The Working Class in Turkey Today

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Daniel Johnson

The Condition of the Working Class in Turkey:
Labour under Neoliberal Authoritarianism
Edited by Çağatay Edgücan Şahin and Mehmet Erman Erol
Pluto Press, 2021, 320 pages, $31.95 paper.

ON MAY 13, 2014 an explosion in the Eynez coal mine in the town of Soma in western Turkey killed 301 miners. In response to angry protests over deadly working conditions from miners and their supporters, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “went back to British history” to examine 19th century mining disasters. He concluded that such accidents are “usual,” and that “these things happen.”(1)

The workplace deaths in Soma and Erdoğan’s history lesson, together with Friedrich Engels’s 200th birthday, inspired the title for The Condition of the Working Class in Turkey: Labour under Neoliberal Authoritarianism (hereafter CWCT). Edited by economists Çağatay Edgücan Şahin and Mehmet Erman Erol, the collection provides an in-depth and expansive examination of conditions for workers in Turkey from the recent past to the present.

While there are many studies of authoritarian rule and neoliberal economics in Turkey, CWCT is notable for two reasons. First, rather than focus solely on the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, contributors see continuity since the 1980s in Turkey’s fusion of authoritarianism and capitalism.(2)

Second is CWCT’s focus on labor economics in a variety of settings, which contrasts with conventional state-centric and top-down approaches to studies of political economy in Turkey.

While contributors could have provided more perspectives from workers themselves — only two of 13 articles focus on labor organization and activism — the range of issues covered in the book is impressively broad.

With subjects ranging from “gender dynamics to refugee workers, from agrarian labour relations to workers’ health and safety, from the politics of labour restructuring to factory occupations, and from precarity to organised labour” (10), CWCT makes an important contribution to understanding contemporary class relations in Turkey.

Neoliberalism and authoritarianism are not unique to Turkey, of course. However, as Şahin and Erol note, the country remains a rising capitalist power (despite an economic crisis beginning in 2018 and continuing to the present) that is also consistently ranked by the International Trades Union Congress (ITUC) as one of the worst countries in the world for workers.(3)

While relevant to understanding the relationship between authoritarianism and capitalism generally, Turkey provides an extreme example of this synthesis over the past 40 years.

Military Dictatorship to Neoliberal Authoritarianism

Neoliberalism in Turkey did not begin with the AKP, notes Mehmet Erol in CWCT’s lead essay, “Not So Strange Bed Fellows.” A military dictatorship following a 1980 coup banned trade union activity, while a stabilization program from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank devalued the Turkish lira, removed price controls, and encouraged the liberalization of import and export regulations. (19)

The coup reversed two decades of growing working-class power. Turkey’s first labor federation, the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), was established in 1952 — not coincidentally the same year Turkey joined NATO. Under American tutelage in the early cold war the federation took an apolitical, bread-and-butter approach to bettering material conditions for members.

In 1967, however, dissident labor organizers founded the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK) as a leftwing challenge to Türk-İş. DISK grew rapidly, reaching half a million members by the late ’70s and rivalling Türk-İş, whose membership stood at around 700,000.(4)

The coup government banned DISK and other radical organizations while sparing Türk-İş. In his contribution to CWCT, Kerem Gökten notes that a 32% decline in real wages followed the banning of labor organizations and neoliberal policies of deregulation and de-unionization. (39) The anti-labor constitution implemented after the coup continues to govern labor relations in Turkey today.

Between 1983 and 1991, the Motherland Party (ANAP) implemented neoliberal economic reforms while retaining and perpetuating repressive coup-era policies. In keeping with trends occurring across much of the world at the time, all major Turkish political parties (or at least those permitted to exist) accepted neoliberal common sense in these years. (20)

A 1989 law liberalizing capital mobility represents the final stage in Turkey’s integration into global capitalism, in Gökten’s view. Yet 1989 also witnessed a major pushback with the “Spring Mobilizations,” a labor upsurge begun by public sector workers that quickly spread to other sectors. Gökten suggests that the emergence of strike and other protest activities paved the way for efforts at democratization and liberalization in the early ’90s. (39-40)

During 1990s as many as one million Kurds were forcefully removed from approximately 4,000 villages in the east as the Turkish state fought a war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).(5) Many of those forced from their homes moved to western cities (especially Istanbul), providing a key new source of labor for urban industries.

Organizing in these workplaces was difficult as a result of the 1983 constitution, further contributing to declining unity density. Over the same decade, employment in agriculture declined while the service sector expanded, giving rise to informal and precarious forms of labor.

