Municipal Worker Strikes in Istanbul
Social Democratic Local Governance in Neoliberal Turkey
March 4, 2021
Under snowfall, the fire was crackling in the barrels in front of the Kadıköy municipality building. Despite the fire and considerably large groups of workers, the weather felt frosty. The cigarette smoke, hope, and anxiety surrounded anyone who entered the picket line. Kadıköy municipality workers of Istanbul went on strike, and while they only gained some of their demands, they exposed the hypocrisy of the social democratic mayor and the union bureaucracy.
On February 15, 2300 Kadıköy borough municipality service workers in Istanbul went on strike against low wages offered by the administration after a 5 month long collective bargaining process collapsed. The strike was abruptly called off by the central leadership of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK1DISK: Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu. The literal translation from Turkish is “Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions.” Yet, they prefer to use the translation ) General Service Union (Genel-Is) after an unexpected meeting with the president of Kadıköy municipality, Şerdil Dara Odabaşı, on Thursday, February 18. Workers were not informed about the meeting. According to Evrensel Daily’s headline, workers expressed their reaction by saying, “We don’t recognize the agreement that was signed without us.”
Cem Karasoy (43), a union local representative at the Kadıköy municipality, said that they don’t just demand wage hikes but also better regulation for their working hours, and worker participation in decision-making processes. Karasoy said that street cleaning workers have always been bullied and pitied: “We are garbage collectors for about 360 days in a 365-day year. But when it comes to the bargaining table, they call us cleaner brothers and sisters.” He added that there were workers who were unjustly fired over not greeting their superiors at work.
Necla Özülkü (39), a striking office worker, was very excited and empowered by the strike. She said that the attendance was very high and that they could obtain the right to a free nursery for working mothers and a day off for March 8, Working Women’s Day. However, she added that workers’ most significant problem is currently a satisfactory wage increase to overcome living difficulties.
Workers were angry, and not just because the municipality did not accept their demands. They had to struggle with a public smear campaign triggered by the Turkish social democrats and scabs sent by the Istanbul city municipality. Ekrem İmamoğlu of the social democratic Republican People Party (CHP), whose victory in Istanbul mayoral elections was viewed as a major defeat for the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule, sent scabs to help defeat striking workers. On social media, the Kadıköy municipality falsely claimed that they offered a 38 percent wage hike, ostensibly raising monthly wages to 5000 Turkish Liras. According to workers, this did not happen. This manipulation was used to frame workers as greedy and divisive to the general public.
The smear campaign was effective, as many people began to question why these workers were dissatisfied given that an overwhelming majority of Turkish workers make less than this amount. Despite this, there were many students and workers from other sectors and socialist parties that showed solidarity with the workers. After the strike was called off by the union leadership on Thursday, Sema Barbaros, the Istanbul president of EMEP (Labor Party of Turkey), said, “We will continue to support workers until they can get what they demanded initially. We will expose the union center.”
Since February 15, workers have been meeting in front of the municipal building to call on the administration to give them a wage adjusted for inflation. Activists on the ground expect several other municipal strikes across the Asian side of Istanbul. It appears that Maltepe, Ataşehir, and Kartal municipality workers will be going on strike following the lead of Kadikoy workers. Maltepe workers already called a strike on February 22. The Maltepe municipality president Ali Kılıç, much like his counterpart at the Kadıköy municipality, was spreading misinformation about what they offered workers. While workers are rejecting the claims, they continue to demand a living wage.
It is expected that these strikes will spread in the coming weeks given the major economic crisis Turkey has been facing for the past 2 years. What is unique is that all of these municipalities are controlled by the opposition alliance’s2The Opposition Alliance is mentioned here called in Turkish: “Millet İttifakı” translates “The Nation’s Alliance.” leading party, the CHP. Although the party is recognized as the main opposition party to the Erdoğan government, it has been criticized for its weak opposition to AKP’s neoliberal policies.
Strikes are politically essential to test whether the social democratic party CHP is a genuine opposition party and who they will ultimately side with when it comes to workers’ rights. The CHP, much like the AKP, has a long history of compromising workers’ rights in favor of neoliberal policies. The central bureaucracy of the DISK General Service Union, on the other hand, is mostly affiliated with CHP and tends to be more accommodationist with the bosses of the workers it claims to represent. The strike wave of municipal workers in Istanbul, and the responses of CHP and DISK, will shed light on what Turkey might look like for workers in places that are no longer under AKP rule.
