The Case of Law Number 4688 in Turkey

Dear friend and comrade from the Historical Materialism Editorial Board, Matteo Mandarini has written this short, sharp and thought-provoking piece called ‘Critical Thought on the Politics of Immanence’ (published in HM 17.4). As part of his broader project to examine the sources of a revolutionary epistemology, Matteo says:

“Workers’ struggles have always been formidable information conduits for capital. It is not always clear they have been for the left – who tend to use them (at best) as a material force to be organised. To that extent bourgeois science is often ahead of thinking on the left.” (Mandarini, 2009).

Matteo refers to Mario Tronti who argues that ‘workers’ struggles are an irreplaceable instrument of capitalist self-consciousness; without them, capital cannot see, cannot recognise its adversary, and so fails to know itself’ (Tronti 1971, pp. 284-85). In this post, I want to use a specific case study to rethink the problem posed by Matteo. This should be thought as an invitation to systematically think about existing struggles in order to derive strategic lessons. Very often would you read articles/interventions talking about the necessity to link between micro and macro, socioeconomic and political…etc. but how the link will be established is not problematised enough.

The Law number 4688 was introduced in 2001 in Turkey. 4688 did not recognise the right to strike and to make collective agreements, for which the unions in the public sector have been fighting for several years (My mother was a union activist by then and I witnessed all the steps by which the unions were evolved from nothing, after the military intervention of 1980). There was a rise in membership of the unions in the 1990s (after the very promising spring actions of the 1989 which reflected the discontent with the earlier neoliberal market reforms). 4688 turned out to be a big disappointment for unions: It introduced a decentralised form of what is called ‘collective meeting’ between the administration of each workplace/institution and the members of the trade union (with the highest membership in a given sector) working in that workplace (Ministries, public universities, public schools, public service institutions…etc.). The problem was not only about the decentralised form, but also about the content. The Law stated that the union representatives could ‘present their opinions about the working conditions and equal application of the laws and regulations to civil servants’. There was no legal obligation on the side of the employer (the administrator of the public institution) to accept the ‘opinions’ of the trade union. The meetings were less like a formal negotiation than consultation. The consultation would be twice a year in the so-called ‘Administrative Council’ of the given institution.

By the time the first official Administrative Council (AC) was called in 2002 at my university, I had already been elected as one of the 7 representatives in a university campus of 20.000 people in Turkey (I was member of the largest union organising the education sector, including primary schools, high schools, universities and other education institutions). I was the youngest rep as a recent graduate who started working as a research assistant. My fellow reps included one night watchman, a laboratory technician, a manual worker, a secretary…etc. all working in different units in the large campus. We already knew that the AC was a deadlock for us. It was part of a government strategy to domesticate radical struggles, imprison us within the confines of a consultation mechanism, a waste of time, with little prospects for gains. Yet, we did not consider giving up this option completely for at least two reasons: First, according to the Law the trade union, which had the highest membership at the workplace (university campus in our case) would be eligible to engage with the administration. We could not let our rival right-wing conservative union to get the representation rights at the administration level. The Law had also put an obligation on the employer and the employee to follow the rules of the collective meeting. Second, and more importantly, we intuitively considered the AC as an opportunity to enhance trade union activity at the campus. I am not saying that we sat down together, discussed the Law itself and made a decision to go and use this as an opportunity. Such thinking emerged out of our daily practices, talks and preparations for the meeting. Time of trade union activism is not linear. Things happen and you think your way through them.

When we started preparing for the meeting, we acted as if we would really obtain tangible benefits from the administration. We chose specific target areas and started carrying out research with diverse methods depending on the problem and workers’ willingness to cooperate in diverse units: long and structured questionnaires (research assistants), small interviews based on specific problems and their suggested solutions (secretaries), informal talks (manual workers and drivers), taking pictures (cleaners). We also launched a small workplace bulletin where members were invited to write about their working conditions, problems and demands. The second bulletin included a summary of the demands we formulated as a result of our hard work during several months and became a real success. Finally we had our first Administrative Council (AC) where we raised specific demands for each group of employee at the university. It was a very tough meeting with academic governors and senior administrators, the latter being especially difficult. Despite the expected outcomes of the meeting (some demands were rejected very harshly, others were told to be considered), its preparations and its happening had the following benefits for us:

1)    Certain members could become visible for the first time as writers of the bulletin, as subjects of the administrative meeting. For night watchmen who worked in the evenings, manual workers who worked in isolated workshops far from the center of the campus, visibility in the eyes of the university public (academics, students, administrators) was the highest form of dignity they ever had. Class conflicts are always mediated and experienced differently in different contexts. At the university campus, employees experience contradictions in relation to their managers (front line manager, supervisor, head of department, faculty administrator). Employees in the public sector can get frustrated by this relationship, but at the same time they develop an awareness that they are providers of a public service and they are part of an organic whole: Without them the university cannot exist. Academics or senior administrators cannot do without them.

2)    Of course, we could have done the research irrespective of the presence of AC as determined by 4688 (and the former reps had already done a good job about certain areas, to leave us an experience to draw upon), but because we had a specific target, aim, some people were more willing to talk to us since their cooperation had a purpose.

3)    We learnt so many things about the ‘enemy’ side. We could not only see to what extent administration was ready to negotiate with us or ignore us, the degree of their hostility vs. compassion, but also, we started understanding the roles of specific individuals in administering the university (who plays the good cop, who plays the bad cop). Such information was strategically very useful for us to understand whom to engage with in the future while dealing with specific issues.

