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“We Need a Flood!” – A Young and Independent Union’s Struggle in and through Waves of Local Strikes

InterviewIn this interview, we talk to Mehmet Türkmen, President of the United Textile, Weaving and Leather Workers’ Union (Birtek-Sen), which is an independent trade union founded in Gaziantep, one of Turkey’s major textile centres, at the beginning of 2022. Since its establishment, Birtek-Sen has played a critical role in numerous strikes, particularly in Gaziantep. The union has also led various struggles in Gaziantep’s surrounding provinces. In an 80-day protest action in Şanlıurfa which started last November, Birtek-Sen gained public attention for their struggle at Özak Tekstil, which manufactures for global brands such as Levi’s.

Mehmet Türkmen started working at the age of nine as a carpet weaver and continued working in this sector for 16 years. He then became an organizer and regional representative for several trade unions. He was also a member of the General Executive Board of the Labour Party (EMEP) for a period. Until November 2021, Türkmen had for over two years been serving as the regional representative of DİSK/Tekstil (the textile workers’ union affiliated to the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, DİSK). According to his statement, he was dismissed from the union after successfully completing a unionization campaign and as part of a deal between DİSK/Tekstil and the employer. After his dismissal, he participated in a series of discussions with workers from different cities, including Gaziantep, with whom he had previously fought union struggles, to discuss how they should proceed from now on. The idea of forming an independent union was accepted, and Birtek-Sen was founded in early 2022.

Official statistics indicate that only 240 workers from five workplaces in Turkey’s textile, ready-made clothing, and leather sector have gone on strike over the past decade, suggesting that labour relations in the industry are mainly peaceful. Still, the non-legal strikes suggest otherwise. Labour protests and non-legal strikes in Gaziantep, one of the sector’s leading centres in Turkey, have attracted attention since the beginning of 2022. What is the current state of labour struggles there?

Workers’ struggles of different kinds and sizes are frequent in Gaziantep, but February 2022 saw the biggest wave of work stoppages in many years. Before that, in 2012, there were strikes in Başpınar (in the Organized Industrial Zone), which lasted for ten days with 5,000 workers striking in six large factories, and these were utterly non-union strikes. Öz İplik-İş (the textile workers’ union affiliated to the Hak-İş Confederation) had organized at two of these factories, but workers went on strike despite the union. Through these strikes, wages in the yarn sector were increased by 30–40 percent above the legal minimum wage, and the right to bonuses was also won back.

In Gaziantep, 12,000 workers in 34 factories participated in the strikes in February 2022; in August 2023, there were strikes in Şireci Textile and 11 other factories; and finally, in February–March 2024, 6,000–7,000 workers in 11 factories went on strike.

The February 2022 strikes coincided with the founding of Birtek-Sen, and we saw Birtek-Sen’s active presence outside the factories where workers went on strike. What was your role in the strikes as an independent union that had just been founded?

We were involved in almost all of these strikes in one way or another. We even led a significant proportion of them or played a crucial role in their success. But despite Birtek-Sen’s active role in the strikes, it did not develop into a massive trade union organization. That’s why there is so much curiosity about this case.

In February 2022, there were strikes in 34 factories. There were perhaps four or five strikes that we couldn’t reach, which is related to a critical feature of these strikes: the longest of them was three days, and there were also strikes that lasted a few hours or just one day. All but a few of them ended with gains. Before the strikes, employers had increased wages by 50 percent in line with the increase in the statutory minimum wage. The workers did not accept this rate and ended up winning increases of between 60 and 70 percent. As the strikes spread, the employers got scared. In fact, in some factories where there were no strikes, wages were raised just to prevent the strikes from spreading.

Birtek-Sen played a direct role in achieving the pay rise in at least ten of them. These were the factories where we had previous connections and influence, and where we played a role in maintaining the resistance in an organized way. Seeing the union’s role, the management in many of these factories felt obliged to increase the wages to prevent this movement from developing into a full-fledged unionization. The same was the case in August 2023, especially in Şireci Tekstil. However, we saw that the tendency of the workers to organize in the union, to unite with the union, and to act in an organized way was much more advanced in August 2023. Both the workers’ trust in the union and their attachment to it were much higher. But new union membership was again limited.

