Interview with United Worker Convention in Turkey

Stony Brook Worker Editorial 

SBW: Could you tell our readers about what the United Workers’ Congress (UWC) is and about its formation process?

UWC: The United Workers’ Congress (UWC) is a workers’ organization with a revolutionary socialist perspective, whose formation was spearheaded by class-conscious workers who came together with the belief that “the emancipation of the working class will be its own work”. UWC is a product of discussions and evaluations based on the concrete situation of the working class and unions in the Anatolia region.

In terms of the UWC’s formation, we can summarize the discussions and evaluations as follows:

The working class, which was deprived of its most advanced and revolutionary forces with the counter-revolution attack of September 12, 1980, gradually moved away from fighting for its own class interests.1 It ceased to be a force whose words and actions are taken into account in the social arena after it began following the tropes of the bourgeois parties.

After the September 12, 1980 attack, and after the collapse of the USSR, an international wave of neoliberal policies were implemented in the 1990s. With all public domains being enlisted in service capital interest, with increasing privatization, and issues such as subcontracting and less stable work patterns, a great offensive was launched against trade unionism and against all kinds of organizations among the working class. In this state of affairs in which the unions lined up on the side of the state and capital interests, the working class lost its political influence, and the revolutionary movement was weakened. The working class saw its gains eroded step by step, and in the process it was condemned to conditions of misery.

There was occasional resistance against this all-out assault on working class interests, but brands of unionism that aligned with state and capital interests, succeeded in neutralizing these resistances. Among those organizations were worker confederations such as Türk-İş and Hak-İş.

While there are still some unions that are more radical and combative, they have limited influence, and the majority of unions in the country are organizations that are friendly toward capital and the state. Therefore, it is an essential duty and the responsibility of class-conscious workers to push back against these forces, and to organize the working class around its own class demands. Unfortunately, the existence of many workers is marred by unemployment, severe violations of their rights, de-unionization, oppression, hunger and poverty, and even violence and the death of workers.2 All of these issues stand in the way of workers uprooting the parasites that have afflicted their unions, and turning their unions back into organizations that represent workers’ interests.

The UWC was organized based on all of these assessments. It was founded by the Worker Newspaper, one of the main components of UWC, and its founding meeting was held in Istanbul on April 8, 2018. The meeting, which lasted all day, was held with more than 200 delegates from across many workplaces from different regions and provinces of Anatolia. After the meeting concluded with various decisions and recommendations, UWC was formed and its formation was made public. 

A year later, in accordance with the decisions made at the founding meeting, UWC held its second congress with the delegates selected from various regions and provinces. After evaluating the first year of its existence, UWC determined its operating principles and chose its executive bodies.

UWC statement for a living wage in Kadıköy, İstanbul. The banner reads ‘Not a minimum, a humane, living wage!’”

SBW: Can you talk about some of the main issues your members are facing right now, the main issues you’re trying to address, and the campaigns you have going on? 

ASG:We’re trying to advocate for folks’ telecommuting rights—the ability for those workers to telecommute at least once a week. We’re trying to win more job security for our members who are in non-tenure track or part-time faculty positions; we’re trying to increase their pay and increase the base stipend for adjuncts. We’re also trying to help establish a kind of formalized promotion structure for those non-tenure track faculty, similar to the one that tenured faculty or tenure-track faculty have. And we’re trying to address the swelling course sizes that a lot of these faculty are dealing with. There are really poor wages—not a living wage for Long Island. 

SBW: You’re talking about contingent faculty.

ASG: Correct. Contingent faculty defined as faculty who are not on the tenure track and are ineligible for tenure. 

SBW: Can you tell me more about the conditions they’re facing? What is their financial situation and what are the ideal goals for addressing this problem in more concrete terms? 

ASG: They’re struggling with those swelling class sizes. If their class size surges, they’re sometimes given a tiny bit more money that does not even remotely address the extra workload that having more students entails—more papers to grade, more emails to answer. They’re not given additional teaching assistance. It’s a big challenge. We have some folks that have worked here for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, and they’re still in a very precarious level of employment that doesn’t reflect what one would expect in higher education. We have some adjuncts who make only $3,750 per semester to teach a course, which is just baffling—so incredibly low.

