Trade unionists launched a one-day general strike in Turkey as our last issue went to press. On Thursday 4 February, tens of thousands of public sector workers staged a one-day walk out in solidarity with employees of the government’s Tobacco and Liquor Administration (TEKEL).
Workers from industries as diverse as textile production, railways, mining and highways workers all downed tools to support the 12,000-strong TEKEL sit-in protest in Ankara, which was in its 53rd day. Since general and solidarity strikes are banned in Turkey, the event was labelled as workers “exercising their right to not come to work.”
Mustafa Kumlu, president of the Turk-IS union declared the strike successful: “Despite the pressure and threats of the Governorships, bureaucrats and employers, the action organized was a nationwide success.”
The strike was called by the Confederation of Turkish Labour Unions in response to plans to re-deploy workers from 12 TEKEL factories to other public sector jobs. The move would result in less pay, little job security, and fewer rights. The workers would be obliged to join the civil service union, giving them no right to collective bargaining, nor the right to strike, at the same time as accepting pay cuts up to 40%. The plans follow the selling-off of TEKEL to British American Tobacco for £1.1 billion in 2008 as part of the government's privatisation programme.
Prime minister Recep Erdogan declared the strike illegal, and signalled that he would not tolerate protests beyond February.
The initial sit-in protest by TEKEL workers in a park in central Ankara was met by riot police who used tear gas and pepper spray against them. Erdogan has also tried to divide the workforce against the protesters, saying that millions of unemployed would settle for what the government was offering.
Aylin Yardimici, a Turkish student studying a masters in European Political Economy at LSE told Solidarity that this is the most important labour event since 1980. “The government is facing a lot of pressure for different reasons, and this may be the catalyst. If these groups can mobilise effectively it could signal the end of the government.”