How do you explain workers’ reluctance to unionize, even though they do not refrain from participating in non-legal work stoppages without union involvement, or accept Birtek-Sen’s role in — and, in some cases, even leadership of — the strikes?

To understand this, you have to know the peculiarity of Gaziantep. There are currently 1,300,000 registered workers in the textile sector in Turkey, and ten percent are in Gaziantep. Gaziantep is where the tradition of organizing and struggle in the textile sector is at its highest in Turkey. Typically, one would expect that the higher the level of resistance and struggle of the workers in a region or basin, the higher the level of unionization. Gaziantep may be the only city where this relationship is the opposite. In Gaziantep, work stoppages are the most frequent, and the unionization rate is the lowest. The low unionization rate cannot be explained by workers being afraid or unwilling to fight, since these workers use the most militant forms of action: they take part in non-legal strikes, which is immediate grounds for being fired without compensation. Then we need another explanation. Unfortunately, the textile unions affiliated with the three confederations have significantly damaged Gaziantep. Therefore, Gaziantep is where the trade union bureaucracy and yellow unionism caused the most damage. Thus, there are two reasons for the low level of unionization in Gaziantep. The first is the fear of being fired, the obstacles against unionization, etc. But this applies everywhere, and if the level of struggle is highest in Gaziantep, this explanation is unsatisfactory. The second and most important reason is that the workers distrust the unions, and almost all the workers’ previous experiences with the unions resulted in betrayal.

Workers have a high level of confidence in Birtek-Sen because they know us; they know me. The founders of the union are workers who have led different struggles. One of the founders is Mikail Kılıçalp, a weaver for 45 years, who was one of the leaders of the strikes in Ünaldı in 1996. The leader of the 2010 strike at Çemen Tekstil has become one of the leaders of Birtek-Sen. We have 20–25 founders who are participating in the leading bodies and factory representatives committee, and all of them, without exception, are experienced workers who have led all the crucial workers’ protests, strikes, and organizing drives in Gaziantep in the last 25–30 years, including the February 2022 strikes. In this way, Birtek-Sen carries within it the 25 years of experience of struggle of the most experienced workers. Whenever there is a work stoppage or protest, the workers turn to us first and say, “we went on strike to demand a wage increase”, or “we got fired, we are experiencing such injustice, come and lead us, look after us”.

In other words, workers are still reluctant to unionize because of past experiences, not because they do not trust Birtek-Sen. So, the workers are now acting like: “Let’s cut our own cord, brother. We don’t have anything to do with the union. We’ll stop work. We’ll resist for two days, three days. At least we’ll get a three-cent raise...”. And it works, at least in that respect, even if it is not a permanent gain.

So here is the situation in front of us. They trust us; they want us to accompany them in their struggle. They get a lot of courage from us, and many workers know that the achievements of much of the strikes is due to us. They visit the union after every strike and thank us. However, progress in creating a permanent organization and unionization is limited. It has started to change a little bit. It’s not like it was two years ago. There is progress, but it is still very limited.

It seems that the dominant tendency among workers is to fight side-by-side with the union but without unionization. How do you think the relationship between workers and Birtek-Sen might be transformed?

We predict that we will not meet the one percent sectoral threshold required to be authorized to sign collective bargaining agreements simply by adding a few new members through each instance of strike. Birtek-Sen will not be a union that gets authorization and makes collective agreements in the classical sense for a long time.

However, classical trade unionism, which limits itself only to legal authorization and collective bargaining procedures, no longer meets workers’ needs. Especially in the textile sector, it is an obstacle. That is why these types of strike, that occur despite the trade unions, have increased in the last few years. Triggered by inflation, interest rate hikes, and rapidly-increasing poverty, the workers are looking for alternatives, and these informal strikes will become more widespread. Birtek-Sen has become the focal point of this struggle. Regardless of the membership level, which is now at around 1,300, we are a union that, in one way or another, has led the strikes of tens of thousands of workers, and even organized some of this.