A lot of students think that they’re being taught by a full-time faculty member who is on the tenure track or tenured, when in actuality they’re being taught by someone who’s being paid a poverty level wage. We’re trying to get the administration to raise the base stipend for these adjuncts to $7,000, which is still far too low for the amount of work it takes to teach a course and the amount of value they give to those students and the university. 

SBW: Right now this is $3,750? 

ASG: The minimum that a department can pay us for our contract is $3,750. We’re hoping to get that significantly increased, because that was a poverty level wage even before inflation, even before all the new challenges that we’re facing financially in society right now. 

UWC at May Day rally in 2019

SBW: In which industries do you usually organize with workers?

UWC: We aim to organize in all industries, especially in those areas where millions of workers are uninsured, without representation, and face insecurity, and in those which many unions ignore. Undoubtedly, industries such as metal, chemistry, and textile have a special significance in terms of the number of people they employ, but also in terms of their long-standing struggles and their weight in the country’s economy. We need to apply a more patient and long-term organizational approach towards these areas.

SBW: Could you explain the general situation of the working class struggle in Turkey and your place in it?

UWC: In order to better understand the general situation, it would be useful to share the concrete picture of the current situation of the working class and unions. A summary can be made as follows:

* Workers are unorganized

The population of the country is around 85 million. According to the official data from the state, as well as academic studies and information obtained from various reports, the total number of workers in the country exceeds 39 million when adding up and including the numbers of insured workers, public workers, but also unregistered (uninsured) workers, child laborers, and the unemployed. This data does not include migrant workers whose numbers are unknown because they are not registered 

According to the statistics on labor unions for July 2022 published by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the total number of workers is 15,987,428, and the number of workers who are members of unions is 2,280,285. According to this data, the unionization rate is around 14 percent.

Of course, official data do not take into account informal workers, whose number is around 10 million. The Revolutionary Workers’ Unions Confederation Research Center (DİSK-AR), is drawing attention to this fact, and it argues that the number of workers covered by Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) is around 1,600,000, and that hence only 10% of workers can benefit from CBAs. DİSK-AR also draws attention to the fact that the rate of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements in the private sector is around 5-6 percent.

These numbers indicate disorganization. Considering the fact that 90 out of every 100 workers are not unionized, and that the majority of unions function as pro state and pro employer unions, the “misery table” that we will describe below will become more clear.

* 14 million people in the country live on social benefits

According to TUIK3 data, while the number of people receiving pensions, such as the elderly, widows, orphans, and disabled people within the scope of social protection was around 14,000,089 in 2019, it increased by 1.4% to 14,288,000 people in 2020.

* The poverty line is four times the minimum wage*!

According to the hunger and poverty line data by Türk-İş for September 2022, the monthly food expenditure (hunger limit) required for a family of 4 to have a healthy, balanced and adequate diet rose to 7,245 Turkish Lira (TL). 

The total amount of food expenditure and other mandatory monthly expenditures for clothing, housing (rent, electricity, water, fuel), transportation, education, health and similar needs (poverty limit) rose to 23,599TL.

The ‘cost of living’ for a single employee rose to 9,469 TL per month.

The minimum wage isn’t even the average rent!

The minimum wage, which was announced as 4,253 TL at the beginning of 2022, fell behind the wages of 2021 in less than 2 months. As a result of an economy based on plunder and war, real inflation (70-80 percent according to the state) rose rapidly and reached around 200 percent. Money turned into stamps. They had to raise the minimum wage again in the second half of the year, (albeit to dampen the backlash), to gross 6,471 liras, net 5,500 liras.5 This amount is 1000 TL behind the 6,500 TL announced as the average rental price in Istanbul!

