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Subcontracted Employment and the Labor Movement’s Response in Turkey Alpkan Birelma DOI: 10.5876/9781607326311.c010 It was a Monday morning in January 2015, and we were standing in the yard of a public university hospital in the middle of Istanbul with nearly 2,000 protesters including two parliamentarians. This yard had been the scene of a years-long labor struggle by subcontracted workers fighting to improve their working conditions. Three days earlier, the hospital management had fired two leaders of this struggle in an effort to suppress the movement.1 In 2010, after being disappointed by several unions, these workers established their own local worker association. They have experienced many problems, defeats, and organizational crises in those years, but did not give up. They have built one of the strongest local movements of subcontracted workers in the nation and achieved a number of workplace victories . They have not succumbed to bureaucracy or sectarianism, so they have built very good relations with a number of factions among the secular and Islamic left. As the impressive turnout that day suggested, their allies and supporters answered their call when they needed them. By that afternoon, hospital 262 Alpkan Birelma management agreed to hire the leaders back. The attack had been rebuffed; it was time to celebrate. Cemal, one of the leaders and a friend of mine (second from left in Figure 10.1), talked about that day for months with the same enthusiasm . . . until a new problem rose to the top of the agenda. This is a glimpse from one of the many struggles subcontracted workers have engaged in over the last decade in Turkey. Subcontracting expanded in response to waves of strikes that swept across the nation at the beginning of 1990s and exploded after 2002 under Justice and Development Party (JDP) rule.2 Both public and private employers employed the tactic of subcontracting to undermine the associational and structural power of workers, allowing management to then decrease labor costs. In this chapter I will scrutinize the extent and implications of subcontracting in Turkey, its crucial function in breaking the power of labor, the state’s critical role in its expansion, worker struggles against it, and the current status of struggle between state, capital, and labor over subcontracting. Figure 10.1. A moment of victory in the struggle of sacked subcontracted workers. Photo by Mustafa Emin Büyükcoşkun. 263 Subcontracted Employment and the Labor Movement’s Response in Turkey Subcontracted Employment: Meaning and Function The labor movement’s current crisis, contrary to popular belief, is not due to globalization and the ensuing race to the bottom. The crisis began before globalization, and it was evenly experienced across all sectors, including those impossible to outsource overseas (Milkman 2013:649; Silver 2003; Silver and Zhang 2009). Durrenberger (2007) reveals that labor’s decline in the United States was caused more by capital’s assault on unions than economic factors such as globalization. While capitalist countries since the 1970s “dismantled or watered down their regulatory states” (Evans and Sewell 2013:35), capital transformed the employment regime through the deregulation or reregulation of labor rights. This transformation of the employment regime has been examined through different lenses and given different names, such as post-Fordism, informality, flexibility, insecurity, or fissuring of workplace. Castells and Portes (1989:27) analyzed the reasons for the expansion of informality since the 1970s, and the first reason they point out was corporate reaction to the power of organized labor. It was no accident that in Europe the informal economy grew fastest in Italy, where the hot autumn of 1969 brought “an unprecedented level of social victories” to Italian labor unions (ibid.). Castells and Portes underline that this factor cannot be the only reason , since subcontracting grew in sectors such as restaurants and custodial and personal services, where unions were not strong to begin with. However, unions are not the only way for workers to defend and expand their rights in an associational way. As Wright (2000:962) reveals, workers might have associational but also structural power, which results “directly from tight labor markets or from the strategic location of a particular group of workers within a key industrial sector.” For example, Akdemir and Odman (2008) illustrate how employers of Istanbul shipyards introduced subcontracting in the 1980s as a reaction to the sectoral crisis and high wages of skilled workers. Such work supports the argument that informality/flexibility in general and subcontracting in particular have been introduced primarily...


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