After establishing Birtek-Sen, we have experienced three waves of strikes in Gaziantep. The union was born in the first wave in February 2022. The second wave consisted of the strike in the Şireci Tekstil and other factories last August (2023). If you ask about the difference between the February (2022) and August (2023) strikes, I can take Şireci Tekstil as an example. Şireci workers also went on strike in February 2022, but were too chaotic then. They ignored our recommendations to get organized, elect representatives, form committees, and avoid conducting strikes in isolation from different factories in the same company or even from other departments in the same factory. But in August 2023, we saw that the tendency of the workers to move with the union was much more advanced. We asked them to elect representatives, and they elected representatives. In the past, the two factories (acrylic and cotton) always went on strike separately. We told them to unite. We marched the workers from one factory to the other, and they participated. We told them to elect committees: they elected committees, and they unified their demands. The workers of Şireci Tekstil have carried out work stoppages almost every year, but it was only in August 2023 that we were able to complete the strike without the workers being divided, scattered, or dissolved, and by achieving their demands and putting the dismissed 2,500 workers back to work.

In the most recent strikes in February 2024, the workers’ recognition of the need for stronger unity was much more advanced, and we at least managed to get workers from different factories to visit each other. The factories of the Melike and Zafer companies were the biggest factories where workers had gone on strike in the last wave. One has 1,500 workers and the other 2,000, and strikes occurred in these factories in the same period. One strike lasted for ten days and the other for seven days. During the strikes, the workers unified their demands. In a way, this was something that the workers learned from the union, but in the end, it became their own experience and memory. They saw that it gave them strength.

How will this be taken to the next stage? How will it go one step further? We are now discussing that this cannot be done through scattered actions in separate factories that are unaware of each other. We need a wave that develops in, let’s say, at least eight or ten factories with the same demands, with a joint decision and a common stance. So, when we confront the management separately as workers of a single factory, the management in 1,500 factories suffocate it by saying that the conditions in all the other factories and the market are like this. In other words, we need a flood. Let me put it this way: a bigger wave, but this time, we need an organization that will make the streams flow in the same direction, and we think that Birtek-Sen will provide that. We think that this tendency among the workers to act together, which is still very weak, is gradually developing and maturing, that the possibilities are increasing for these movements in these very different factories to turn into a united movement and to turn into a joint organization, and for this to turn into a permanent organization under the umbrella of a union, and that as these possibilities increase, the position of the union here will become stronger.

Let’s move on to the resistance of the workers of Özak Tekstil in Şanlıurfa, which produces for Levi’s, a global giant. In November 2023, the workers began joining Birtek-Sen. On 27 November, they initiated industrial action that lasted for 80 days. I am curious about how this came about. The workplace was already unionized. So, why did the workers opt for Birtek-Sen when they were already members of another union?

It was not a struggle for unionization in a non-unionized factory. The main element of the workers’ struggle is the attempt to get rid of a union, Öz İplik-İş (the textile workers’ union affiliated to the Hak-İş Confederation), and this is the second attempt of the Özak Tekstil workers. The first attempt occurred when I was working as a regional representative of DİSK/Tekstil. Although we had reached a high membership level, similar to now, we did not achieve victory due to the pandemic, the factory’s closure, the introduction of unpaid leave, the restriction on our movements, etc. Therefore, the struggle we have recently carried out this year is the second attempt. The reason for the workers leaving Öz İplik-İş to organize in Birtek-Sen is that they know me from the DİSK/Tekstil period.

We had our first meeting on 3 November 2023. Before that, the workers of this factory contacted us and asked for a meeting, saying that they were very angry with the union before the upcoming collective bargaining round, that the promises made had not been kept, that there was intense production pressure and bullying in the workplace, and that they would leave Öz İplik-İş for these reasons. Within two weeks, around 300 hundred workers joined Birtek-Sen.

What were the reasons for the workers to leave Öz İplik-İş, and what were the main workplace issues discussed in the first meetings?

The main problem was wages. They only got 500 Turkish lira [around 15 US dollars] more than the [monthly] minimum wage. So, they worked for minimum wage without any other fringe benefits or payments. Another problem was widespread bullying and excessive production pressure. Another problem was the compulsory shifts, sometimes up to 18–20 hours a day, especially in some departments where women work. But what they were most angry about was the pressure on the workers who resigned in reaction to Öz İplik-İş. They told us that workers who resigned were transferred to another department, subjected to bullying, forced into a persuasion room, and so on. The company, we were told, always fired workers without compensation, and the union did not care about them. The union’s workplace representatives acted as witnesses for the boss in court, against a worker who sued for compensation after being fired. The most common thing workers mentioned was that the unionists or union representatives even wrote the incident reports. In all these conversations, ten percent of the reaction was against the boss and the managers, while 90 percent was against the union. In other words, they were organizing against the union, saying, “we want to get rid of this union”.

