On the eve of the first anniversary of the Gezi uprising, a small group of textile workers explores a radical alternative: occupy, resist, produce!
Diren!Kazova, reads the sign above a small shop and cultural center in Istanbul’s busy Şişli neighborhood. Inside, the floor is made of cobblestones, giving the visitor the impression of arriving at a type of indoor street market. Slogans like ’1st of May!’, ‘Resist Kazova!’ and ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ are written on the stones, scattered across the room. From the walls hang racks full of sweaters, hundreds of them. At first glance they appear to be just ordinary sweaters. That is, until one learns the story behind them. Then suddenly the sweaters turn into symbols of resistance, signs of defiance, and the materialized hope for a more equal society, a more just economy — yes, for a better world even.
The story starts over a year ago, in the last week of January 2013. At that time the workers of the Kazova textile factory were put on a one-week leave by their bosses, the brothers Ümit and Umut Somuncu, without having received their salaries, let alone overtime pay, for several months. The Somuncu brothers told them that upon returning to the factory one week later they would receive their back pay, but instead they were met by the company lawyer who informed them that all the 95 workers had been collectively fired because of their ‘unaccounted-for absence’ for three consecutive days. The bosses had disappeared overnight, taking with them 100,000 sweaters, 40 tons of yarn and anything of value. They had sabotaged the machines they couldn’t bring with them, leaving the workers empty-handed, without their salaries and without their means of production.
Some of the workers had spent years, if not decades, in the factory, and now suddenly, from one day to the next they found themselves without a job, without an income and without any right or possibility to bring their criminal bosses to justice. ”In Turkey, the law is not designed in favor of the worker,” states Nihat Özbey, one of the Kazova employees, when I speak with him in their shop. “So, were it not for the use of force, we would never have gotten what we wanted.”
With this in mind, the workers did the only sensible thing they could do: they resisted. Their resistance started in the form of weekly protest marches from the neighborhood’s central square to the factory, but as soon as they learned that in their absence the factory’s former managers continued to rob the place of anything valuable, the workers decided to occupy their former workplace. “On April 28 we pulled up our tent in front of the factory,” Kazova worker Bülent Ünal recounts, “From then on our resistance became a tent resistance.”
Resistance and solidarity
In the weeks that followed the workers were attacked by hired thugs, accused of theft by their former employers and tear-gassed and beaten by the police when they staged a protest on May Day, but none of this could break their determination to fight for what was rightfully theirs. On June 30, emboldened by the Gezi Uprising, the workers moved ahead with their planned occupation of the factory.
First, they tried to sell off the remaining machines in the factory, but soon they were once again attacked by the police. When four of their comrades were taken into custody, the other eight workers who were part of the resistance staged a hunger strike to protest against this treatment by the authorities, who treated them as the criminals and their former bosses as the victims. “The boss stealing our labor, taking away the machines was no crime. But us trying to get a fraction of our dues was a crime,” states Ünal. “The police came to the factory following complaints by the bosses […]. Again investigations were conducted about us; again we were the accused. No one said a word to the bosses.”
The workers realized very well that the odds were against them, and that their resistance would be met with violence and attempts by the powers-that-be to sabotage their efforts at independently running their factory. Nonetheless, inspired and strengthened by the show of solidarity they received from their neighbors, fellow workers and comrades across the city and across the country, the Kazova workers decided to reopen the factory. They resumed production using the old machinery their bosses had left behind and the few raw materials they had overlooked when plundering the factory.
The first batch of sweaters they produced under workers’ control was sent to the women and child prisoners who had written them letters of support during their struggle. The remaining sweaters were sold at the cafe of the Kolektif 26A in Taksim and at the numerous Gezi forums across the city, which had sprung up after Gezi Park had been evicted by the authorities in mid-June. The money they made through these sales was used to repair the machines that were sabotaged by their bosses.
In order to make their struggle more visible to the public, the workers also organized several public forums and in September hosted an actual fashion show in which a number of public figures — including intellectuals, journalists, actors, academics and music groups — participated. “Fashion of resistance,” the Turkish writer, lawyer and activist Metin Yeğin called it, before pointing out the sweet irony of using one of capitalism’s own products as an act of resistance.
‘Affordable Sweaters For All!’
A recent court ruling decided that the machinery in the factory would come to the workers as compensation for their lost wages, and with the machines brought to a new location everything is now ready for production, which should be possible within two months.
The slogan adopted by the Kazova workers — ‘Affordable Sweaters For All!’ — bears witness to their belief that this struggle is about so much more than just the jobs and livelihoods of a dozen individuals. The workers are very well aware of the highly important time and place in which their struggle takes place, and the fact that its outcome of it will fill thousands of supporters, comrades, onlookers and colleagues with either hope or despair.