The Erdoğan Regime and Organized Labor
Under increasingly authoritarian measures, people who struggle for peace, democracy, labor, environment, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and Kurdish national rights have been met with court cases, punishment, detention, and incarceration. Many deputies and activists of the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including former co-chairs, have been in prison for a long time. Indeed, the prisons are full of journalists, writers, artists, university professors, and activists. For example, 67 journalists and media workers are currently in jail according to Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS) website. The powers of the Turkish Parliament are at its weakest following the regime change in 2018. This is a direct consequence of Erdoğan’s consolidation of power in the hands of the national government.
Recently, Istanbul once again became an epicenter of protests against the government’s goal to take control of academic institutions. Turkish governmental authorities are attacking the struggle for a democratic university launched by Boğaziçi students against their unjustly appointed university director for political purposes and their detained friends. The government tried to provoke its conservative base by targeting LGBTQ+ students, but this has failed as the socio-economic inequality that continues to deepen under the Erdoğan government continues to shrink the party base due to the immense levels of poverty and misery.
However, the level of immiseration has not led to a major reaction in organized labor until quite recently. The organizational level of the working class remains weak. , the unionization rate was 13.8 percent as of January 2020. But it is around 12.1 percent based on DISK’s data. The workers’ confederations are incredibly bureaucratic. The unions refuse to act until there is a major push by the rank and file.
Before the pandemic, almost all unionized workers were under the threat of being fired. The right to protest is prohibited in most cities and towns for different reasons related to “security” or pandemic restrictions. Strikes have been prohibited by a decision of the cabinet ministers and the president. Almost all small local strikes can be broken by pressure and police crackdowns. According to , Turkey is among the 10 worst countries for workers. 17 strikes in industries such as steel and glass were banned outright under AKP rule.
Unfortunately, these conditions have continued during the pandemic crisis. Factories and workplaces have continued operations at full capacity, especially the heavy industries. Workers’ lives are being devalued. Workers who get coronavirus are often forced to continue working in order to avoid joining the nearly half of the population that is either unemployed or out of the labor force. Under these horrid working and living conditions and in the absence of an organized response, suicide rates are 8 percent higher than they were 10 years ago. Primary reasons include workplace mobbing, personal hardship, and psychological disorders.
3 years ago, President Erdoğan said in a meeting with bosses, “We are enforcing the state of emergency, so our business world work better.” Then he added, “Remember those days [when strikes were allowed]. Do you have anything like that now? On the contrary, we are interfering immediately in the places which are under the threat of strike. We say no, we do not tolerate strikes here because you cannot shake our business world.” While the working class is trying to survive under such hard conditions, the main labor confederations remain silent.
The strikes that are taking place both in Kadıköy and Maltepe municipalities are indicators that the working class is becoming restless in even the most public-facing districts of Turkey. It means that inequality and class are now unavoidable matters for bourgeois political debates. Kayhan Geyik, Kadıköy correspondent of Evrensel Daily, , “Considering the attitude of the headquarters, in which they learned a lot, it can be said that the workers went through a successful strike process. It was the first time they tried to mobilize a strike with their committees. They found the opportunity to get to know the forces that opposed them simultaneously such as the capital, its managers, the police, the union bureaucracy. They did not give statements to the bourgeois media who could turn their strike into their own political rent. Most of the workers who showed solidarity with each other took part in this level of struggle for the first time. In this respect, the slogan ‘This is just the beginning, continue the struggle,’ which has been used many times in the protests, reflects a reality for the municipality workers.”
These municipal strikes might be opening a channel for struggle with high levels of participation and sympathy that it created among neighbors, local workers, and students. After Migros warehouse workers and Baldur steelworkers’ struggles, workers of Kadıköy and Maltepe CHP municipalities might create a domino effect among Istanbul’s municipalities, politically a breathing space within the life that is increasingly confined between the pandemic and one man’s dictatorship because we can’t breathe either.