Workers Vanguard No. 1047
30 May 2014
Workers Outrage Against Erdogan Regime
Turkish Mine Disaster: Capitalist Murder
On May 13, a fire and explosion struck a coal mine outside of Soma in western Turkey, leaving 301 miners dead by official count and injuring dozens more. For days, miners had warned their bosses about hot coal, indicating a fire somewhere in the mine, but were told to stay on the job. Meanwhile, mine operators had shut down air quality sensors that monitor gas levels and can automatically stop production. When the firestorm erupted, the power supply to the elevators and ventilation shafts was knocked out, and the tunnels quickly filled with carbon monoxide and other deadly fumes. By the admission of the mine operations manager, many miners did not have gas masks. Workers who did desperately scrambled to reach the surface within the time the company claimed the masks would be effective, since no safe rooms existed in that part of the mine. But, as one miner noted, “You cannot climb up 1.5 kilometers in 45 minutes.”
This industrial catastrophe was the worst ever in Turkey, eclipsing the 1992 explosion in a coal mine at Zonguldak on the Black Sea in which 263 were killed. Turkey has the third-highest rate of deaths on the job in the world; a 2010 report revealed that every million tons of coal extracted come at the cost of more than seven miners’ lives. The Soma disaster is emblematic of this appalling toll of death underground. One banner carried in an Istanbul protest proclaimed it “is not an accident, it is not fate, it is murder.” Responsibility lies with the mine owners and the Turkish government.
The Islamist regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has exuded ruling-class arrogance, dripping with contempt for the dead miners and their families. In a speech outside the mine the day after the calamity, Erdogan dismissed mining accidents as “a commonplace thing.” The scale of the disaster and the government’s callous response sparked large-scale protests in Soma, where the AKP office was sacked and Erdogan’s car was surrounded by an enraged crowd of relatives of the dead and missing miners. Shortly after, Erdogan confronted protesters in a supermarket and threatened: “If you boo the prime minister of this country, you’ll get slapped.” Despite intimidation by officials to silence him, one protester claimed that he was indeed slapped. Erdogan’s deputy chief of staff Yusuf Yerkel was caught on video viciously kicking a protester who was being held on the ground by two riot cops.
Mass protest with a heavy working-class component also broke out in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and cities in the east and southeast largely populated by the oppressed Kurdish national minority. On May 15, the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), the Confederation of Public Workers Unions and other unions held a 24-hour strike. Turks and Kurds living in the European imperialist centers have also mobilized in solidarity with the Soma miners. On May 24, some 50,000 people in Cologne, Germany, marched against Erdogan’s visit to the city.
In Turkey, the government unleashed massive repression once people took to the streets. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were fired against protesters, many of whom were arrested. In Izmir, Kani Beko, the 61-year-old DISK leader, was hospitalized after riot police attacked strikers. Eight workers at Okmeydani Hospital in Istanbul were fired for joining the May 15 strike. A week later, police killed a bystander while firing into the air to disperse a demonstration in a working-class district of Istanbul.
A de facto state of emergency exists in Soma. The government brought in heavily armed police commando units and has cordoned off the city, ringing it with checkpoints at a distance of roughly 18 miles to bar anyone it does not want to enter. Demonstrations are banned, and local police and AKP members have warned residents not to express public opposition to the government.
In a move to diffuse the widespread anger, the government has made a show of arresting three dozen people in connection with the explosion. As of May 21, eight company executives were still in custody, including the general manager as well as the CEO of the Soma mine, who is the son of the owner. Alp Gurkan, the owner, remains free. The AKP has also allowed an opposition bill that bans subcontracting—a central demand of the protesters—to inch forward in parliament, safe in the knowledge that it can be blocked later.
Privatizations and the
Just two weeks before the Soma disaster, the bourgeois Republican People’s Party opposition had proposed a parliamentary inquiry into safety conditions at the mine following reports of accidents. The government rejected this proposal, with one of its deputies declaring that “God willing,” there would be no accidents, “not even a nosebleed.” Nine months ago, the government’s energy minister praised the safety measures in the Soma mines.
