The recent BBC Istanbul bureau strike resulted in victory after 15 days spent outside in the freezing cold. Many journalists in Turkey were thrilled by this first successful strike in 13 years in the 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 percent raise concluded with a 32 percent increase in salaries. Moreover, health benefits were extended to the family members of the employees. The daily meal vouchers were increased to 60 Turkish Liras, and a 1,200 Turkish 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 note the odds against which the journalists battled and won. The BBC strike was won despite little coverage of their efforts in the media and few displays of solidarity from press associations. Most renowned journalists in Turkey were silent on it.
But how did the strike prevail against these odds then?
“Unity and perseverance” are the two words I would use to summarize the strike at the BBC’s Istanbul bureau. The unity among the BBC journalists from day one to the end of negotiations was incredibly strong.
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 one another.
That is what BBC employees and the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS) did. The members of the union 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. As a matter of fact, that is how power is mustered.
The big picture shows that employees, and hence a larger segment of society, benefit from unionization in all industries. The media industry is particularly fit in this regard, considering the direct relationship of most of its employees, the journalists, with the democratic sphere as a whole. Through unionization, journalists unite around a common good and protect themselves with solidarity against possible attempts to undermine their legal rights and editorial independence – an issue of crucial importance in Turkey given the already immense pressure on independent journalism. By participating in the day-to-day running of their organizations more meaningfully, unionized journalists democratize the decision-making processes, enabling better news products for the public good.
The impact of the rhetoric
At BBC Turkey, 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. But it’s about maintaining a firm stance, and achieving it with a smile.
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 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 (the overall unionization rate in the country is 14.3 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 journalist 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, there are still challenges ahead.
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 unionized employees or to find other ways 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 high unemployment rate (estimated between 35 and 40 percent), very few organizations make a profit, salaries are low, and job security is feeble. The fear of unemployment and being led to apostatize looms over journalists and creates 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 unions reflect journalists: they are as strong, self-confident, cheery, bold, current, and worldly as we are.
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.