic: he or she makes decisions following long consideration, is subjected to organisational hierarchy, is disciplined, obeys the decisions taken, and knows how to sit at the negotiation table. There were remainders of these qualities in the TEKEL workers. But there were also the following qualities: they took decisions very rapidly, and the resistance movement was part of the trade union organisation, but it did not stop at that point--it also developed the organisation. The workers took their decisions based on grassroots initiatives within the movement; and although they maintained the formal organisational hierarchy of the trade union (Tek-Gida Is--the Turkish Trade Union of Tobacco and Food Workers), all the resisters potentially became both the spokespersons, activists and mass of the resistance.

They set up the resistance committee in collaboration with their trade union's formal hierarchy within the struggle. This committee started to lead the tent movement by improving its organisational and administrative capacity over the course of resistance. Their place of resistance, namely 'tent city', became in a short time a location of labourer solidarity for organised, unorganised, collective and individual initiatives generated from every part of Turkey, and the...

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