Perhaps we should make a comparison to better understand the extent of loss of income suffered by workers: In 2003, 25.4 full gold coins could be bought with the annual amount of one year’s net minimum wage.6 In 2021, the net minimum wage was equivalent to only 10.4 full gold coins, and by June 2022, the value of the net minimum wage had decreased even more to merely being equivalent to 8.07 full gold coins. In 19 years, 16.7 full gold coins were stolen from our pockets!

The minimum wage has turned into the average wage in Turkey. And about 10 million workers are employed at this wage.

* Workers have to organize in order not to die!

One of the striking dimensions of the misery of the working class is the ‘worker deaths’ that are explained away as “work accidents” or “fate.” The latest example is the worker massacre in Bartın, Amasra, where 41 miners lost their lives!

In the true sense of the word, the capitalist class feeds on the blood of workers. The Occupational Health and Safety (OCS) Assembly publishes a report on this issue every month. According to the report published by OCS in October, at least 157 workers in September 2022 and at least 1359 workers in the first nine months of 2022 lost their lives in ‘worker deaths.’ It is not possible to determine the number of workers injured and disabled in work accidents.

Worker’s lives are easily put at risk when construction bosses, who operate based on the speedy completion of the work, count even the simplest precautions to protect workers as ‘cost items’. Oftentimes basic precautions are not taken, and as such lack of ventilation, masks, helmets, cables, unused belts, missing materials, or broken service tools can all be factors in costing workers their lives. Inadequate training, improper use or lack of protective equipment, and chaotic work environments also contribute to workers’ deaths. In addition, occupational diseases are slowly killing them.

In other words, workers have to organize not only for a wage, social rights, or secure jobs that pay just enough to make a living, they also have to organize in order not to die.

* Suicides are on the rise!

Suicide cases due to economic crisis, poverty, unemployment and anxieties over the future are increasing day by day in Turkey. According to the statement of the Ministry of the Interior, in response to a parliamentary request, between 2015 and 2020, a total of 14,530 people (10,094 men, 3,281 women, and 1155 people under the age of 18) committed suicide!

* The workers are in debt!

Workers are severely in debt. According to the reports of the Banks Association of Turkey (TBB), as of May 2022, there are over 4 million people who have not paid their loan or credit card debt. In the first five months of 2022, the number of people with legal claims against them over unpaid debt has risen to 748,347, which is an increase of 83 percent compared to the same period of the previous year.

According to data shared by the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BRSA) for the first quarter of 2022, the amount of loans for which follow-ups due to non-payment have been initiated is 163 billion TL.

Debt is a factor that hamstrings the fighting power of the working class. It can cause the workers to accept unfavorable working conditions and to shy away from organizing. Just like in unemployment and subcontracting, ongoing debt depresses wages and decreases social rights and benefits.

* Working conditions are severe

Workplaces and working environments have become a hell for workers. Based on recorded employment data, Turkey ranks highly in terms of work hours amongst the countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). With an average weekly work time of 47.7 hours, it ranks second among OECD countries after Colombia. However, in less formal industries which represent around 35 percent of all workers, the daily work time reaches 12-14 hours, and workers in these industries have almost no security. Workers in this situation continue their struggle, and their main demand is: “We want to work with the wages and essential rights of contracted workers”.

The general situation of the working class struggle in Anatolia

I think the points above gives a not so heartwarming idea of ​​the general situation. This picture, which we call the “picture of misery,” is like a document of our disorganization as a whole. Of course, we cannot accuse the capitalists of ‘ruthlessness’. We cannot reproach their state as if it could be ours. They are one and they are right in front of us in all their nakedness.

Despite this depressing picture, we should also emphasize that there is a dynamic struggle going on in which workers are trying to find a way for themselves. After all, working and living conditions are getting harder day by day. These conditions push workers towards struggle, and towards organization. Workers who once carefully avoided revolutionary socialist ideas and organizations, are now becoming more open, understanding, and conscious of these developments.

While smaller, more radical unions who expose the dominant state/capital unionism through their actions and words remain small, they are becoming more and more effective, and the labor leaders that they produce are becoming more prominent. Although their impact is still limited, organizations like the UWC are beginning to have influence on the general situation in the class struggle.