By the second half of the 1990s, more than 30% of the non-agricultural labor force worked in the informal sector. By the early 2000s the service industry eclipsed agricultural labor in the sectoral distribution of employment. (42)

Privatizations beginning in the ’90s negatively impacted workers in education and healthcare while greatly exacerbating inequalities of access to these fundamental rights. Precarity and “flexibility” in employment have predictably hit poor women and rural and migrant workers hardest. These disparate topics and groups are explored in depth in CWCT.

Neoliberalism Under the AKP

One key difference between post-coup parties of the 1980s and ’90s and the AKP was the broad popular support enjoyed by the latter on coming to power. Ostensibly committed to basic democratic freedoms and government transparency, the AKP offered an appealing alternative to the corruption and repression of post-coup governments.

At the same time, the AKP supercharged privatization and deregulation, earning it the fawning admiration of pundits in the mainstream Western press. In the early 2000s the government adhered to tight monetary policies, high interest rates to encourage foreign capital inflows, and an export-led growth strategy.

Labor law reforms saw union density decline while the government banned major strikes on grounds of “national security” — a feature of the post-coup constitution deployed with unprecedented frequency by the AKP. (24)

In 1990, ten years after the coup, the official unionization rate still stood at an impressive 42.5% (in reality it was considerably lower, at perhaps at perhaps 23%).(6) According to the Turkish government union density was 12.14% in 2020, though according to the OECD it was 10.3%.(7) If teachers unions, which don’t collectively bargain (another anti-worker component of the post-coup constitution) are excluded, the rate is considerably lower. Currently unionization in the private sector stands at around 6%.(8)

Yet at least until very recently, the AKP has been able to maintain working-class support, which Erol attributes to two factors. One is the party’s promotion of “identity-based politics,” a reference to the AKP’s frequent appeals to common people’s Islamic identity in opposition to traditional secular elites —  a strategy used by Islamist parties since the creation of the republic.

As important has been the extension of new forms of credit. While personal debt has exploded, municipal social assistance programs, religious charity groups, and public poverty reduction programs have softened the effects of the “financialization of everyday life.” (25)

Such efforts have not been able to fully compensate for the deterioration in working-class living standards, however. As union density has fallen, so too has labor’s share of GDP. Precarity and the decline of safety standards have led to an explosion of work accidents and deaths, as chronicled by Murat Özveri in “When the Law is Not Enough.”

The consequences of Turkey’s 40-year imposition of neoliberal policies for working people are clear. In addition to high rates of occupational disease and death, Turkey has the longest average weekly working time (46.4 hours in 2019) among OECD and European countries, as well as high rates of female and youth unemployment. (48-49) Youth disillusionment and a desire to leave the country have been accompanied by a brain drain among professionals — especially medical doctors.(9)

While providing a broad lens through which to view the negative impacts of authoritarian neoliberalism in Turkey, ways forward are hard to find in CWCT. As noted above, just two articles are devoted specifically to workers’ struggles.


Berna Güler and Erhan Acar examine workers’ self-management (WSM) with a case study of the Kazova textile factory between 2013 and 2017. Following their dismissal in early 2013, workers occupied the factory after contacting leftwing organizations and NGOs. (Notably, the sole union to support the workers was Nakliyat-İş, a member of DISK — re-formed in 1992).

Initially only 18 of 96 fired workers joined the resistance movement, which consisted primarily of public demonstrations. The outbreak of the Gezi protest movement in the summer of 2013 encouraged the Kazova workers to occupy the factory, though when they entered the business they found only scrapped metal and a destroyed building.

While workers attempted to sell garments produced in the factory, they were dependent for purchases on forums arising out of the Gezi movement. By 2017, with the Gezi movement long suppressed, there were only three workers left in the cooperative.

Though Güler and Acar stress the uncontroversial importance of worker organization and solidarity in WSM, it is unclear exactly what readers are to take away from their study. They are correct in claiming that cooperative experiments that utilize cultural — music, film, etc. — as well as economic alternatives to capitalist hegemony will be important in prefiguring a socialist society. (252-3) However, where exactly the Kazova attempt went wrong, or what could have been done differently, are unexplored.

The final essay, Çağatay Edgücan Şahin’s “Organised Workers’ Struggles Under Neoliberalism,” provides a useful overview of organized labor’s recent history in Turkey. Drawing on the work of sociologists Erik Olin Wright and Beverly Silver, Şahin periodizes workers’ struggles (1989, 1991, 2009/10, 2013) in Turkey while documenting labor’s gradual decline.

