The morphology of a peaceful Turkish protest

They demanded greater rights and fair treatment from Oyak-Renault and Türk Metal, but they argued that their movement had nothing to do with politics.

Oguz Alyanak
28 May 2015

The Oyak-Renault factory in Bursa, partially captured in this picture, was shut down for 12 consecutive days by automotive workers. The tents where some of the workers resided for these 12 days can be spotted next to the yellow/silver Renault symbol.

“Tayyip will f— them up soon, don’t you think so?” the street vendor asked me while pointing out the workers on strike at the Oyak-Renault factory in Bursa. The fear of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains strong even in his absence. That Erdogan, the all seeing and almighty would unleash his wrath sooner or later is taken for granted by many in Turkey today. Where there is unrest, there is “Tayyip” and the police to deal with it by hook or by crook.

This time, however, the scene is a bit different. The Oyak-Renault automotive workers’ strike, which began on May 15, 2015 and lasted for 12 consecutive days, took place without any police intervention whatsoever. When it comes to protests in Turkey, the idea of a peaceful protest sounds somewhat surreal. With no stones or Molotov cocktails thrown, and no rubber bullets or gas canisters fired, it is hard to believe that at the Oyak-Renault factory, alongside almost a dozen other factories in Turkey, a collective form of demonstration ever took place. For some in Turkey today, the end of May and the first weeks of June serve as a reminder of the 2013 Gezi Park Protests. The protests in Gezi also started in a peaceful manner, yet soon turned violent—taking many young lives. How is it then that the automotive strike in Turkey has remained peaceful? This question requires a closer look.

Bursa and its automotive industry: why care?

On an ordinary day, tens of thousands of residents of Bursa who use the main artery connecting the seaside Mudanya district to the city center drive by a string of factories at one of Turkey’s largest industrial complexes without paying them much attention. Known as Bursa Organize Sanayi Bolgesi (BOSB), or Bursa Organized Industrial Zone (BOIZ), the industrial complex spans over an area of 6.8 million square meters. Once at the outer bounds of the city, it is now swallowed by Bursa’s rapid growth, one of 13 located in Bursa, and the oldest (est. 1961) in Turkey.

It hosts major automotive and textile factories, which make up two of Turkey’s top five export items. Since Friday morning (the 15th), however, a series of tents clustered at the entrance of the Industrial Zone’s biggest factory, Oyak-Renault, greet those passing by. Cars going in an out of the BOIZ carry pieces of paper haphazardly attached to their windows. They read “Diren Reno/Renault” [Resist, Reno/Renault]. The motto brings to mind the now iconic motto of the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, “Diren Gezi Parkı”, which, since then, has been replicated in various forms: “Diren Ankara,” “Diren Adana,” “Diren Bursa,” “Diren Lice,” “Diren Kobane,” etc.

One of the many cars proudly carrying the Diren Reno/Renault banner.Oguz Alyanak. All rights reserved.

One of the many cars proudly carrying the Diren Reno/Renault banner.Oguz Alyanak. All rights reserved.The resistance in Bursa, however, has a different flavor to it, for the cessation of production in Turkey’s top exporting factories has a direct impact on the Turkish economy. This, in turn, has an impact on the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is about to experience its first elections without the presence of its former leader, Erdogan. The AKP government takes great pride in highlighting the economic miracle that Turkey has witnessed in the 13 years spent with them at the helm. Most of the billboards in Turkey in these preelection days mention the services that the AKP was able to bring to its constituents as well as the investors it was able to attract as a result of Turkey’s stable economic growth. The Turkish economy did grow for seven consecutive years before entering the 2008-9 economic crisis, and rapidly recovered in 2010, growing at 9.2 percent and 8.8 percent in the two consecutive years following the crisis.

Since 2012, however, the Turkish economy has hit another hard patch, growing at a mere 2.9 percent, below official expectations.

The anxiety over Turkey’s economic stagnation extended into 2015, leaving leading experts at Foreign Policy to wonder who will come to save the Turkish economy, which is currently “in dire straits.” Despite the 5 percent growth estimate set by the government for 2015, scholars claim that the Turkish economy has experienced “zero growth” during the first quarter of the year. The Turkish Central Bank, however, is optimistic that similar to 2014, the Turkish economy will recover in the following quarters.

At a time when the Turkish economy experiences stagnation and total exports decline, the automotive sector remains one of the few sectors that maintains its growth. In 2014, the automotive industry was the leader in Turkey’s exports, exceeding the textile industry, and amounting to almost 22 billion USD (14 percent) of Turkey’s total of 153 billion USD exports. According to the Automotive Manufacturer’s Association, while total exports shrunk by 6.7 percent in the first two months of 2015, automotive exports surged 32 percent. Bursa plays a central role in this growth. Turkish Exporters’ Assembly’s 2013 Top 1000 Exporting Companies Report indicates that four of the top ten exporters in Turkey are representatives of the automotive industry—two of which are located in Bursa.

