The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Labour Struggle in a Peripheral Context: Debating Labour and Alternatives to Globalisation in Turkey.

The peripheral context in the world capitalist system has been a constant centre of attention in debating alternatives. It is even more so under globalisation that has shifted labour-intensive production to the periphery often under conditions of precarity (Cox, 1987: 319). Moreover, dissent is on the rise in tandem with social cuts and austerity measures. The economic crisis provides opportunities to reflect upon new strategies for labour and the Left. In this guest post, Elif Uzgören debates the labour situation in a peripheral context - Turkey – against the background of globalisation and the transnationalisation of production.

How is labour affected by globalisation and neoliberal restructuring in Turkey? What strategies do they develop and can they form a united struggle? In two research trips to Istanbul and Ankara in April-May and December 2010, I conducted interviews with twenty-two trade unionists and seven members from political parties in opposition. My empirical research illuminates that there is a clear intra-class struggle engendered by the transnationalisation of production between nationally and internationally oriented fractions that also reveals fractions inside the Left. Labour is united in assessing negatively globalisation that is conceived as a process generating unemployment, de-unionisation and atypical work and accelerating income disparities. However, the labour movement and the Left are split in their assessment of ways forward in the struggle against globalisation.

The internationally oriented fraction of labour– that is economically integrated with the transnational production structure such as the textile and automotive sectors, especially following the completion of the Customs Union with the European Union in 1996 – takes globalisation as a fact and defends internationalism as the only viable way of struggle. Interviewees refer to concrete mechanisms of internationalism such as application of the same social standards, social responsibility declarations and/or framework agreements. Yet this fraction is no longer concerned about de-industrialisation and unemployment that can arise from liberalisation and export-promotion strategies. This does not denote that they are in support of neoliberal restructuring, however. Rather their strategy is towards internationalism with the underlining rationale that globalisation has undermined – ‘dynamited’ even the struggle at the national level. Moreover, internationally oriented labour is in favour of developing a united struggle - ‘societal resistance’ - designed to create unity among retired and unemployed people, female labour, students, migrant workers, peasants and workers employed in the informal economy.

This fraction develops organic links with social democrat political parties, Kurdish political parties and social movements. They name themselves as the ‘new left’ or the ‘emancipatory left’ and distinguish themselves from the ‘centre-left’. They aspire to unify class struggle with struggle around identity politics such as the Kurdish question. Additionally, they are critical about national reflexes inside the centre-left and defend supranationalism to contain nationalism and mechanisms of the so-called ‘strong state’.

On the other hand, nationally oriented labour – for example, agriculture and public sector employees – associates globalisation with both de-industrialisation and de-unionisation. They criticise export-promotion strategies for compelling national industry to a `montage industry` that cannot produce added value for the national economy. It is argued that countries in a peripheral context cannot provide industrialisation and development through export-promotion. However, in developing a counter strategy vis-a-vis globalisation, they are more critical about transnational solidarity – though not the idea of internationalism. It is often argued that workers of developed and developing countries cannot cooperate as long as imperialism endures. Rather, they defend protectionism and the welfare state, a strategy that echoes arguments of the Keynesian period that had already been defeated with the neoliberal turn in Turkey during the 1980s.

Photo by Mac Urata

It is pertinent to detect organic links between nationally oriented labour and centre-left political parties. The centre-left political parties fail to propose an alternative economic model other than a form of social market economy. They consider increasing competitiveness in global markets as essential for economic growth. Their criticism of globalisation centres on social policy and national interests without questioning the market economy model. In that sense they neglect to consider the capitalist nature of the developmentalist state.

Yet, it is imperative to question the prospects for labour to develop a united stance vis-a-vis globalisation. The reasons for division amongst the working class are manifold. As far as structural factors are concerned, globalisation has generated two processes: an intra-class struggle between internationally and nationally oriented labour (Bieler 2000: 155; Cox, 1981: 148), and the development of a cleavage between formal and informal labour (Bieler et. al., 2008: 6; Cox, 1981: 148). My empirical research supports these observations.  First, these two fractions are situated differently within the transnational production structure and develop different strategies. Internationally oriented labour is no longer concerned with de-industrialisation and under-development or being exposed to pressures of competitiveness that can potentially result in closure of workplaces. Second, Turkey integrates into the transnational production structure with small workplaces that function as sites of sub-contracted work employing atypical labour. Hence, globalisation has entailed another cleavage between workers that are employed in the formal and informal economy. Notably, the bulk of workers employed in the small and medium sized enterprises are not organised at all. It is those production sites - which feature sub-contracted work and atypical forms of employment - that interviewees refer to as places where the mechanisms of ‘wild capitalism’ are operative. Moreover, interviewees highlighted that transnational capital threatens labour and unionisation in those sites by underbidding and moving to other countries. Third, trade unions that develop organic links with the AKP have adopted a neoliberal form of unionism - a stance that is identified by Cox as social partnership in Western Europe and business unionism in North America’ (1987: 374). This cannot simply be related to the notion of labour aristocracy. Rather, they conceive of globalisation as progressive and are co-opted into the idea that `collective` problems of labour and capital can be addressed through mechanisms of social partnership - putting survival of the ‘workplace’ at the centre. These trade unions have increased their membership profile over the last decade. This does not only undermine the struggle against AKP`s neoliberal policies within trade unions – as they start to be authorised for collective bargaining – but also has the social purpose of disarticulating dissent via populist mechanisms such as charities.

Photo by Mac Urata
Despite these structural and national constraints, resistance to globalisation is alive in various platforms. A few examples in the last couple of years will suffice to conclude with some optimism. The Tekel protest – following the privatisation of a former state enterprise in the tobacco and alcoholic beverage sectorwas decisive in providing a renewed impetus to class struggle. The struggle of unemployed teachers – that are numbered around 300.000 – who are waiting to be appointed provides another instance of resistance against precarious employment and the commodification of services. Meanwhile, medical doctors and medical students are protesting against the neoliberal transition in the health sector. The struggle continues against the discipline of capital in the sphere of social reproduction as well (van der Pijl, 1998: 36 and 47). The environmental protests – that started in Hopa - have continued over environmental destruction and commodification of water. Very recently, protests have been organised to demonstrate against the AKP’s policy of privatising municipal and state theatres. The arrest of Kurdish intellectuals and the court decision after the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink resulted in protests. Re-thinking strategies in overcoming differences between various fractions of labour is decisive for the future prospects of an alternative to globalisation and neoliberal restructuring.


Bieler, A. (2000) Globalisation and Enlargement of the European Union, Austrian and Swedish Social Forces in the Struggle over Membership, London: Routledge.

Bieler, A., Lindberg, I. and Pillay, D. (2008) ‘The Future of the Global Working Class: An Introduction.’ In Bieler, A., Lindberg, I. and Pillay, D. (eds) Labour and the Challenges of Globalization, What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity, London: Pluto, pp. 1-22.

Cox, Robert W. (1981) `Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory`, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 126-55.

Cox, R. W. (1987) Production, Power, and World Order, Social Forces in the Making of History, New York, Columbia University Press.  

van der Pijl, K. (1998) Transnational Classes and International Relations, London: Routledge.

Elif Uzgören is currently a senior researcher at the Department of International Relations in Dokuz Eylul University. She holds an MSc degree of Sociology from the University of Amsterdam where she studied as a Jean Monnet scholar. Elif completed her PhD at the University of Nottingham with her dissertation ‘Globalisation, the European Union and Turkey: Rethinking the Struggle over Hegemony’ in July 2012. Her research interests include critical political economy, alternatives to globalisation and Turkish politics. She can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!