The BBC Istanbul bureau strike resulted in victory after 15 days spent outside in freezing cold. Many journalists in Turkey were thrilled by this first successful strike in thirteen years in media. The strike has rekindled our hopes for the future of our profession.
As a result of the strike, the negotiations that started with the employer’s offer of a 10 per cent raise concluded with a 32 per cent increase in salaries. Moreover, the health benefits were extended to the family members of the employees; the daily meal vouchers were increased to 60 Liras, and a 1200 Lira stipend per journalist was allocated for optometric care. In short, these gains have turned the page on the chapter of journalists’ fight for their rights.
How did the journalists win?
This was the most frequently asked question after the strike. But before shedding light on this question, I should present the odds against which they battled and won:
The BBC strike was won despite the deaf ears and blind eyes of the media organizations that call themselves “opposition” and also against their failure to cover this struggle. The main reason behind this the owners and executives of those media organizations had prevented unionization at their own companies. The strike was also won despite the lack of statements or display of solidarity from the majority of press associations. It was won against the silence of most renowned journalists.
But how did the strike prevail against all these odds then?
The secret behind the success
Unity and perseverance are the two words I should use to summarize the strike at BBC’s Istanbul bureau. The unity among the BBC journalists from day one to the end of negotiations was so strong that no employer could have stood a chance against such a special group.
Apparently one should not regard unity only as people’s care and support for one another. Unity is something that is built. Without amity, there is no unity. Horizontal decision making, transparency and the application of democratic principles into the inner dynamics of even a small group make people feel comfortable and safe around each other.
That is what BBC employees and the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS) did. The members were part of the entire process, there was common sense and shared wisdom in every step of the way. This is what made decision making a democratic and transparent process. Thanks to this approach, not a single trust issue surfaced between the Union and the members of the strike. They stood united and powerful. As a matter of fact, that is how power is mustered.
The impact of the rhetoric
Perseverance ushered in victory. If audacity is necessary to commence, decisiveness is also a must to finish. It could be freezing outside and one may lose heart sometimes. However, maintaining a firm stance, and achieving it with a smile, generates psychological advantage.
Of course this cannot be attained with hollow self-confidence. BBC employees knew they did their job well. The salary increase and the other benefits they demanded were legitimate and within their rights. The convincing position they maintained during their negotiations with the employer and in their public statements was only possible on these grounds.
And solidarity. The concrete manifestation of this frequently-used term is more beautiful than its abstract form. The support personally expressed by colleagues and fellow citizens by gathering under our banners, homemade food they brought with them, and dissemination over social media always kept our morale high. The professional use of social media accounts by the Union helped local and international solidarity expand.
But why now?
The upward trajectory of the TGS*, hiring new professionals with the EU support, and the confident steps it has taken in the direction of institutionalization have taken the organization to a new stage. Hence the ratio of unionized workers in Turkish media has grown to 8.4 percent as of January 2022 data (the overall unionization rate in the country is 4.3 percent). This may be perceived as a modest number. Yet, eight years ago no media organization—except the state news agency—was keen on entering collective bargaining and labor agreement with its employees. By contrast, today journalists at 13 different media companies have become union members and benefit from a collective contract successfully negotiated and signed.** This makes a major difference for the following reasons:
- More journalists are working and living in better conditions.
- Their colleagues who witness these improvements follow the same path.
The snowball is rolling
The successful BBC strike has already inspired other journalists groups to organize around their demands at their respective work places. It is even more difficult today to stop this snowball, which had already acquired a critical mass in the days leading to the BBC strike. Nonetheless, it would be naïve to anticipate the path ahead to be a walk in the park.
First, there are serious psychological, cultural, economic, and legal impediments against union membership in Turkey. Employers hailing from different political identities either try to fire the unionized employee or to find an illegal way to hinder unionization.*** Even though the laws are in favor of the employee, the delayed administration of justice hurts workers and organizations.
We encounter another problem as far as the media sector is concerned. In this particular job market known for its highest unemployment rate (estimated between 35 and 40 percent), very few organizations make profit, salaries are low, job security is feeble. The fear of unemployment and being apostatized loom over journalists and create a formidable obstacle against joining a union.
How will the strike spread to the mainstream?
Despite all these difficulties,, the new unionization trend among journalists is breaching barriers and expanding fast. To sustain this, we must learn from mistakes, address the shortcomings, and continue organizing while transforming and regenerating. Since there is now a bottom-up democratic, transparent, and participatory premise constructed for journalists, we must attract more members to the union and ensure the constant participation of the members in order to fortify and expedite this platform.
This is because organizations reflect journalists: they are as strong, self-confident, cheery, bold, current, and worldly as we are.
It is most welcome that the number of our colleagues coming together and standing against the political pressure as well as the subterfuge by the employers is rising. These brave people show everyone the way forward and project their own voices and colors onto the Union.
In our country Turkey on its course to reembrace democracy, we lay the ground today for a just media order. There is no need for gloom: Journalism is reemerging from its ashes.
* At this point, the rejuvination at the Turkey Journalists Union has to be further explained. In the 90s, the TGS was purged from the mainstream media as a result of the media tycoon Aydın Doğan’s pressure on journalists to quit the Union. In 2013, the TGS ended its slum, riding the tailwind of change that the Gezi protests had started and the transformation initiated by the young journalists who took over the TGS administration. The team I was part of consisted of young people with an average age of 29 and 60 per cent women aspired to make unionization did not only make it inclusive but also look cool and trendy. Not boring but fun, not nostalgic but current, not local but global, not frowning but smiling, not timid but self-confident…the “new TGS” aimed at returning to its heyday in the mainstream media through organized action. We should also note that Abdi İpekçi, who was the Secretary General of TGS and the second president of IPI’s Turkey National Committee. To read this development in Turkish: TGS’de rönesans ve Sendika’nın yeni yolu, Mustafa Kuleli, 9 Ocak 2016.
** BBC, Associated Press, Dokuz8 Haber, Cumhuriyet, AFP, İz Gazete, Reuters, Refinitiv, Duvar, Yön Radyo, 9 Eylül, Bianet and Evrensel are the 13 new organizations whose members have been unionized by the TGS. 6 of these organizations joined the unionized workplaces in the last year.
*** The media sector has the smallest unionization ratio. The employer’s anti-union policies and actions play a large role in this flimsical union membership proportion. The firings at Hurriyet Newspaper of the Demiroren group is the most visible illustration and evidence of this behavior (October 2019). Even though it was legally established after countless court hearings that Hurriyet fired its employees due to their union memberships, the process was detrimental to further unionization within the newspaper. Furthermore, although the majority of the employees at Fox TV and Halk TV are union members, the objections raised by the employers resulted in a lawsuit against the TGS’ privileges as a union.