We made it clear to the workers in the initial meetings that we do not have the authority to sign a collective agreement. We are below the sectoral threshold. We cannot make an official agreement like Öz İplik-İş according to the laws in Turkey. But we also said to the workers: “Öz İplik-İş is authorized and has a collective agreement, but does it solve your problem? Does it benefit the workers? It doesn’t. The most important thing for us is the real organized power of the workers. If the workers have solid organization and unity, they can achieve their demands by getting the management to sign a protocol, which can be a substitute for a contract, as long as we are organized. Even if we cannot sign a contract, if there is an injustice against any of us, we will fight against it together with you”. Knowing this, more than 500 of the 700 workers in the factory left Öz İplik-İş and joined Birtek-Sen.

Of course, Öz İplik-İş knew that the workers were resigning [from their union], but the hall meeting that we organized on 19 November with the participation of 250 workers gave them a frightening picture. The workers who spoke at the meeting openly criticized several managers and union representatives by name. Seher Güler, the first worker to be fired, was one of the workers who spoke. Immediately after this meeting, an interrogation room was set up in the factory. Tens of workers, maybe more than a hundred, were invited into the room one by one and were threatened with dismissal by (Öz İplik-İş) union representatives and some factory managers. They were forced to leave Birtek-Sen and to rejoin Öz İplik-İş. They used workers’ private lives to threaten some of them, saying, “we will call your family and tell them that their daughter has a boyfriend here, that she goes to the cafes downtown”, and so on. But this pressure was unsuccessful. There were some resignations [from Birtek-Sen], but 20 new workers would join us if five people resigned. By the time the action started, we had more than 400 members, and in the first ten days of the action, the membership continued to increase, and we exceeded 500, reaching a peak of 545 members.

When this pressure didn’t work, the company fired Seher Güler on 27 November to scare the other workers. The workers took Seher Güler’s dismissal as a message that all of them would be fired if they did not leave the union, and it became the last straw. The workers told us they would stop working and asked our opinion. We said we were open to it if the majority of the workers joined, but if not, we would take another action. To be honest, we did not foresee that this time, the state, the capitalists in the region and their organizations, and all the institutions would confront us so fiercely.

Şanlıurfa Governorate quickly issued a ban on protests that was effective at the city level. Later, it turned out that Ministry of Labour [1] inspectors visited the factory on the same days. You were arrested several times. What can you tell us about the actions of state institutions during this dispute?

The gendarmerie was always present around the factory but did not openly intervene at first. On the third day of the resistance, Şanlıurfa Governorate declared a ban on protests. During the first three days, we stood outside and in the factory yard, and there was no production in the factory. The number of protesting workers and union members was increasing. On that day, a factory manager met with the governorate, and the governorate immediately announced the ban on protests. The gendarmerie intervened before the decision was announced to us, and that was the first time that we, three to four union leaders, were detained. However, even after the four-day ban had ended, they didn’t remove the roadblocks, so the street where the factory is located was closed to the workers. We pushed hard to remove the barricade, but every time we tried, we faced harsh repercussions, and there were arrests. One time, they detained 20 people; another time, they detained 30 workers; and the last time, they detained 110 people at once, and each time, we could see that the degree of harshness in the intervention was increasing.

Over time, 400 workers were dismissed, but in the early days of the protest, Birtek-Sen announced that indirect negotiations with the employers were taking place. How did these negotiations turn out?

We negotiated indirectly with the management while the protest ban was still in effect. The workers’ representatives had two meetings with the management and all our demands except one were accepted. The only issue we couldn’t [get them to] agree on was the reinstatement of Seher Güler, and negotiations on this issue were still ongoing at that time. So, if it were up to the management, this problem would have been solved in the first week. Under normal conditions, a resistance of this kind would have won ten times in the first week. But at that time, the state got involved [to assert] the will of the region’s forces of capital. 

