TEKEL: Turkish tobacco workers’ struggle – an eyewitness account

Since December, a hugely significant strike has been taking place in Turkey. Around 12,000 workers employed by TEKEL, part of the previously fully state owned tobacco industry, were given the choice between accepting “C4 status” or simply joining the ranks of the unemployed as a result of the privatisation of the sector.

C4 would have meant continued state employment but on less pay and with less rights including curtailment of trade union rights. Thousands of workers travelled to Ankara and lived in tents there for two months.
After winning a significant concession through the courts, they have since travelled home again, yet they are determined to continue their struggle.

ANN-KATRIN ORR spoke to NELLI Tügel a member of the Sozialistische Alternative – SAV (CWI Germany) who travelled to Turkey to speak to the TEKEL strikers after they contacted Socialist Party MEP, Joe Higgins.

TS: What are the strikers demanding?
Their demand is to remain as state employed workers on the same terms and conditions and on the same pay as they received as TEKEL workers.

TS: On 4 February a general strike in support of the TEKEL workers took place, what led to this and what impact did this general strike have?
The strike occurred after a conflict between the strikers and the trade union leadership. The strikers demanded from an early stage that the fight back should be spread to other sectors. Small solidarity strikes and actions had been taking place since December 2009 . Then at a large solidarity protest of tens of thousands of people in Ankara on 17 January, there were loud calls for a general strike. The chairperson of the trade union confederation that the strikers’ union is part of, Mustafa Kumlu, spoke at this demonstration. But he didn’t mention anything about what steps should be taken next. In response some workers occupied the platform from which he was speaking and demanded that he put forward further measures. As a result of this, the general strike took place on 4 February.
The effect of this on TEKEL strikers was that for the first time, they really felt the solidarity from other workers. Many workers in other sectors also felt the need to participate because they knew that it was also about their own future because this wave of privatisation isn’t over. The strike also had broader significance because general strikes or political strikes in general are illegal in Turkey.

TS: Can you tell us a bit more about your visit there, what did you speak to the strikers about and what did you hear from them?
We were really impressed, the reception we got was very warm and open. You could really feel the politicisation of ordinary people. We arrived there, sat down in the tents and basically, we just talked to the workers about all sorts of things for a week. They thought it was completely normal that there were people there who described themselves as socialists. We spoke a lot about the CWI and brought a message of solidarity from Joe Higgins MEP, which was really well received.

TS: There was a recent court victory for the strikers; are they happy with the result?
The workers will now receive 75% of their TEKEL salary and remain TEKEL employees for the next eight months. The deadline set by the government for the workers to decide whether to accept C4 status has also been pushed back for this period. This is being seen as a huge success by the workers, everyone was celebrating, they were aware of the fact that they won this concession because they had put up a fight.
But no one is satisfied with this. C4 status is being rejected by the workers and I think most workers who were in Ankara want to continue fighting. Now their discussions are about their next steps.