The 2013 Industry Report published by the Turkish Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology lists Bursa as Turkey’s second largest industrial center behind Istanbul. Representing Turkey’s fourth largest city population-wise, Bursa hosts almost a third of all industrial complexes in Turkey. Following textile, which constitutes a fourth of the total industrial work force, the automotive industry holds the second largest share in workers (21 percent of the total industrial workforce in the city). 60 percent of Bursa’s total exports come from the automotive industry. Hosting three major companies in the automotive industry, Oyak-Renault specializing in personal cars (PC), Tofaş (-Fiat) specializing in both personal cars and light commercial vehicles (LCV), and Karsan specializing in heavy commercial vehicles (HCV), approximately one in every two cars (PC, LCV and HCV combined) produced in Turkey comes out of Bursa. The January 2014 Investment Report published by the Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency states that Bursa is home to 42 percent of Fiat’s LCV production, ad 20 percent of Renault’s personal car production. 

Background: the impact of the metal workers’ strike

A quick scan of the Turkish coverage of the automotive workers’ strike tells us that on May 15, 2015, the blue-collar workers of the Oyak-Renault car factory, whose numbers approximate 5,000, went on strike.

The strike in Oyak-Renault then spread to other factories in Bursa and its neighboring industrial cities, such as Izmit and more recently, Eskişehir. As car manufacturing plants and their subsidiary industries shut down one after another—first the neighboring Coşkunöz metal production plant, and then Tofaş (-Fiat), Türk Traktor, Delphi, Valeo, Mako, Autotrim, and Ford-Otosan, among others, mainstream media outlets could no longer turn a blind eye to the situation. However, alternative publications, such as the Turkish daily Evrensel, a socialist newspaper that covers issues pertaining to workers and unions, had for some time been covering the conditions that led to the a multi-sited and multi-week strike—informing readers of the historical and structural complexity of the conditions that shape the automotive workers’ strike.

While the reasons for initiating this strike are complex, here is one account that I heard first-hand triangulated with information obtained from various newspapers and independent news sources. During the first week of April 2015, workers at Bursa’s largest factory Bosch (approximately 6000 workers) went on strike. Previously, in January, the metalworkers at the Bosch factory, more than half of them working at the minimum wage, asked for a new contract and demanded to switch labor unions, from Türk Metal (Turkish Metal), one of Turkey’s largest unions, to its smaller counterpart, Birleşik Metal-İş.

The workers argued that Türk-Metal did not represent their rights in a fair manner, insinuating that the union sided more with the government and the industrialists than the workers, and conducted its business in a “mafiozo” manner. The court case that brought the two labor unions in competition over Bosch workers resulted in Türk Metal retaining its status as the representative union of the workers at Bosch, thereby dismissing the possibility of workers switching labor unions. The management, however, decided to offer an amendment package to workers at Bosch as part of the collective labor contract, offering them wage increases of up to 60 percent over a period of three years. The new contract was signed between Türk Metal and the Metal Employers Association, MESS on April 13, 2015.

The reverberations of this contract soon reached workers in other factories. The workers of Oyak-Renault asked for the amelioration of their wages through the renewal of a contract which is in effect until 2017. Having lost confidence in the Türk Metal labor union, they elected 14 representatives to negotiate with the management. In return, the management fired the representatives. In solidarity with their fired colleagues, Oyak-Renault workers began to slow down production and threw their meals on the floor as a form of collective protest. These protests led to the reinstalling of the fired representatives back to their jobs. The problems, however, escalated when the Türk Metal union recruited a team of 150 or so individuals, some of them workers recruited from other factories, to beat up a group of Oyak-Renault workers who gathered in the BOIZ to make a public declaration.

The Oyak-Renault workers’ goal was to condemn Türk Metal for not seeking their rights and to make a public statement indicating that they were leaving Türk Metal to seek alternative, autonomous channels of representation. The roughing up, a direct example of the above mentioned “mafiozo” claims targeting Türk Metal, was a retaliation against Oyak-Renault workers’ loss of confidence. Rather than instilling fear among the metal workers, the drubbing however served as the harbinger for a full-fledged strike. First, approximately 1500 workers remained in the factory after their shift ended at midnight and occupied the factory grounds. They were joined by 3000 or so workers from two other shifts who stationed themselves outside the factory. Then workers of Oyak-Renault quit Türk-Metal en masse, and sent their own representatives to negotiate with the Oyak-Renault management and its representative employers’ union, MESS. 