4)    Since we had to formulate local demands, we had to think more creatively than before. We could mobilise some resources which were already there, but which we even did not think of using. For instance while making demands about the quality of food and price at the university, we could get hold of some contract documents which showed the costs of food and subsidies as calculated by the university administration. This gave us the opportunity to formulate new demands (transparency in administration budget)

5)    Unintended consequence: Drivers who were known to be rather conservative offered a kind of strike action: “If the administration does not take our demands seriously, we will slow down the buses and academics, workers and students will be late to their work.” Our university was historically famous with left wing student movement. The symbolic universe of the drivers was not alien to collective action. But still this offer was quite extraordinary for their conservative mind which some of the radical socialists thought impossible to radicalise in the first place.

No law enables people to do something on its own. As Sam Knafo nicely showed in his highly recommended piece on agency and structure, (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/cgpe/documents/cgpe_wp03_samuel_knafo.pdf), structures are nothing without agents relating to them in practice. I could argue that even though the government enacted 4688, we practised the Law. Opportunities became real only after we gave to 4688 its full blood.

However there were opportunities we could not fully exploit.

1)    The success we had prior to the collective meeting could not be continued in the post-meeting period. We could not use information about the administration at our advantage fully. Probably we did not want to provoke too much unproductive anger, but still we could have been more effective in increasing the level of antagonism between the central administration and the employees by using strategically the information we got from the meeting.

2)    We could not communicate enough how 4688 was and would never be sufficient to obtain gains for our members. This was a structural dilemma: You struggle by using a given instrument but simultaneously you have to negate it. One could argue that such contradiction could be used as an advantage: Look, we did our research, we used the space available to us, administrators did not listen to us properly, they gave promises which are not kept, rejected other demands since they did not have any obligation. So we have to push the limits of this Law and work to change it. And other problems such as pay rise? It is the government, which is responsible for this: another reason to go to the demonstrations outside of the campus and connect with other unions. But communication is not simply transmitting a message to your member; it means a process of working together, trying, failing, understanding errors, experiencing, coming to terms with your reality and thinking and talking during those empirical processes. One needs to use respected and reliable members of the community in localities to give a message as well. It is not easy to answer the question of “what did the union do for us?” if this question already assumes a distinction between “us” and the “union” (In fact the perception should be that “union is us”, as Sheila Rowbotham reminds us). Our question was, thus, the following: how to make sure that the member does translate a failure (frustration with 4688) into an awareness of going beyond its limits? (The ambiguity of using an instrument, which we are against, is, after all, an ambiguity like others. And ambiguity is not smg. alien to the daily life of the employees (More to write on the issue of ambiguity, with reference to Harry West’s powerful and beautiful book, Ethnographic Sorcery)

3)    We also did not reflect on the contradictions of our own members, which were the outcome of a series of strategies implemented by neoliberal reformers in the past 25 years. Even though this was a public university, different types of private provision such contracting out cleaning services were already in place. Some employees such as secretaries were given additional financial sources from special projects and other workers also claimed money from rolling capital revenues with respect to possible contributions they could make. Those were dangerous claims for a union to make, we could not accept it, but it was an emerging reality we had to face.

More significantly, the central administration of our union failed to exploit the opportunity which was opened while implementing 4688 in this local context. In our branch meetings, we offered help to other universities’ representatives to prepare for the AC meetings. Our branch was very effective in communicating this experience to others. However, it was the duty of the central management to fund necessary people to travel to all other universities in different cities to teach representatives in order to adopt our experience to their own local context. There was nobody who facilitated a broader discussion about experiences of engaging with 4688 so that we could talk about, in a systematic way, our strengths and weaknesses, positive, negative, anticipated and unintended consequences of our struggle. I now reckon how important it is to carry out such discussion.

In a debate on Matteo’s piece I had with Law and Disorder (http://pashukanis.blogspot.com/) who works on critical legal theory, he told that legal struggles are also politically retarded like socioeconomic struggles, to refer to another very interesting point raised by Matteo (with reference to again Mario Tronti). He argues that legal struggles are futile without being subordinated to a broader political strategy (and I hope he will develop some of his ideas in the blogosphere). My mother’s generation was trying to subordinate their legal fight (to get the right to strike and collective bargaining agreements) to a broader political strategy (against neoliberalism and for democratisation). Their failure was the context in which we had to act. Radical members still kept this vision between legal struggle and politics, but such vision can only be articulated with a constant playing with the opportunities and constraints I tried to discuss in this post, not only in isolated local workplaces, but in multiple contexts which are coordinated and orchestrated by permanent communication and sharing of experience. This is possible with what Gramsci calls a ‘philosophy of praxis’. I imagine myself reading hundreds of small texts written by workplace representatives who wrote and reflected upon their experiences similar to mine (in fact there is a fantastic book in that spirit, which tells the historical evolution of anti-lean struggles in the car industry, written by academics and workers themselves: We Sell Our Time no More) All workplace representatives have to be invited to think on what they do, as I remind in my post on the Ontological Problem of the Worker in this blog.

…..

One year after I came to England, I heard that my former union had lost its right of representation against its rival. Our rival union had increased its membership base since it had organised (via patron client network) informal and temporary workers working in schools, an issue largely neglected by our union. One could accuse 4688 and the rival union for this defeat. Such sources of failure are not very interesting, given that they are more like constant variables, more difficult to change. For me, the real responsibility lied in the union itself whose central administration had shown complete indifference to all critiques raised by the local members in a large regional meeting. No matter the reason, this time, 4688, like a sinister ghost, gave the power to our rivals by effacing us from the scene. For now.

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