Automotive workers’ protests deserve more attention

Automotive workers’ protests deserve more attention

Thousands of workers from the factories of car giants in western Turkey have continued their protests, in a rare dispute over wages and working conditions, for around two weeks. Ongoing labor protests in Turkey’s leading automotive companies need to be closely followed due to its unusual nature in the country’s history and the huge significance of the sector in the country’s economy. 

The blue-collar automotive workers want better wages and working conditions. This is quite normal in any sector across the world. What makes the recent protests different is the main concern of the striking workers: They are basically complaining about the poor representation of their union, Türk Metal, in front of their employers and employer union, Turkey’s Metal Industrialists’ Union (MESS). 

Let’s have a look at the situation in the recent labor dispute in the country’s flourishing and export champion automotive sector. 

The workers started protests in leading car giants, including Oyak-Renault, Tofaş and Ford Otosan, as well as several auto part makers, including Coşkunöz and Mako. A majority of the protesting workers resigned from their union, so the term “strike” has rarely been used, although it can be labeled a “strike” according to law experts. 

Some of these companies later announced talks with their workers had born fruit and work resumed at their production facilities. 

For instance, Tofaş, a joint venture of Italy’s Fiat and Turkish Koç Holding, said its production activities had restarted as of May 22 and that it had no problems in the procurement process from suppliers after a labor dispute halted production.

Before the announcement by Tofaş, Ford Otosan also announced manufacturing operations had restarted at its Gölcük and Yeniköy plants in northwest Turkey on the night of May 21.

After Ford Otosan had made this announcement, the workers of its İnönü Plant in the Central Anatolian province of Eskişehir began to strike. The company then said on May 25 it had stopped production at this plant as a precautionary measure after some of the striking workers refused to leave the plant. The protests have also spread to Turkey’s leading tractor maker, Türk Traktör. 

The protests continued in Oyak Renault after the company failed to negotiate with its workers for the second time in one week. In the first attempt last weekend, Oyak Renault workers said they were okay with their company’s concessions, including several revisions in wages and working conditions, but they were against the revisions which were made by the employer union, MESS. The second attempt also failed, as the workers said the company did not offer any guarantee that it wouldn’t launch legal action against its workers. 

This point exactly constitutes the need of robust and healthy unionization of any sector, especially in any country’s motor force industries. More workers resigned from the union, but their companies did not guarantee they will not start legal proceeding against the workers who were not members of the union, although they offered some revision in wages and working conditions. This is the biggest dilemma which is faced by the workers. 

Workers said Türk Metal last month negotiated a 60 percent wage hike for workers at a plant run by parts maker Bosch Fren, but failed to secure a similar deal elsewhere in the sector. 

Upon the complaints by the workers, the union said the automotive workers have already been paid higher than the mentioned Bosch workers. 

The automotive workers are also claiming the union management’s main concern is to get richer and build new 5-star hotels, which shouldn’t be its top priority. 

Just ahead of the June elections, cabinet members and opposition parties are focused on collecting more votes, so they appear to not hear the concerns of the workers and the sector players. 

This movement deserves much more attention, however, as the sector is the largest exporter of the country with more than $22 billion in yearly exports and the daily loss of the sector has been more than $100 million since the first day of the latest labor dispute. And the country must find a way to offer much more than a “cheap labor” advantage to compete in the global markets, as the recent spreading labor protests have shown perfectly.