Picture 3 Strike Inside-Strike Outside _0.jpg

The black metal fence separates factory from parking lot. On the right side of the fence, members of the shift that occupied the factory grounds (approximately 1500 workers). On the left, workers from two other shifts who came to provide their fellow colleagues with moral support, performing the Mexican wave.

When I visited Oyak-Renault on May 20, those inside and those outside communicated with each other across a metal fence separating the factory grounds from the parking lot. Access to the factory was granted only to white-collar workers who did not participate in the strike. Because the blue-collar workers who wished to exit the factory were not granted re-entry, they decided to remain inside the factory ground. As of early today (May 27), over a thousand workers were still occupying the Oyak-Renault facilities. While Oyak-Renault management granted these workers permission to use its facilities (toilets, cafeteria, etc.), most of the amenities (shelter, clothing, food) were provided by workers who remain outside the fence and provide moral support for their friends inside. 

Why so peaceful?

There is a range of factors leading to this strike. None, however, includes “ideological leanings” for which Ali Babacan, the former minister of economy and current Deputy Prime Minister responsible or the economy, criticized the strike. “The timing is significant” Babacan insisted when he launched his call for “creating a work force that is cleansed of ideologies.” Were Babacan to visit the Oyak-Renault factory before his comments—given, of course, that he would be granted permission to enter the facilities to talk to the workers—, he would have realized that what he calls ideology takes the forms of sheer pragmatism on the ground. The workers at Oyak-Renault I spoke with specifically emphasised that their strike is not a pre-election show, but a call for equal rights. And to prove their point, they have taken a number of measures.

One such measure is to control who gets into the parking lot serving as the demonstration ground, and who remains outside. Unlike Gezi Park, which remained an open space occupied by the public, thereby serving as an open-air museum of collective action, the parking lot of Oyak-Renault has been open only to workers of Oyak-Renault. Those without an Oyak-Renault ID, including myself, a doctoral student interested in an issue brewing within my vicinity, as well as the press—despite holding a press badge—were not granted permission to go through the make-shift gate.

Members of the press were only gradually given permission to enter the demonstration zone to conduct interviews and take footage from the inside. Otherwise, workers participating in the strike send representatives through the gate to answer questions. When family members and relatives of the Oyak-Renault workers participating in the strike came to the facility for a visit, and to bring supplies, they are asked to call someone from inside the gate to chaperone them around the demonstration ground. The make-shift gate was managed by a team of no less than three workers at all times who would tirelessly ask for an ID from their fellow coworkers each time they wanted to enter. For workers who occupied the factory grounds, who were therefore beyond the black metal fence separating the factory from the parking lot, the only means of communication with their families and friends was through the fence throughout the 12 days of occupation.

The gate also served the purpose of keeping the police outside the protest area. I was later to learn that the self-monitored gate was erected as a result of negotiations with the police. In the earlier days, there was no gate present. The demonstration ground/parking lot was open to public. While the workers enjoyed the support they received from the public, they also feared that such an uncontrollable setting would lead to unexpected outcomes—i.e., a confrontation with the police forces stationed right next to the demonstrators, which would provoke the police to initiate an intervention. The decision to allow only the workers in the parking lot was therefore a conscious decision made after the striking workers witnessed what some of them called “radical fragments” joining them. It was the fear of being labeled terrorists or extremists through the display of ideologically-loaded flags, banners and slogans that necessitated this measure.

The makeshift gate set up by Oyak-Renault workers. Oguz Almanac. All rights reserved.

When I first arrived Oyak-Renault facilities on May 20, there was not much to do other than sit down and watch workers sipping tea, smoking cigarettes or walking around in an aimless fashion. That I could not even see the workers occupying the factory grounds unless they came to talk to their friends across the black metal fence was rather inconvenient. And my only communication with the workers occupying the parking lot was through the make-shift gate, unless they decided to cross it to buy pastries, water, etc. There were no banners in sight, other than a few attached to the fence by workers alongside some Turkish flags.

As I spent more time there and spoke with workers, asking why there are not more people like myself supporting the workers on strike, I was told that this is what the workers intended. My presence right outside the parking lot, my very act of observing the strike, was more worrying than calming for them. What if I was an extremist who wanted to stir things up? What if I was an undercover police/agent trying to create a minor spark that would initiate a commotion inviting police to intervene?

Their protest was neither a retaliation against the Oyak-Renault management nor the establishment. They made it perfectly clear that they did not want to tarnish the factory’s name and in fact, they were thankful to Oyak-Renault for providing those occupying the factory grounds with basic amenities, and not forcing them out. Their retaliation targeted the Türk Metal labor union instead, against whom the workers felt betrayed. And they wanted to keep it at that, thereby avoiding any symbol and slogan that would put them under the spotlight.

