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Kavel: A Milestone in the History of Working Class in Turkey

Kavel was the name of a cable factory in Istinye, a district in Istanbul. The struggle that took place at this factory in 1963 represents a landmark in the history of working class struggle in Turkey. Kavel workers were confronted with important problems just like we are today. They were working under heavy conditions, but receiving miserable wages in return. Moreover the bosses were seeking to cut back on their bonus payments. Showing no consent, workers elected 3 representatives and sent them to negotiate with the boss. However, the boss first fired the elected representatives and then started to put pressure on the workers in order to make them resign from the union. In response, all 170 workers of Kavel agreed to stage a five-day sit-in at the factory on 28 January 1963.

Kavel was the name of a cable factory in Istinye, a district in Istanbul. The struggle that took place at this factory in 1963 represents a landmark in the history of working class struggle in Turkey. Kavel workers were confronted with important problems just like we are today. They were working under heavy conditions, but receiving miserable wages in return. Moreover the bosses were seeking to cut back on their bonus payments. Showing no consent, workers elected 3 representatives and sent them to negotiate with the boss. However, the boss first fired the elected representatives and then started to put pressure on the workers in order to make them resign from the union. In response, all 170 workers of Kavel agreed to stage a five-day sit-in at the factory on 28 January 1963.

As a response to this combative attitude on the part of workers, the boss dismissed 10 more workers on the pretext that “they were disturbing the peace”. At the same time, he declared lock-out. This was the last straw for the workers. Strike tents were set up in front of the factory, as the sit-in protest turned into resistance. With a job advertisement asking for new workers published in the newspapers, the striking workers started to keep watch at the gate of the factory day and night in order to keep the production shut down. They were soon attacked by the police and 4 of them were arrested on the grounds that they defied the police.

At that time, strikes were outlawed in Turkey. Using the pretext that the strike was illegal, the government and the boss put pressure on the workers. However, despite all the pressure against them, Kavel workers continued to resist. They also received a growing support from their class brothers and sisters. One of the key points that distinguished the Kavel Strike from many other resistances was the extent of support it attracted. Members of the local community had already been on the side of the Kavel workers from the very beginning. The support provided by neighbouring factories also contributed to the impact and importance of the strike. For instance, at General Electric factory, owned by Vehbi Koç, one of the richest capitalists in Turkey, workers started a solidarity campaign and raised money for Kavel workers. Likewise, 800 workers of Demir Döküm factory launched a similar fund-raising campaign. In addition, male workers refused to shave their beards in protest. Shipyard and road workers also provided support for the strike.

In general, one of the key factors in the success of strikes and resistances is the support provided by the families of the striking workers. This was vindicated by the families of Kavel workers who joined the strikers on the picket line. And they soon became a target for the attacks by the police. The stooges of the bosses were intent on suppressing the workers. But Kavel workers were no less determined to claim their rights. Finally, the government mediated and an agreement was made between workers and the boss. According to the agreement, the bonuses would be paid the way it used to be and the 10 fired workers would return to work. The day after the agreement was made, workers went back to work. The strike had come to an end. However, a few days later, a new case was filed against 24 Kavel workers for an alleged violation of the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations. 14 workers were arrested. 6 of them were dismissed from the work after being released. As a response to these developments, 30 workers from the coating section of the factory put down their tools in protest. This time martial law was put in place. 6 workers were taken into custody once again. Unable to suppress the struggle of the workers, the government was forced to legalise the right to strike and collective bargaining by passing necessary resolutions. As a result, all arrested workers were released and the case was dismissed.

The struggle waged by Kavel workers occupies a glorious page in the history of the working class in Turkey. This glorious page belongs to the Kavel workers who kept up the struggle despite all the pressures and made enormous gains by going beyond the legal boundaries defined for them. But, how could a strike made by 170 workers change a law? Why are today’s resisting and striking workers from various factories unable to make such a big impact? What has changed? The victory of Kavel resistance was not achieved solely by Kavel workers. The number of workers who actively supported the strike was a few times greater than the number of Kavel workers. This can be called nothing other than class solidarity, which was the key to the victory of Kavel workers. The only difference between then and now is that working class is in a much more disorganised, scattered and disconnected state. It is in our hands to organise, raise our class consciousness and unite again. The working class is either organised and everything, or disorganised and nothing.

4 July 2019