The main demands were the reinstatement of the fired worker and to respect the rights of workers to join a union of their choice. The dispute revolved around this demand, and all other demands were made to secure it. The continued resistance of the Özak management is not a stubborn refusal to reinstate a worker. No boss would risk losing 100–150 million Turkish lira just for not reinstating one worker. But in the figure of the Özak boss, the minds of the textile bosses of the whole region, and the forces of capital of the entire region and the state came into play. Birtek-Sen’s achievement in the protest action in Özak Tekstil was seen as a threat to the project of making this region into Turkey’s Bangladesh and a cheap labour hub and, in the long run, to all the interests of capital in the region. Birtek-Sen was a threat to this. They recognized this, quite correctly as it turned out. If we had won at Özak Tekstil by getting the workers back to work, we would have already organized Flo, where 2,000 workers are employed, and several other factories. Workers from various factories, especially Flo, met with us in groups and said that they would join Birtek-Sen once the Özak action was over. And this movement would not have been limited to Şanlıurfa. From Şanlıurfa to Van, from Diyarbakır to Batman [a city in Turkey], to Bitlis, and so on, textile factories are springing up everywhere, and all of them have minimum wage schemes; all of them are set up as cheap labour regimes, and there is absolutely no room for organizing. Or there are yellow unions under the control of the management, such as Öz İplik-İş and TEKSİF (the textile workers’ union affiliated to the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions). Birtek-Sen threatened this system; they saw this.

At one point, you moved the protest to Istanbul, where the company’s headquarters are located. Why did you make this decision, and what happened in Istanbul?

A decision to ban protests around the factory was issued when we were taken to court with an arrest warrant after being cleared from the street. We were then far away from the factory and outside the Organized Industrial Zone, and even the route of the workers’ shuttle buses did not pass in front of us. In other words, the possibility of protest action affecting the factory and production disappeared entirely. That was when the impact of the strike began to fall. 

We had to make another move. Otherwise we were going to have to end the struggle entirely because it was getting weaker. Solidarity with us also weakened, and the workers became demoralized. We decided to select ten volunteer workers and move the protest to Istanbul, where the headquarters of the holding company that Özak Tekstil belongs to is located. The pressure we put on the brand through the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) had also begun. The WRC had started to prepare its report[2], at a time in which the brand was giving warnings to the factory for the first time, asking them to resolve this dispute, otherwise the relationship between the brand and the company would be severed. At that point, so as to not reduce this pressure, we thought we should at least continue this in Istanbul so that it would be on the public agenda. Around one week after we moved to Istanbul, the employer asked for a meeting with us, and they took us as interlocutors for the first time. We had a meeting with the directors and managers of the factory. The issue we couldn’t agree on at that meeting was how the company would reinstate the workers. They offered a piecemeal and gradual reinstatement. Neither we nor the workers accepted this, and we insisted that the workers should be reinstated all at once and without any conditions. Negotiations broke off during the communications for the second meeting when Özak Tekstil sent a toxic reply. In their reply, they had written that in the report of the inspectors of the Ministry of Labour — apparently, they had received this report at that time — it was stated that our action was illegal, and that the Ministry found the company was in the right. Emboldened by this, they broke off negotiations completely. In fact, while the struggle was still going on in Istanbul, the company had come back to the point of accepting our demands as a result of the pressure from the brand.

There have been numerous solidarity actions/protests supporting the workers of Özak Tekstil and Birtek-Sen in Turkey and several other countries. Maintaining such solidarity actions should be difficult for a young and independent union. I’m curious to know how this solidarity came about and whether it helped strengthen the hand of the union against Levi’s. Additionally, how did Levi’s as a company get involved in this dispute?

Considering the recent weakness of the trade unions and the labour movement in Turkey, it was the most effective solidarity possible under these conditions. Apart from the Tekel Resistance (2009–2010) and some other struggles, this is the first time that there has been such a high level of solidarity for workers’ resistance in a factory. When we called for a solidarity action in front of Levi’s stores, there were solidarity actions in 35 provinces and more than 50 locations in Turkey. And some of them were pretty massive. When we called for global protests, there were protests in nine different places in two days in Istanbul alone. In other words, this is the first time in many years that a workers’ struggle in Turkey has been on the agenda of progressive, left-wing, and democratic circles, especially the leftist, socialist circles, independent combative unions, and some other combative unions. 