And just as the struggle is not socially confined to the Kazova workers themselves, so its geographical reach expands far beyond the borders of Turkey. The workers have already reached out to self-managed factories and cooperatives elsewhere, including Vio.Me in Greece and the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Country, in order to establish connections of solidarity; to learn from the experiences of others and possibly in the future exchange the products of their labor.
The Kazova workers claim to have been inspired and emboldened by the wave of Gezi protests, and now through their determination to run their future factory as an autonomous workers’ collective, their struggle has turned into a beacon of hope for all those who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to resist the policies of an increasingly authoritarian government.
Turkey’s poor labor rights
Turkey has a long tradition of suppression and restriction of labor rights, which was already widespread under the country’s former military dictatorship in the 1980s and has continued under the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government (check out this excellent article on the topic). Rights to organize and strike have been curtailed, and worker rights are violated on a massive scale with unsafe working conditions and virtual impunity for company owners who fill their pockets while workers are dying.
In January alone, 82 people died after suffering work-related injuries — two of whom were just kids, 6 and 13 years old respectively, who died on the streets while collecting garbage to support their families. More recently, in a horrific confirmation of the poor state of workers’ safety conditions in Turkey, over 300 miners died when a fire broke out in a coal mine in Soma. In March, the mine received a “perfect score” from a government safety-inspector, who happened to be the brother-in-law of a senior executive of the company, highlighting the close relations between government officials and leading business figures.
According to the constitution, labor unions must represent a majority of the employees at the workplace, and 3 percent of all workers in that particular sector in order to become a bargaining agent (this is down from 10 percent prior to 2012, but since the amount of sectors has been reduced simultaneously and their size increased, the 3 percent representation might actually be harder to attain than the former 10 percent). Just as any government ruled by neoliberal principles would like to see it, union membership has dropped to an all-time low with less than 6 percent of the labor force organized in unions. The government has actively promoted neoliberal employment policies that rule out benefits, cut healthcare and keep millions of people hostage in precarious and insecure work arrangements.
The use of subcontractors was one of the main reasons for the workers of the Greif burlap bag factory to organize a strike in the early months of 2014. They demanded an end to subcontracted labor, with the subcontractors being brought in-house, a pay-rise, up from the legal minimum wage of 978 Turkish liras (about €330,-) and social rights. For 90 days the workers were on strike, occupying their factory, until a police raid on April 10 brought it to an end, detaining at least 91 people engaged in the occupation, and two reporters covering the raid.
A radically democratic alternative
In the past year, the AKP’s victory in recent municipal elections, the slowing down of the Turkish economy, and last summer’s wave of Gezi protests have only radicalized Erdoğan’s government in its fight against workers in general, and the left-leaning labor unions in particular. The government recently tried to prosecute leaders of the KESK, the Turkish public-sector trade union, on trumped-up charges of terrorism. In February, 23 union members were released after one year in prison, while six of their colleagues remain behind bars.
On May Day, the center of Istanbul was again shrouded in clouds of tear gas when thousands of workers, radical leftists and other sympathizers attempted to march on the iconic and thoroughly sealed-off Taksim square. With the celebration of the first anniversary of the Gezi uprisings only days away, the streets of Istanbul and other major cities across Turkey will undoubtedly once more become the stage for a violent stand-off between the AKP’s private security forces (i.e. the national police) and protesters from all walks of life demanding justice, equality and the fall of the AKP government.
In the midst of this ongoing struggle between workers fighting for their rights and a government enthusiastically suppressing all dissident voices, the Kazova workers have come up with a radically democratic alternative: “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” — a battle-cry they adopted from the recovered factory movement of Argentina. Rather than demanding legal reforms that the government probably won’t honor anyway, or demanding a pay-rise from a boss who would rather set the police free on his own employees, the Kazova workers have taken matters into their own hands. Not demanding better pay and working conditions, but taking them; not asking for a better alternative, but creating their own; not fighting just for their money, but for control over the means of production.
“Profit is not our aim,” explains Nihat Özbey, “but rather the exchange of ideas, to create revolutionary solidarity contacts. If we succeed, it will be one of the first times in Turkey that workers have occupied their factory and successfully restarted production under workers’ control.” Whenever they open their new factory, their old colleagues — even those who did not participate in the resistance — will be welcomed back to join the cooperative, where all will enjoy equal pay and equal rights, according to Özbey.
“We won’t be focusing on the past,” he says. And that is exactly the power and the beauty of Kazova’s example. This small group of 11 workers, who have been denied their rightful means to subsistence, have been lied to and have been fooled, tricked, tried, beaten, arrested, attacked, abused and gassed, have never looked back but instead have concentrated on what lies ahead. Through their refusal to give up and their determination to succeed, the Kazova workers are an inspiration to all. Their eventual victory may well mark the start of a whole new chapter of the resistance in Turkey.
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and an editor for ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JorisLever.