In addition to pointing out that rates of unionization and collective bargaining are among the lowest in the OECD, Şahin also notes the rise of conservative federations like HAK-İş (now the country’s second largest after Türk-İş), the prominence of yellow unions, male dominance in labor organizations, and the bureaucratization and corruption of union leadership. (273-74)

While the story of organized labor is generally one of decline, Şahin does find promising developments. The formation of new union alliances and labor platforms, and the growth of independent unions and disparate examples of labor militancy, suggest rank-and-file organization might soon challenge a moribund union bureaucracy.

For a Working-Class Alternative

On October 10, 2022, a mine explosion at the state-run Amasra coal mine in the Black Sea province of Bartin killed 41 miners. Preliminary assessments suggested the explosion was caused by firedamp, a flammable gas found in coal mines.

Erdoğan echoed the callous remarks offered in Soma in 2014 (and once again enraged miners), saying that the catastrophe in Bartin was “destiny” and that such accidents “will always happen.”

During a meeting with families of deceased workers one relative told Erdoğan that “My brother said, ‘There is a gas leak here, it will blow up soon.’ How was it neglected?” The president had no answer, of course, and the opposition produced a 2019 report for the mine facility pointing to the risk of serious accidents like sudden gas discharge and firedamp explosion.(10)

While national and international labor movements continue to demand justice for the killed miners, in January of 2023 Erdoğan decreed that a strike by members of Birleşik Metal-İş metalworkers’ union would be postponed for 60 days, using once again the “national security” constitutional clause for the banning of strikes.(11)

As with the Amasra mine explosion, the opposition has criticized Erdo?an’s authoritarian response to workers’ strike plans. And for the first time, it appears that an opposition coalition (the “Nation Alliance”) actually has a chance of defeating the AKP’s People’s Alliance in parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2023.

Tellingly, however, the Nation Alliance excluded the leftist and pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) from discussion. A memo of understanding published by the Nation Alliance in late January promotes a number of liberal democratic constitutional and policy reforms, but notably says nothing about labor or Kurdish rights.(12)

Their exclusion led the HDP to form the Labor and Freedom Alliance with the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), the Labor Party, the Social Freedom Party, the Labor Movement Party, and the Socialist Assemblies Federation. While the creation of a leftist political alliance in Turkey is a positive development, none of the parties other than the HDP and TIP has a significance presence in parliament or among the general population.

All of this is to say that changing the condition of the working class in Turkey will need to begin outside the sphere of formal politics. Despite the continuing repression of the Turkish state, a recent uptick in strike activity —  importantly including actions among unorganized or small and independent left unions  —  shows that worker direct action is alive in Turkey.(13)

Should the opposition displace the AKP in 2023, political pressure could conceivably move the new government to reform existing anti-labor policies. Such pressure will not emerge without the revitalization of the labor movement, however. Books like CWCT will help in that effort.


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  2. For a similar recent approach see Pınar Bedirhanoğlu, Çağar Dölek, Funda Hülagü, and Özlem Kaygusuz, eds., Turkey’s New State in the Making: Transformations in Legality, Economy and Coercion (Zed Books, 2020); and my review in ATC 216.
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  3. See, since CWCT’s publication, “Turkey remains among 10 worst countries for working people,” Bianet, June 28, 2022.
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  4. Brian Mello, “Communists and Compromisers: Explaining Divergences within Turkish Labor Activism, 1960-1980,” European Journal of Turkish Studies 11 (2010). For different membership estimates see Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2009), 273.
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  5. Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Fight for Kurdish Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 222. See also Paul White, Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers? The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey (London: Zed Books, 2000).
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  6. Alpkan Birelma, “Trade Unions in Turkey, 2022,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, May 2022, 6.
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  7. Trade Union Dataset, OECD.Stat.
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  8. Birelma, “Trade Unions in Turkey,” 2.
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  9. Hamdi Firat Büyük, “BIRN Fact-Check: Why Doctors are Fleeing Erdoğan’s Turkey,” BalkanInsight, May 22, 2022; “Nepotism and authoritarianism behind Turkey’s brain drain,” duvaR.english, November 24, 2021.
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  10. “Erdoğan deems mine explosion killings ‘destiny’,” duvaR.english, October 16, 2022.
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  11. “Unions demand justice for 42 miners killed in Turkey,” industriall, January 26, 2023; “Erdoğan decree ‘bans’ workers’ strike citing national security,” duvaR.english, January 24, 2023.
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  12. “Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies,” CHP, January 30, 2023.
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  13. Birelma, “Trade Unions in Turkey,” 7-8.
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May-June 2023, ATC 224

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