Second, we have maintained, and developed, an international impact on the brands. Several trade union experts, academics, journalists, etc., have been following and supporting us since the foundation of Birtek-Sen. At the beginning of the strike, we formed a voluntary solidarity group of these people, and they worked like an advisory board. They kept Zara, Levi’s, the WRC (Worker Rights Consortium), and the CCC (Clean Clothes Campaign) informed of developments and communicated with them. At the same time, we were able to put this issue on the agenda of the trade unions in Europe and mobilize some circles and organizations at the international level. In response to our call for a Global Day of Action, solidarity actions took place in nine countries on the same day and in 11 or 12 countries in total, including Germany, France, England, etc. I don’t think Turkey has had a labour action with so many international solidarity actions in recent history. Although we wrote to Levi’s about the situation here from the beginning, they were always taking their time until these solidarity actions took place. But the start of solidarity actions, and especially bringing the WRC from the USA to Şanlıurfa to inspect and meet with the workers, had a very crucial impact. At the end of December, after all these developments and actions, Levi’s for the first time took a stance towards Özak Tekstil, saying that they should accept the workers’ demands and meet with the union.

Levi’s both accepted the workers’ demands and warned Özak Tekstil that they would no longer work with them if they did not accept these demands[3]. I think these international protests and our advisory board’s efforts with the brands greatly impacted Levi’s getting to this point. Öz İplik-İş had never in its history been exposed at the international level to such an extent. They had to write back to everyone. It even caused a debate within IndustriaALL about whether Öz İplik-İş is a yellow union because they stood [with the management]. This also caused a debate and a divergence among them.

On 23 March, you announced[4] that Birtek-Sen had received a shocking fine of approximately 1,440,000 Turkish lira (more than 40,000 euros) for allegedly forcing workers to leave the other union and join its own. The fine was based on an inspection carried out by inspectors from the Ministry of Labour in the early days of the strike. Even though the Ministry’s report officially stated that 432 out of 698 workers had left Öz İplik-İş and joined Birtek-Sen, showing that Birtek-Sen had the majority in the workplace, Birtek-Sen was fined. What are your thoughts on this fine?

The specific article in the law, on which this fine was based, targets employers who prevent unionization or who force workers to leave one union and join another. Several lawyers and experts on unionism commented afterward that this was the first time this article had been used against a union. This is the first crucial point about this fine.

Secondly, the report states that the employer did not engage in union busting. On the contrary, the report claims that Birtek-Sen and its members forced the workers to join the protest and to leave Öz İplik-İş to join Birtek-Sen. For this, Birtek-Sen was fined for every worker who was allegedly forced to join. What’s even more scandalous is that the number of workers who had faced repression was calculated based on the number of remaining members of Öz İplik-İş. Typically, if we have forced a worker to resign or put pressure on them, the victimized workers here should be the ones who resigned because of this pressure. But if they were to justify the accusation of pressure based on the workers who had resigned from Öz İplik-İş, they would have to ask the workers who resigned and joined us — who would say that they had changed unions of their own free will.

Here is the contradiction. When you force workers to leave a union or join another union, you can exert pressure in two ways. You can beatthem, but there is no such charge. If that had happened, there would have been a criminal complaint before. Second, you can threaten to fire workers. For a union to do that, it has to collaborate with the management because a union has no authority to fire a worker. And if we have done that, it means that we are collaborating with the management. In this case, the employer is responsible and should be fined.

Moreover, the workers who were oppressed there are our members. While the inspectors were inspecting there, 400 workers were fired by the company, all of whom were Birtek-Sen members. While the workers were still being threatened with phone calls and messages saying that they would be fired if they didn’t resign, we are being fined as if we were the ones who were pressuring them.

The third scandal is the inspection. While the inspection was taking place, 400–500 workers were protesting outside. Birtek-Sen and the workers protesting outside were the main parties in this whole harassment, this dispute, whatever it’s called. However, the inspectors wrote this report by talking only with the management and the members of Öz İplik-İş, which is on the side of the management, and without talking at all with us, the workers outside, [to see] the other side of the incident.

Besides the legal aspect, how do you interpret the heavy fine imposed on Birtek-Sen?

The message is clearly one of punishment. Throughout the struggle these workers were subjected to oppression of all kinds. There were 190 arrests during the action. Probably the last time so many arrests were made during a workers’ protest was at the Istanbul Airport (in 2018). They intervened harshly six times. I alone was detained four times. There was not a single leader of Birtek-Sen who was not detained. We took the protest to Istanbul, and no matter which district of Istanbul we went to, protests were also banned, and arrests were also made there. In other words, this fine is actually a move to collapse the union financially, as what the state did with all its power before was insufficient. They knew that we are an independent union with no financial power, but they also realized that they couldn’t intimidate us with pressure and violence, so this time, they acted in such a way in order to collapse the union financially. 