Capitalist mine owners everywhere have always cut corners to maximize their profits at the expense of safety. Witness the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the site of an explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. Such preventable disasters happen because the capitalists won’t spend money on technology that can minimize the inherent risks of mining. Where real measures of protection for miners do exist, they were won through hard class struggle and union organizing campaigns.
Although state ownership under capitalism is no panacea, privatization of the mines, including Soma in 2005, has led to a sharp deterioration in conditions. In a May 14 account in Hürriyet Daily News, Dev Maden-Sen mining union chairman Tayfun Görgün summed up: “Accidents exploded when these fields were given to the private sector.... Security measures have been put on the back burner to reduce costs.” The level of cost reduction at Soma has been astounding. In a 2012 interview with Hürriyet, Gurkan claimed that the cost of production had been driven down from $130 per ton to only $24. For the capitalists, workers’ lives aren’t a factor in the calculus of profit.
The Western imperialists helped spur the series of privatizations overseen by the Erdogan regime in Turkey over the last decade. The IMF demanded the handing off of state-owned industries as a condition of its 2001 bailout of Turkey, then being racked by a banking crisis. After it came to power in 2002, Erdogan’s AKP enthusiastically embraced the IMF plan. The year before Soma was privatized, the European Union (EU) made acceleration of privatizations a condition for Turkey’s move toward membership, which Erdogan was pushing as the road to economic prosperity.
This is a cruel hoax. The EU is an imperialist cartel whose purpose is to tighten the screws on European workers and to act as a tool for the larger powers, particularly Germany, to exploit weaker, dependent capitalist states. These days, the ongoing, grinding economic crisis in the EU has somewhat taken the gloss off membership. In any case, it is highly unlikely that the racist EU overlords would ever admit Turkey, a large, overwhelmingly Muslim country, into their club.
For its part, the Obama administration has praised Erdogan for his economic “reforms” and looks to him to “nurture a predictable investment environment.” Turkey is also an important part of the imperialist NATO alliance and a staunch supporter of Washington’s crusade against Iran. Furthermore, it has provided a nerve center for U.S. intelligence operations against Syria and acted as a conduit for funneling arms to fundamentalist-dominated anti-Assad forces.
Erdogan Regime Shaken
The mass protests in the wake of the Soma disaster were evocative of the months-long protests last year in Istanbul. Those protests—triggered by government plans for a building project in Gezi Park near Taksim Square—reflected the deep resentment of younger elements in the better-educated urban middle classes toward Erdogan’s regime. Fueling this discontent were government attempts to tighten “moral rules,” including restrictions on the sale of alcohol and ongoing assaults on the rights of women and gays. Some workers from the politically divided trade-union movement joined the protests, as did Kurdish organizations. The government was able to crush the protest movement through brutal repression. Over 8,000 were injured and untold numbers arrested.
In contrast, the ongoing Soma protests are centered on the working class, which has real social power based on its ability to cut off the flow of profits by withholding labor. Unlike last year’s protests, the focal point of the protests is in the rural Anatolian heartland of the AKP. Since the AKP’s base is devoutly religious, Erdogan has played to these beliefs in his bid to pacify the miners’ families and stifle the protests. For instance, the prime minister referred to the dead miners as “martyrs” and sent dozens of Muslim clerics to Soma.
Preventing atrocities like Soma is directly linked to the fight against exploitation and oppression, which requires the proletariat to mobilize in its own interests. To this end, the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party is vital. Such a party, forged from advanced workers and revolutionary intellectuals, would fight to break the working class from religious reaction and all forms of nationalism. In particular, it would champion the right to Kurdish self-determination, embodied in the call for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan.
The International Communist League seeks to link the struggles of workers in Turkey to their class brothers and sisters in the imperialist countries, especially Germany, where the proletariat contains significant Turkish- and Kurdish-derived elements. Only international workers revolution can ensure that the resources of the earth are extracted for the good of humanity rather than the bank accounts of the capitalists and with the health and safety of miners and other workers primary.