Wildcat strike at TPI Turkey over low pay raises challenges company and union

Amid mass protests and strikes against rising living costs and unbearable living conditions in Sri Lanka and around the world, TPI Composites workers in Turkey have launched a wildcat strike, independent of the union, against low wage increases and poor working conditions on July 6.

TPI workers announced on Twitter on Tuesday that the company had declared an illegal lockout with the statement: “As of the 4:00 p.m. shift on 19.07.2022, our factory operations have been suspended indefinitely. Rejecting the call for a “come home” from the Petrol-İş trade union affiliated to the Türk-İş confederation, which supported the company’s proposal, the workers announced that “we will not leave our workplace”.

Striking TPI Composites workers /Credit: @tpiiscileri on Twitter)

On July 6, TPI workers began a work stoppage after the company offered them a 5% raise on top of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government’s 30% minimum wage increase from July . The workers left their morning shift an hour early and waited in the factory yard, and were joined by other workers who did not start working for the evening shift. 1,500 workers from Menemen factory and 1,000 workers from Çiğli-Sasalı factory took part in the wild action.

TPI Composites, a US-based company, employs thousands of workers in China, Mexico, Denmark, Turkey and India. The company is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of wind turbine blades. It has two factories in the western city of Izmir, Turkey. According to the company’s statement, it employs 5,000 people in Turkey.

Management threatened to sue workers who did not return to work and the next day 60 workers received a phone message informing them of their dismissal. The layoff offensive continued thereafter, and the number of laid-off workers reached around 150.

After Eid al-Adha, the wildcat strike resumed on July 17. While management raised the offer of an additional 9% raise, workers also rejected it, demanding a 45% raise.

Inflation – triggered by the massive printing of money by central banks around the world after the COVID-19 pandemic, further enriching the super-rich and exacerbated by NATO’s war against Russia in Ukraine – has pushed the cost of living in Turkey at unprecedented levels.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat), the annual inflation rate rose to 78% in July, while the actual annual inflation rate was 175%, according to an independent research body, the Research Group on inflation (ENAG). Under these circumstances, the Erdoğan government was forced to increase the minimum wage again in July, after increasing it once a year since 2016.

The minimum wage of 4,250 TL has been increased by 30% to 5,500 TL (now $310). However, according to the pro-government Türk-İş party, monthly food expenditure for a family of four (the “hunger limit”) reached 6,300 liras ($360) in June, while the poverty line reached 20. 800 lire ($1,180). According to a survey conducted in March, 90% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The TPI workers’ wilcat strike is part of a growing movement of workers in Turkey and around the world who face similar conditions and the same class enemy. Turkey has seen more than 100 wildcat strikes in the first two months of 2022, while recent months have seen numerous nationwide strikes by health workers. Around 500 workers at the Kangal thermal power plant in Sivas are also on a wildcat strike against the hardship contract imposed in collaboration with the union.

Addressing everyday Evrensel, TPI workers pointed out that they were working in difficult conditions with very low wages. One worker said: “Our benefits have gradually been taken away from us. Even though our wages were low, they were still above market. But recent inflation and the high cost of living have quickly eroded our salaries. The salary we receive is between 5,500 and 7,000 lira [$310-$400]. Our biggest problem is wages.

Another TPI worker explained that workers breathe in carcinogens and described the health issues they face: “Asthma and COPD are the most common illnesses that our colleagues face. Herniated discs and dislocated shoulders due to harsh working conditions have become common problems for many of our colleagues.

Workers are forced to work without high-quality personal protective equipment. It also made them vulnerable to COVID-19 from the start. In 2020, TPI, in cooperation with the Petrol-İş union, continued to bring workers together in the factory, setting a record with net sales of around $1.7 billion and production of over 10,600 blades. wind turbines.

Another TPI worker outlines the conditions imposed on them in the factory by the company and the union, saying: “The shift supervisors use mobbing. Every operation we do inside is against work safety rule. But at the factory, work comes before safety. We use and breathe all kinds of chemicals you can think of such as aerosols, fiberglass, etc. During an inspection, chemical dusty environments are cleaned. It’s as if we had always worked in such an environment. But the reality is that we work in this chemical dirt.

The wildcat strike by TPI Composite workers was isolated and suppressed from the start by the Petrol-İş union, which was strongly opposed to such a militant struggle. Neither the other members of Petrol-İş nor the members of the largest confederation, Türk-İş, were mobilized for solidarity. On the contrary, the union tried to end the strike with a holiday break. He repeatedly sought to induce the workers to accept the same offer from the company.

In the union’s vote on Monday to end the strike, 1,519 workers voted no and 978 voted yes at two factories. Thus, the workers overwhelmingly (61%) rejected the proposal supported by the unions to end the strike.

TPI workers must organize independently against the union’s collaboration with the company and the sellout agreement. Otherwise, Petrol-Is will repeat last year’s betrayal. In 2021, the union hastily signed a sell-out agreement, without implementing the strike decision, and kept it secret from the workers. Workers learned about the contract from their shift supervisors, while those who opposed the union were reported to management and fired. Lessons must be learned from this fight.

The way forward for TPI workers and other workers entering the struggle is to take matters into their own hands, form rank-and-file independent committees and join the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees (IWA -RFC) to call for the support of their class brothers and sisters in Turkey and around the world. Mack Trucks worker Will Lehman’s campaign for the presidency of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States is a crucial initiative to develop this rank-and-file rebellion against the pro-corporate labor apparatus. This rebellion must be developed in all factories everywhere.