30 April 2019 16:08

Trade Unionist Sarıçoban: The sense that we can bring about change is getting even stronger 

Health Workers Trade Union İzmir Branch Chair Adem Sarıçoban gave his take on the process and demands in the run-up to Mayday 2019 to Evrensel.

Photograph: Evrensel


Serpil İLGÜN

An unending election thanks to non-recognition of the poll results, the succession of price increases from bread to electricity that kicked in on 1 April, the relentless price increases in the markets and shops, food inflation close to 30%, the dollar pushing towards six lira, tension flaring back up with the attempted lynching of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the language of polarization…

Mayday, the day of working-class international unity, struggle and solidarity, is being marked against such a portentous economic and political backdrop. Even if bans, arguments over venues and confederations deciding on separate celebrations are taking place again this year, the prime concern as far as workers and wage earners are concerned is getting by.

As to the “reform” package that Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak proclaimed on 10 April, far from assuaging concerns about getting by, it has compounded major new problems such as the usurping of severance pay.

Apart from the package, which was fashioned to align with the expectations of capital and financial circles, transferring severance pay to a fund, decisions such as increasing the tax burden on working people’s shoulders and the compulsory individual retirement system justified as encouraging saving herald the advent of harsher days for workers and wage earners.

I spoke to Health Workers Trade Union Izmir Branch Chair Adem Sarıçoban about Mayday 2019, being marked in days in which work manslaughter, insecure employment, unemployment and poverty are breaking record after record.

In the interview, in which we stretch our gaze from Izmir, one of the rare cities in which the unions are coming out together, to the overall perspective, Sarıçoban discussed the temperament and demands of workers and wage earners.

First, to get a better idea of how things stand, could you summarize their problems as workers and wage earners mark Mayday 2019 and how it will relate to these demands?

The chief problem in this period is the struggle to get by. With poverty and unemployment on the rise with the crisis, wages are being eroded. Most recently, the government has dispensed with severance pay by ostensibly transferring it to a fund and is mooting compulsory individual retirement deductions and an increase in taxation on working people. That is, through government intervention it is wished to burden workers and wage earners with the crisis that capital has caused.

This also plays out in workplaces. Dismissals are taking place all over. The period we find ourselves in is also a collective labour agreement period. With zero raises being imposed in negotiations at the outset in some places, problems are being experienced with implementing existing collective labour agreements in certain places. As has also been the experience in our own sector, a 4+4% contract having no factoring for inflation is being imposed on workers who have passed from subcontractors to the public pay roll. We demand the implementing of public contracts for workers employed in the public sector and, on the other hand, for sub-inflation collective labour agreements (including the private sector) to be factored for inflation.

Work manslaughter continues. You know that the boss in the trial into the Soma massacre, which saw the most wholesale fatality of workers in the country’s history and in which 301 miners perished in one night, was released despite his responsibility being totally obvious. On top of this, the mine operation licence was returned. The message was thus given to all bosses, ‘You can exploit workers as you will, you can work them to death and even if they die, don’t worry, you’ll get off.” And we’ll call out our demand once more out in the open for the prevention of work manslaughter and the punishing of those responsible.

There’s also another big issue of Working for the Good of Society. The demand on Mayday of workers employed for six and nine-month periods is for secure employment on the payroll. The struggle of the retirement age victims continues. Demands such as retirement rights for all workers and wage earners, tax justice, the lifting of all impediments to strikes and organization and the re-employment of dismissees under decrees with the force of law in the state of emergency period will also be voiced.

How have decisions under the “reform package” that the AKP proclaimed immediately after the election such as usurpation of severance pay, further increasing the tax burden on workers and the compulsory individual retirement system been greeted?

Workers know this package is an assault on labour. There’s a sense of antagonism and they know there must be a united struggle. There’s an inclination for struggle but difficulty is being experienced in combining. There is a need for this antagonism to be organized.


In that case, you frequently encounter the following question, “You’re antagonistic towards government policies, and you want to struggle, so why don’t the unions combine and organize the antagonism? To this is added the question of why the insistence on marking Mayday in separate cities. What’s your reply?

There’s one single reply – trade union bureaucracy. For example, Mayday. Trade union bureaucracy uses this day as a day to consolidate the base. This is the point workers are most furious about. The say, “Trade unionists come out and say their piece, but our demands are not relayed and then they make themselves scarce.” For example, this year the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions is calling for celebrations in the centre in Kocaeli. They say, “Come as twenty people from Izmir.” In fact, we have 8-10,000 members. Taking this form, Maydays turn into being trade union bureaucracy’s event for celebrating the day rather than a position where workers give mass voice to their problems and accumulate strength to take the struggle forward. And this increases workers’ antagonism. Workers want to cry out their demands in unison at the closest place to their factories and workplaces and where they live, not at a distance of kilometres.