The workers were adamant in their call to keep the demonstration to themselves, and it makes sense. The gate they installed not only gave them the freedom to control the direction of their movement, but also have freedom from police surveillance. By turning down outsiders, they were able to maintain solidarity amongst the workers, without having other identity-based signifiers (i.e. Kurdish, Sunni-Muslim, Alevi etc.) complicating and obscuring their claims.

They had demanded greater rights and fair treatment from Oyak-Renault and Türk Metal, and three things in particular: amelioration of their wages, job-security (of workers participating in the strike) and the right to appoint their own representatives. But they argued that their movement had nothing to do with politics.

To underline this point, in addition to not letting supporters from the public join them, they also turned down visits from politicians, such as the former mayor of Şişli/Istanbul, Mustafa Sarıgül, whose support of the Gezi Park Protests put him in the spotlight, and Sena Kaleli, the Bursa representative of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the upcoming general elections.

One of the workers I spoke with told me that inviting a political figure inside the gate would not be welcomed by workers who might be voting for another political party. This would, in return, polarize the workers amongst themselves. By utilizing the gate, the workers were able to retain spatial, as well as ideological distance to outside influences, thereby keeping the modus operandi of their protest intact.

The morning starts with workers on both sides of the fence singing the national anthem.

The morning starts with workers on both sides of the fence singing the national anthem.

The workers involved argue that the strike does not target the government. That it takes place right before the elections is purely coincidental. Even if that is the case, it is worth asking why the Justice and Development Party has retained its silence? Why were ministers not accusing the workers of being provoked to act by “foreign forces,” or the infamous “parallel structure”? On numerous occasions, the latest being on the Labor Day (May 1) Protests, the government did not hesitate from utilizing police forces to prevent collective protest from taking place. With the passing of the Domestic Security Bill the police now has been granted extended rights to intervene in protests and to use force. Yet, during the two-week strike in factories in Bursa and elsewhere, the police decided to confine themselves to the role of spectator.

I believe that there is more to the peacefulness of this protest than just the gate. After all, despite the gate, the workers’ occupation of a private property (Oyak-Renault facilities—factory and the parking lot) is against the law, which in itself legitimates police intervention.

Add to that the fact that the workers are legally bound to work in the factory until 2017 before they can demand the negotiation of the terms of their contract. So both the AKP and the police have sufficient grounds to make a move. Since the negotiations between the workers and the management/MESS have been conducted backstage, we know little about the government’s involvement in these negotiations. Yet, it would not be too far off to argue that the AKP wants to get over with this issue with the least amount of disturbance possible, particularly when general elections are about a week away.

Moreover, Oyak-Renault is a joint venture between the Turkish Oyak (a privately owned corporate entity that serves as the pension fund for the Turkish Armed Forces, a minority shareholder) and the French Renault (majority shareholder) and neither of these two firms want to be situated at the epicenter of another episode of a popular protest that attracts police violence. Taking part in the violent suppression of a strike would not only tarnish both companies’ reputation, but may also translate into the strike spreading beyond the borders of Turkey. In previous years, the metal workers union in France, CGT, has made their solidarity with the metal workers in Turkey clear. Hence, in taking the necessary measures, the Oyak-Renault management had more than Bursa to think of. 

A battle won?

As of today (May 27), the negotiations in Oyak-Renault came to a conclusion. After 12 consecutive days of sleeping outdoors and demanding what they considered their fair share, the workers of Oyak-Renault have succeeded in their efforts. This is something that the workers will rightly cherish. In Turkey today, examples of peaceful protests are scant.

Since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, public protests in Turkey are associated with commotion. Lack of dialogue between the opposing parties is taken for granted in public encounters. And as the street vendor in the introduction to this piece mentioned, there is an expectation that the government (embodied in the figure of the now Turkish President, former Prime Minister, Erdogan) will teach the protestors a lesson by “f—ing them up”.

However, a closer look at the workers’ strike in automotive and subsidiary industries in Bursa and the neighboring cities show us that there is possibility for negotiation and dialogue between protestors and the police/government. Understandably, the motives bringing workers out on the street are different from the motives bringing out the youth. One could rightly pose the criticism that the actors involved are also different—that international companies, for example, have a reputation that they are eager to keep, having an incentive to maintain their calm and advise the police not to intervene.

Nonetheless, there is something to be learned from the workers’ prudence. Were they to turn their strike into an open-for-all festival, would they have been successful in accomplishing their goals? Or would I be writing a different version of this piece—one that highlights how industrialists in Turkey formed a pact with the government to dispatch the police forces to dismantle, and possibly imprison, workers/citizens practicing the fundamental human right to peaceful assembly and protest? I fear my answer would have been the latter.

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