Bekir Avcı, Interview by
5 Ocak 2020

In the third part of our series “Alternative Organizations in the Labour Struggle”, it is now the turn of Bağımsız Maden İşçileri Sendikası / Independent Union of Mine Workers [Bağımsız Maden-İş], which was founded in June 2018 in Soma with the slogan, “We are the ones who produce, we will the ones who govern”. Chairperson Tahir Çetin and Secretary for Legal Matters and Collective Labour Agreements, Emin Kara tell the story of Bağımsız Maden-İş.

Tahir Çetin (left) and Emin Kara

When was Bağımsız Maden İşçileri Sendikası [the Independent Union of Mine Workers] founded? Why did you choose to become “independent”, instead of coming together under the roof of a confederation?

Tahir Çetin: All yellow unions do is wander around like company advertisers, striving to prevent any reaction against the bosses. We carried out organization activities here with Dev-Maden-Sen [Turkey Revolutionary Mine Workers Union], a union that calls itself democratic, revolutionary. As a result of our work during that period, 1800 mine workers left the yellow union. If we had reached the figure 2000, we would have passed the national threshold, and there would have been much greater splits from the yellow unions. But when employers realized that the wheel of profit in Soma would be broken, the attacks began. A mine worker friend of ours, who now is an administrator of our union, and two friends who are our organization specialists, as they went to offer their condolences to the family of our miner friend Metin Keskin who passed away in a workplace murder, faced a lynching attempt by a mob of 400, organized by the police force, Türkiye Maden-İş [The Union of Mine Workers, Turkey] and the bosses. As workers, we did not leave our friends who faced the mob attack alone, and gathered the same night in front of the hospital and the police directorate. Then, in the morning, we went to the neighbourhood as a large convoy to complete our condolence visit to the family, and for the first time in Soma history, we stopped production for a worker killed in a workplace murder, with five thousand mine workers, shoulder to shoulder, holding the funeral ceremony.

Bağımsız Maden-İş was not founded at the luxurious restaurant of some hotel, or at a political party headquarters. It is a union founded 400 metres underground, as a result of discussions we had among ourselves during breaks from work.

Dev-Maden-Sen administrators were afraid of the awakening of the mine workers, they did not want to give up the seats they have got used to sitting in for the past 25 years, to us workers. The upcoming deadline for the collective agreement was used as a pretext to send all members the message, “We have failed to pass the threshold, workers should cross over to Türkiye Maden-İş in order to benefit from the collective agreement”. That broke the entire momentum for organization, and hundreds of workers, within two weeks, because of the message of Dev-Maden-İş administrators, returned to the yellow union, and the belief was destroyed. It turned out that the concern of DİSK’s [Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, of which Dev-Maden-İş is a member] union was not workers. They delayed the congress several times so that the number of mine workers from Soma who are members dropped, so that they could not enter the board.
It was in such an environment that we decided to start anew, with a handful of worker friends. Then we began to regularly gather the Mine Workers’ Assembly, to revitalize committees at workplaces and discuss what we could do. We had huge problems. We saw the solution of those problems in the idea of an independent union. We came together in June 2018 and took the decision to found the union. In December the same year, we held our first general meeting with our 47 founding members. We only register as members those workers who are members of workers’ committees, who are determined to take up and lead the struggle, and are able to guide the workers around them. We have more than 300 members at present. We are establishing the vanguard structure of the union before mass membership. We continue to organize in all corners of Turkey.

The administration of Bağımsız Maden-İş Sendikası literally comes from the underground, we are all workers and we continue to work. We see the problems, the challenges with our own eyes and organize accordingly. On July 10, we held an action for the 3731 workers, who used to work in Soma where the massacre took place, were then dismissed, and haven’t received their severance and notice pay although it has been five years since their dismissal. The workers here began to say, “Finally, a union is emerging that will take care of us, will share our problems and challenges and will organize us”. That is very important for us. We held another action in Soma with our friends on 21 August to demand their compensation payments, and it once again made an impact. Then, at the meeting held on 20 September, the fifty miners to march on Ankara were selected. The date for the beginning of the march was set as 5 October. We can’t select a higher number of workers, because costs are high. We have no money at all. When we calculated the cost for bibs, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, hats, rain jackets, three courses of meals, water and transport, we restricted the duration and the number of workers.

The logic we work by is workplace committees. A worker that becomes a member of Bağımsız Maden-İş, also becomes part of committee work, and the voice of the workers at the unit. Our priority is the establishment of workplace committees everywhere.

Emin Kara: The Workers’ Assembly initiated this movement after the massacre in 2014. This union began with the ideas, words and actions of the Workers’ Assembly. We have a very short history, but we think we have made very good headway. Workers remain slightly uncertain about membership, but in Soma, where there are 15 thousand mine workers, around four thousand workers are in active dialogue with us, and other than the minority benefiting from the means of the yellow union, all the workers are behind Bağımsız Maden-İş with both their heart and mind, but this won’t yet result in an actual mass transition to our union. There is still time for that. We speak to our friends underground, once you break out of the triangle of government-company-yellow union, then you will begin to work in humane and just conditions. Workers know there is a union that will stand behind them, but fear has not been defeated yet, we are trying to overcome that fear gradually. Wherever there is a dismissal or an incident, Bağımsız Maden-İş receives news of it, either the worker reaches us, or we reach the worker. We are working and we will continue to work.