Izmir has maintained an exemplary stance for many years. Observance by unions like the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, Confederation of Public Employees' Trade Unions, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects and the bar association takes place along with a broad array of mass and professional organizations as well as political parties. A platform of the same form has also come into being this year. The rally will be at 2 pm in Izmir’s Gündoğdu Square.


Why do examples of united observance not become more frequent? With harshening conditions making combining all the more necessary, what is the reason for separate observances coming to the fore?

Trade union bureaucracy is afraid of unity at the base because they know that the workers have the power to change when united. They don’t want to confront the government and capital because they don’t draw their strength from the workers. It is actually far more workplace representatives and administrators who are summoned to the central celebrations. This stance impedes workers from attaining consciousness and being drawn into collective struggle. Otherwise, no worker in the base says there should be no Confederation of Righteous Trade Unions workers or no Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions members at the Mayday assembly. Quite the reverse, what is said is, “We may be members of different unions at the workplace but our problems and demands are shared.”

Where do the branches fit in to this?

Many branches actually operate in conjunction with headquarters and can’t say a word that deviates from headquarters. For example, with us as a branch taking a position regarding the Kocaeli invitation that we aren’t going to go, for example, branch A, unable to come out in opposition to headquarters, can’t say “no” and hides behind reasons such as the grandness of the celebrations. When branch administrations are appointed, that is when they are not selected from the base through workers’ struggle, a culture of obedience arises. Trade unionists who side with the class must step forward a bit more, take the initiative and object.

And let’s add to this that the entire burden of the economic crisis will seemingly be placed on workers’ shoulders. By way of a further sore point, the worker says, “Severance pay is our castle and we won’t let this castle be knocked down.” I think that all unions that don’t react to this, don’t put up a struggle and remain mute will suffer the consequences of this.


How will the antagonism felt towards the AKP’s goal of eliminating severance pay find reflection in Mayday efforts?

At least in Izmir, there’s an interest in Mayday to an extent that has been lacking in recent years. When we call, “Out to Mayday in opposition to the transferring of severance pay to a fund and the compulsory individual retirement system,” even worker colleagues who previously kept their distance become inclined to attend. The use of the word “terrorism” in conjunction with Mayday yesterday in reports carried by the pro-capital media and in statements made by the government have had a huge effect. This finds no take-up among workers now because we’re passing through a period in which there are losses of rights and economic difficulties on a mass scale. Worries about getting by and concerns for the future detract from slurs of this kind. I think this will feed through into attendance.

So, it’s possible to say that the perception of Mayday has also changed?

Yes. When we called the workers out, we were told, “What happens if you attend? You can’t change anything, they don’t listen to you and the government is strong.” However, the local election results, and especially the loss of the big cities, have strengthened the perception among workers that, “If you combine there can be change.” When we say, “If you don’t want the attacks to take place, if you want to preserve existing rights and gain new rights, you must come out,” workers reply, “Yes, this is what must happen in this period.” I think the feature that distinguishes Mayday 2019 from the others is that there is a strong sense we can bring about change. And this once more shows us that the workers unite when you set out the correct platform. If we can create a platform of struggle against the crisis, poverty and high inflation and especially against sub-inflation collective agreements, and if we can unite workers’ demands, Mayday 2019 may be the beginning of a period in which we can preserve our rights and enhance our gains. We take this opportunity to call all workers and wage earners to come out on Mayday!


You said the concern over preserving rights predominates among workers. To flesh this out, for example, what do workers propose for the preservation of severance pay?

The workers’ demand is clear. For a combining of organized forces without distinction being made as to confederation. The forming of committees in workplaces and mounting a struggle against this. Actually, whichever worker you ask they blame the unions and federations for not combining. But, as I said at the beginning, union bureaucracy’s stance is the precise opposite and this stance will not change just by calling for it and talking. For this reason, trade unionists, shop stewards and workers who side with the class must move into action and take steps. Despite all the handicaps caused by the crisis, the sensitivity it has engendered among workers and the need for unity that is felt more than ever come as a great opportunity for these efforts.


What kind of efforts are you conducting for Mayday both in your own branch and in general? And will local celebrations become a bit more widespread this Mayday?