We say, “resistance teaches, organizes, and wins.” Wherever there is an organization, there are opportunities to win. We already saw organized workers take decisive actions in dozens of instances, such as strikes, occupations, sieges of their bosses’ house, blocking roads and bridges, and resistance in the workplace. Many of these actions have already resulted in gains, and workers are determined to continue these actions, in which they also learn from each other.

If we look at it as a whole, the working class is now trying to get up from where it has fallen. Its unions do not belong to it yet. The working class is still under the influence of bourgeois ideology. It still has a long way to go. However, we also know that development does not follow a straight line. Change can happen and things can be turned around here just as anywhere else. The global proletariat fills the streets with more widespread and massive demonstrations, and strikes and resistances are becoming more frequent. The wheel of history is turning!

In terms of UWC’s place in the process, we are at the beginning of the road. In addition to the regular organizing activities at factories and workplaces, BİK, within the scope of its strengths and possibilities, also influences and participates in the general national agenda and the developments of the workers’ movement. Given its combative stance, we can describe the UWC as being within the “small minority,” which differs from the general clumsy structure of unions. It is known in this minority and has a unifying and preemptive function.

Systematic execution of propaganda (poster, notice, bulletin, social media) activities in accordance with the needs of each local area; similarly, training meetings, panels, and seminars are routine activities of UWC.

UWC Convention

SBW: There are many workers’ resistances and protests in your region. Can you share with us the prominent ones?

UWC: Actions are common. As one action ends, a few more actions come to the fore. For example, at the time of this writing, the struggle for unionization at Pulver Kimya in the chemical industry in Gebze has been going on for three months. The Petrol-İş Gebze Branch exhibited a successful organization effort in the four factories located in an area belonging to the same company. Workers there won the necessary majority for union authorization in those four factories. The union has been approved by the Ministry of Labor in one of the factories. The boss filed a lawsuit to object to the authorization by using the ‘right to object’ granted to him in the law. After that, workers took action to push back against the company, and as a result, the first meeting with the union took place. Workers firmly support the union, which intervenes in the process correctly and demonstrates a determined leadership. It seems certain that this will end with gains for workers. But by the time you’re reading this article, maybe another act of resistance, for instance in a metal factory, could come to the fore.

Generally speaking, we can list some of the prominent actions in recent times as follows:

A health workers strike was very effective. Health workers, who had begun their organizing process after the Palace7 government’s withdrawal of a proposed law to improve the personal rights of physicians and dentists, went on a strike across the country. There was a high degree of participation in their actions, and as a result hospitals could not provide anything other than emergency services.

Standart Profil workers in Düzce started an action wherein they did not leave the factory in demanding additional raises. The action, which was attended by almost all of the 1000 workers at the factory, resulted in more gains.

Despite firings, the actions of thousands of workers in the two factories of the US-owned TPI Composites in Izmir also resulted in gains, and the workers who stopped production at both factories got their fired friends re-hired.

Construction workers who are members of the unions Dev Yapı-İş (which is affiliated with DISK), and independent İnşaat-İş, are two of the more radical unions in the construction industry. In one of their actions, members of these two unions closed the Istanbul Bosphorus Bridge to traffic to protest the erosion of their rights. While they did get detained, their bosses agreed to everything that the detained workers demanded.

A group of cleaning workers, working under a subcontractor at Koç University, took action when they were subjected to harassment after they had made demands. After nine days of organized resistance with the active support of students and UWC, the workers earned their rights and ended the resistance.

For months, ETF Textile workers resisted the attack of the boss, who wanted to close the factory under false pretenses of fraudulent bankruptcy, and who sought to take away the workers’ severance pay. Police repeatedly detained these workers, but due to their organized resistance, they were still able to collect their severance pay after their dismissal.

SBW: What are the outstanding demands and problems of the working class?

UWC: We can express the most general demands as follows:

- Make the minimum wage suitable to sustain life and worthy of human dignity!

- Remove the barriers to union organization!