How do you distinguish yourself from other unions? From your foundation to your organization, what makes you different?

Kara: Bağımsız Maden-İş was not founded in Ankara, or at the luxurious restaurant of some hotel, or at a political party headquarters, like Hak-iş [Hak-İş Trade Union Confederation] was. Bağımsız Maden-İş is a union that was founded 400 metres underground, as a result of discussions we had among ourselves during breaks from work. I got to know Tahir Çetin 400 metres underground, he explained his views to me, and I decided to take part in this movement. Many of our friends will tell you the same. We took this decision when we were grappling with coal 400 metres underground. We have a system where those who produce will govern, we both produce and govern, as workers, those who govern our union are our worker friends. We do not sign any decision without asking each other, without consulting each other. We don’t enter into bargains behind closed doors. We directly address the worker; we are all workers. We are in this struggle together.

The logic we work by is workplace committees. A worker that becomes a member of Bağımsız Maden-İş, also becomes part of committee work, and the voice of the workers at the unit. Our priority is the establishment of workplace committees everywhere. Membership is not a priority for us. Workers are trained through committee work, then membership is processed. We saw it in Soma, Dev-Maden-Sen had 1800 members, in two years they were totally wasted, no one was left. You can only be organized if you have committees. Therefore, workplace committees are our priority.

Almost 200 thousand workers work in the mining industry, but only 35 thousand workers are union members. Why do you think that is, and what role would you play to change that?

Çetin: Today, two thirds of the workers that appear to be organized in the mines in Turkey, are public workers at mines held by the state. There are around 10 thousand union members outside public mines. In other words, mine workers are not organized. When any union carries out organizing activity, the worker is either threatened with dismissal or just directly fired. As we just said now, we need a system where those who produce are in charge. That is what we are fighting for. Those who come to us from outside the mine and want to govern us will have no chance of a single vote from us.

This union began with the ideas, words and actions of the Workers’ Assembly. We have a very short history, but we have made very good headway. Workers remain slightly uncertain about membership, but in Soma, where there are 15 thousand miners, around four thousand of them are in active dialogue with us

Kara: Organization is a real challenge, but we are doing well. We have seen the glimmer in the workers’ eyes when they learn about our stance and approach. As Bağımsız Maden-İş we can say this: Yes, there are 200 thousand mine workers, and around 35 thousand of them are union members, or are organized, but there is also a revolt building up among mine workers. Let us remind all that these organized workers, too, are sent by force to ballot boxes placed at companies by the bosses to vote at all union elections, that they are sent to the ballot boxes with sealed envelopes forced into their hands. But all that has changed after us. For instance, at a company where there are five thousand workers, the great majority of workers stood by the call to boycott the yellow union, and they did not go to the ballot box. In the delegate elections of the yellow union, only 900 workers took part, and 500 of them were empty –votes cast in protest. That indicates the potential for a great revolt among the mine workers. This was how elections were held at companies that are part of Soma Holding where the disaster happened, and it is the same in other companies. In companies in all parts of Turkey, at all the elections held for yellow unions, for unions imposed by the state, the result is generally about a minority, not a majority. If, for instance, 600 people work at the company, 100-150 people vote, and the rest either cast empty ballots or don’t take part in the election. We understand the rebellion and the rebellious mine worker very well, because we are under the ground, too, and we experience the same thing, mobbing, psychological pressure… We have begun to overcome it, and we will overcome it from now on. We are making swift progress.

The mining industry is a line of work where workplace murders take place in the most brazen manner. How do you put up a struggle against that?

Kara: After Soma some laws changed, some regulations were made regarding inspection. Yes, but, if we sum it up, what is the current situation of the miner? Production at mines is excessive, in other words, workers continue to be forced to increase production. Companies hold back regarding things that can be done for the worker, regarding occupational health and security, and the state has just let them be to do what they please. Occupational diseases and industrial accidents continue to increase at full pace. COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and other pulmonary diseases have increased a lot. We believe we have formed a platform that can prevent all this. The miner remains exposed to the worst at the moment. Tomorrow, God forbid, could there again be mass deaths? The answer is yes, because there is still no proper inspection. Since November 2018, the Minister of Family and Labour has effectively banned occupational health and professional safety inspections carried out by labour inspectors. Not a single mine pit in Soma has been subjected to an inspection for a year now. Recently, our union warned a company via social media, and issued a call, saying, “If you do not end such practices, there will be deaths”. Three days after the statement, unfortunately, a miner friend of ours passed away at that mine. If our warning had been taken into consideration, our friend would still be alive. As Bağımsız Maden-İş Union we will continue to state what is lacking and what is wrong.

Çetin: We are trying to create a picture where if we produce, we govern, too. We are independent. We come from the underground. The roar you hear underground is such a roar that sound becomes fury, it is ready to explode like a volcano. We are an independent union, the working class must declare its independence and build its own future, and it will.

Translated by Nâzım Dikbaş