Our call to workers is that Mayday should be marked and marked with workers everywhere in Turkey and even at every workplace. To this end, we are holding meetings at workplaces affiliated to our branch with the slogan, “Hands off severance pay; no to the compulsory individual retirement system; we won’t pay the price for the crisis!” We will also mark Mayday at workplaces affiliated to our branch starting on Friday, and on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. Whichever unions are organized at those workplaces, for example if at workplace A there is Tez Koop-İş, there is the Trade Union of Employees in Public Health and Social Services, there is the Confederation of Public Employees' Trade Unions and there is the Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions, whoever there is we’re calling on them and asking for their support. In any case, in Izmir local celebrations have become customary. There are celebrations in many workplaces from Çiğli Organized Industrial to Aliağa and from Buca Municipality workers to 9 Eylül University workers, at a large number of workplaces. I predict it will be more widespread in this period. There are outside sub-provinces that don’t engage in observance at all. Like Torbalı and Ödemiş. There will be observances there this year.


It is undoubtedly important for Mayday to be marked in a powerful and widespread way, but what path should be followed after Mayday with all these problems and demands you’ve listed?

Our basic problem in fact is the issue of re-combining on May 2nd and continuing the struggle. We must engage in unity of action to solve all the problems we voice on Mayday together with the tens of thousands of workers and the trade unions that come out and combine on Mayday.


Another item on the agenda are the resignations from the Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions and Confederation of Righteous Trade Unions. What is your take on both unions’ claims that their members are being forced to resign?

Workers are not actually resigning due to change at the municipalities. There was in fact compulsory membership and, once the compulsion ends or there is a feeling of greater security, this creates the wish to leave the union. By now workers see through the lies, “If you don’t join a government-associated union you’ll have no rights” and plays for time, “We’ll fix the problems tomorrow; we’ll fix them in two months; we’re negotiating.” Also, these unions’ stated openness to discussion over the severance pay fund and indecisive talk on the issue of moving onto the public payroll have increased workers’ inclination to change unions. For example, we took on 1700 new members before our branch congress. Of these, 99% were workers moving to us from the Confederation of Righteous Trade Unions. These workers were compulsorily made members of the Confederation of Righteous Trade Unions by their institution managers there while attached to subcontracting companies. As soon as they felt freer, they left the union they weren’t voluntarily part of.

Let me ask with President and AKP General Chair Erdoğan’s comments backing the Confederation of Righteous Trade Unions and Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions in mind. What kind of place do the unions in question play in AKP politics?

The Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions grew very fast after the AKP came to power. It rose from 30-40,000 members to more than a million today. The basic function of these unions is to supress and keep under control workers’ demands and maintain the AKP’s political hegemony. For example, at one time Erdoğan wanted the civil servants’ law number 657 to be abolished but in his most recent speeches has begun to say, “Don’t worry, 657 will protect you.” That is, he’s saying, “We’ll protect you under all conditions because there’s never been such a structure so faithful to our policies!”


What is the take-up among workers and wage earners concerning the local election results and the objections the AKP has lodged against the election results, chiefly in Istanbul?

Workers have in fact been dissatisfied with the government’s economic programme for a long time. But there was an overwhelming perception that there is no alternative and the government won’t change come what may. Antagonism increased with the harshening of economic conditions. When we ask workers who for years voted for the AKP why they did otherwise in this election, we get the replies, “The country isn’t being run well; everything is decided on single-handedly; none of the workers’ problems are heeded or are even made a mockery of.” Calling regulated-price queues queues of plenty or the tea and bread roll calculation most recently made by AKP MP Mehmet Akbaşoğlu has courted plenty of rage among workers. Workers, who embraced the ruling party’s talk of survival, today say, “They speak of survival but we’re hungry and our children are hungry!” So, the economic crisis has surpassed the rhetoric of survival. Workers are searching and are trying to find a road for themselves. Our job as unions is to open this road.


What are your observations on the effects of the polarizing propaganda that the ruling maintained for the course of the election campaign in which it discriminated between those who vote for them and those who don’t?

This wasn’t a point of contention for most workers in the recent election and when we spoke about it we were told, “Those are things done to change the agenda and our concern is making ends meet,” but, for example, the attempted lynching of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has caused disquiet in workplaces. The attack on Kılıçdaroğlu, the government’s attitude and especially that of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and defence minister Hulusi Akar, social media posts etc. have set workers who vote for the Nation Alliance and People’s Alliance against one another. Even if not widespread, we have seen arguments take place that go as far as insults. These are things that didn’t happen in the election period. The AKP is embracing policies of factionalism to consolidate its vote through polarization. And all the pointers are that it will continue with this.

(Translated by Tim Drayton)