Another message is related to the fact that the struggle of the Özak Tekstil workers and the union organization here is a challenge to the “Bangladeshification” of this region. They want to punish and prevent this challenge, this resistance. They are sending us a clear message that this is the punishment we will receive if we resist this slavery-like labour structure in this region, if we continue with militant trade unionism here, and if we do not give in. 

The third, and most crucial, point is that understanding this punishment as an attack only against Birtek-Sen would be a big mistake. If this punishment does not encounter strong resistance, this will be normalized, and tomorrow, it will be possible for any union that is not a supporter of the management and the government to face this. Whichever union is organized in a workplace, the management can neutralize that union by bringing in a pro-management union and through such a ministerial inspection. In other words, this is clearly an attack that will de facto eliminate both the freedom of trade union organization and the right to choose a trade union. If this is not prevented, if it is not repelled — and Birtek-Sen cannot do this alone — and if other unions do not oppose it with the acknowledgment that it is also an attack against them, this will be normalized. This will then, from now on, be a danger that will be faced by every union that is not partisan, not yellow, not yet yellowed, or that is to some extent combative. That is the most critical point.

That’s why we see this not only as our cause but as an attack on all workers, on all unions involved in struggle, on the right to organize, and on the right to choose a union. It seems that they have targeted Birtek-Sen. This is because the textile industry is the most widespread and largest industry in this region. It is also one of the pilot industries where the cheap labour regime, which is the most fundamental component of the export-led growth model in Turkey, prevails. The biggest threat to this cheap labour regime here is Birtek-Sen. If there is no strong resistance, we may face other attacks that will go as far as closing down the union. Birtek-Sen may be the target today, but other unions will be the target tomorrow.

We can also talk about this issue in terms of the authoritarianism in the country. The problem here is not only a threat to Birtek-Sen and other unions. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that, with this authoritarian coercion against Birtek-Sen and the workers of Özak Tekstil, this hostility towards the workers and trade unions, this attitude of the state and the government that eliminates and usurps the right of the workers to organize and openly violates even its laws — if all of this is not repelled, if there is no serious struggle against it, it will not be limited to eliminating the freedom of the workers to organize. In any country, especially in a country like Turkey where the working class isso developed, at least in terms of numbers, if not organizationally, it is not possible to talk about democracy and freedom in any other field of life if the freedom of the working class to organize, the freedom to unionize, and their struggle is prevented.


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     To use its full title, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (Çalışma ve Sosyal Güvenlik Bakanlığı).

  2. 2

    On June 21, 2024, the Worker Rights Consortium published a detailed factory assessment report on the struggles at Özak Tekstil and how the Levi’s company has responded to this dispute. See the report at: https://www.workersrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/WRC-Findings-Recommendations-and-Status-at-Ozak-Turkiye.pdf

  3. 3

    Birtek-Sen announced on 12 April 2024 that Levi’s had changed its position on this dispute: “The brand made a commitment that it would take responsibility for the Özak Tekstil employer to accept our demands for the reinstatement of the workers and the recognition of the workers’ right to choose a union, otherwise they would completely sever their relations with Özak. However, after more than four months, we have learned that Levi's has publicly declared its decision to continue its relations with Özak”. The union has also stated its intention to expose the fact that Levi’s has failed to fulfil its commitment, and to put pressure on the company. See Birtek-Sen, “We expose Levi’s for ignoring the months-long resistance of Özak workers and their demands”, 12 April 2024, available at https://www.birteksen.org/we-expose-levis-for-ignoring-the-months-long-resistance-of-ozak-workers-and-their-demands/ (last accessed on 2 July 2024).

  4. 4

     Birtek-Sen, “At the Request of Özak Tekstil’s Boss, Birtek-Sen Is Fined 1.5 Million Turkish Lira by the Ministry of Labor of Türkiye”, 23 March 2024, available at https://www.birteksen.org/at-the-request-of-ozak-tekstils-boss-birtek-sen-is-fined-1-5-million-turkish-lira-by-the-ministry-of-labor-of-turkiye/ (last accessed on 2 July 2024).

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