- Workplaces should be inspected, and penalties should be given to bosses who do not comply with occupational health and safety rules!

- Subcontracted work should be prohibited!

- Reduce working hours! Give workers two days off per week! Implement a 35-hour work week!

- Lower the retirement age!

In addition to the problems reflected in these demands, we can also point toward an additional list of issues: There is uninsured/informal employment, frequent dismissals, maximum production pressure with a minimum number of workers in the workplace, forced overtime, low wages, wages not being paid on time, intense workplace harassment, non-payment or underestimation of overtime wages, seniority in dismissals, reporting, not giving or underestimating wages for days such as vacation days, prevention of union organization even though it is a constitutional right, and finally, lawlessness that causes death, injury, and disability of workers as a result of failure to implement necessary occupational health and safety measures.

SBW: What are the most important shortcomings you see in the working class struggle and how do you fight against them?

UWC: The ideological axis forms the basis of all ‘deficiencies’. This is a universal problem. You cannot escape from misery by staying within the limits drawn by the capitalist system, which has condemned you to misery in the first place. It is imperative to leave this space. Intellectually, you should be clear that capitalism is immoral, contrary to man and nature, illegitimate, and harmful, and you then need to raise awareness that this system must be abolished. This consciousness gives you the basic route. It also forms the basis of how and in which ways and methods you will fight.

The fact that the working class is the main force that will abolish capitalism and change the world is the other aspect that completes the break with capitalist ideology. So, it is imperative that you devote all your energies to the organization of the working class, based on the concept of ‘class versus class.’

The ‘business administration’ that is at peace with the state and capital interests dominating the unions, and the general attitude steeped in wage unionism (even here their words and actions have no value) is another problem. The ‘left’ party that presents itself in favor of labor, the ‘Eurocentric democratic’ understanding that dominates labor organizations, and the ignorance that these factors produce among the working class, all originate from the ideological issue we mentioned above.

Of course, the class struggle is not one-dimensional. As UWC workers, we are organizing on the one hand to develop the economic demands of the working class, while on the other hand, we are trying to foster unity and solidarity among the working class, based on the politicization of said working class and the goal of ideological clarity.

SBW: What are the most important obstacles you encounter in your organizational efforts, how do you fight against them?

UWC: Our main problem is time and financial limitations. Almost all of us have jobs. For example, in a metropolitan city like Istanbul, it is a serious problem to physically get together for organizing meetings after one gets off work in the evening.

Moreover, organizing in workplaces has to be carried out in ‘semi-secret’ or completely ‘secret’ ways. This requires a minimum of discipline, awareness, and experience. It’s a ‘problem’ that will always confront us. It is important to maintain a discourse that has the right approach towards reaching the workers. This approach cannot be more political than it needs to be, but it also should not be too detached from the concrete words and actions needed to address people’s needs, all while trying to avoid evoking backward modes of consciousness (such as racism or nationalism) among the workers who are so heavily influenced by bourgeois ideology. These are the themes and challenges of our struggle.

Of course, we also come across unionists who have the statist / pro-capitalist understanding of unions that we have criticized above. Their mindset is a problem, but we are also learning how to fight these ideologies in practice and through experience.

SBW: What is necessary to achieve international solidarity among the working class, and what steps can we take in this regard?

UWC: In fact, our knowledge of the existing international workers’ organizations is limited. We would like to establish ties with workers’ organizations that have a revolutionary socialist perspective, even if it is just for the sharing of knowledge and experience. We think that mutually sharing the developments and experiences in our countries, being aware of the demands of the working class, and carrying out solidarity actions, will move us forward.

1. Translator: The date of the 1980 coup in Turkey.

2. Translator: common phrase in Turkey to refer to workplace deaths due to improper or non-existent safety measures and regulations.

3. Statistics agency of the state.

4. The minimum wage when this article was written was 5,500 TL, it increased to 8,500 in December 2022.

5. The minimum wage was increased to 8,500 TL in December 2022.

6. A gold coin of 7.21 grams.

7. A concept used to refer to the current government.