Turkish Working Class Formation

A review of Working Class Formation in Turkey, 1946-1962, by Barış Alp Özden.

This dissertation explores the discourses and everyday practices of workers in Turkey from the end of World War II until just after the military intervention of 1960. During this time of important structural change (industrialization, urbanization, etc.), the working class of Turkey began to form the new political identities upon which the labor radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s would draw. Throughout the dissertation, Özden maintains that searching for the roots of working class identity in Turkey requires finding the voices of the working class, not merely searching for some predetermined conception about how a class conscious of itself ought to look, think, speak, and act. Consequently, with each chapter Özden draws from an array of primary and secondary sources in order to examine the developing political, recreational, familial, residential, and work-related lives of Turkish workers during these critical decades (5). This research begins to fill an important gap in the existing literature on the labor movement in Turkey, which often focuses on the contentious politics of the 1960s and 70s, and under-theorizes the historical roots of this labor activism. Moreover, it does so by following the paths of E. P. Thomson and Henri Lefebvre in suggesting that the study of everyday life can help reveal the roots of self-perception, political community, and shared political consciousness.

As Özden notes, “State archives do not provide rich accounts for retrieving the authentic voices of workers” (19), therefore the research in this dissertation applies a discourse analysis to an array of working class and labor union journals and magazines, as well as to a few critical state and political party archival sources in order to unpack the dynamic and changing understandings of class that were emerging during this critical period. In addition, Özden examines linguistic changes that help provide an understanding about how workers’ self-perceptions changed.

Chapter 1 is about the physical world inhabited by workers in the post-war decade and a half, and more importantly, about how this physical world shaped the individual and collective identities of workers (23). This was a world defined by the emergence of the gecekondu (squatter housing quickly set up, for the most part, on public lands in Turkey’s major cities), and as such, the chapter primarily explores the issue of working class housing. It was a physical world characterized by poor, even insufficient housing, yet it was one where workers clustered together, connecting with one another through labor unions and cooperatives (or neighborhood associations), and at times in gecekondu neighborhoods built near the factories where neighbors worked. For the working class, then, home ownership—even of the squatter kind—was key to a sense of autonomy and self-fulfillment. Yet the paradox of a fulfilling social and individual life found amid squatter housing was lost on middle-class and other social reformers who saw gecekondus as a moral and/or public health problem.

As Özden point out, “Leisure is yet another subject [that] has received virtually no attention from the working class historians in Turkey” (83). This chapter, on the other hand, suggests that we are defined in part by what we do in leisure time. Consequently, chapter 2 focuses on the role of cinema, sports (football), and coffee houses in the formation of working class identity in Turkey. In examining the role of cinema, Özden points out that it was not the content of films (though some films clearly offered an appealing escape from reality), but rather the shared activity of going to the movies that helped build camaraderie and strengthen working class ties (96). “The cinema,” in short, “provided a social space for the lower classes … where people from similar background and status could find company” (99). Sports also provided a collective experience for the working class (123), but the state’s interest in shaping athletics to support its own projects limited the extent to which collective engagement in sports might primarily build working class solidarity (113; 126). Finally, working class coffee houses provided a place for a dynamic interaction among (primarily) working men, which the state found so threatening that it even spied on these venues from time to time (137-144).

Chapter 3 turns from the home and the social world of workers to an exploration of the changing nature of work itself. Here, life within production shaped and conditioned the responses of workers to their work life. In short, productive processes and their changes during this period had important consequences, Özden argues, for how workers answered questions about who we are and how we ought to act. The chapter focuses on the poor working conditions the industrial proletariat faced, changes in the piece rate of labor, and the introduction of Taylorism and greater assertion by owners of control over employees’ working practices. Many workers resisted these changes to the pace of work and their loss of control over their work lives, which they found anathema. Still, for others, skilled paternalism helped factory owners avoid heavy resistace in the institution of reforms in the process of work.

In Chapter 4, Özden examines the role of law in shaping Turkish working class formation by focusing on three aspects of the legal world faced by workers. First, Özden examines changes in the regulation of workers’ lives through “private law” or workplace rules governing punctuality and discipline. Here, Özden demonstrates that legal frameworks that affect our everyday lives come from sources beyond the state (236). Yet the state’s rules are not unimportant, and subsequently Özden examines the regime of labor inspections and state arbitration that resulted from changes in national labor codes. Working class consciousness was strengthened in opposition to new factory rules governing production and because of the long and cumbersome arbitration processes, which (though at times addressing workers’ concerns) often failed in the eyes of the workers (275). Finally, the chapter examines the movement toward the legalization of labor relations in ways that spawned a nascent “rights consciousness” among the working class, culminating in the increasing demand for the right to strike in the latter years of this dissertation’s focus (277).

The fifth and final empirical chapter examines action(s), language, and the emergence of new forms of organization and identity within the Turkish working class. For example, Özden traces the popularization among working people of the word işçi, more clearly indicting a shared class identity of workers (292), in comparison with the less apt self-description amele (287-291). This change in language is not merely about switching words; it is about the emergence of “a working class in the sense of a social category with distinct culture and with the propensity to organize in class specific forms” (286). Along with a new language that helped construct a shared class-based identity, new organizations and institutions, especially labor unions and the first labor union confederation, as well as factory and political activism (albeit contested and limited), helped forge the collective subjectivities that underpinned labor radicalism in the 1960 and 1970s.

As mentioned above, the significant contribution of this dissertation to the field of Turkish Studies in general, and to Turkish labor history in particular, is in its ability to provide strong empirical evidence that demonstrated that the labor radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s did not just emerge out of the post-coup liberal constitution; rather, it has its roots in the post-war period. Indeed, as Özden concludes, “this historical context created the cultural, intellectual, linguistic, and organizational space on which the subsequent labor movement was built” (332). This dissertation, moreover, offers one of the most comprehensive efforts to take labor history during this era seriously.

Brian Mello
Associate Professor of Political Science
Muhlenberg College
bmello@muhlenberg.edu

Primary Sources
Republican State Archives of the Prime Ministry
İşçi Sesi, 1954-1956
İşçi Gücü, 1951-1954, 1964
İşçinin Sesi, 1959-1961
İşçi Gazetesi, 1952-1953

Dissertation Information
Boğaziçi University. 2011. 365pp. Primary Advisor: Nadir Özbek

Image: Zeytinburnu / Kazlıçeşme Deri işçileri – 1970, Pinterest

Leave a Reply