Sunday, April 7, 2013

Not So Much A Bummer, Maybe: Another Protest Update

They've been leaving little notes all over.
I should have updated on the Big Protest ages ago, because ever so many new events have transpired since my last post, when all the workers were summarily fired after the march on campus.

The way the workers were fired was this: they got on their service bus to go home, and a mile or two off campus they were informed that the contract had ended as of that day, and that they were being taken to ISS headquarters to sign their transfer documents. So they stopped the bus and got off and marched back to campus and occupied the gate. The students joined the occupation. And some faculty. That was last Tuesday. And they've been there ever since, even though Spring Break started and even though since then it has rained mud as well as regular rain.

The day after the workers got laid off, Rektör sent around an email saying the new subcontractors were only for cleaning. They didn't deal with the people who work the office kitchens or do office support and catering and hauling.

In the email, he said that the people doing jobs besides cleaning would be eligible to apply to yet still another
subcontractor with whom a deal had suddenly been made, to get their old jobs back.

"Whaaaat?" one thinks. "They failed to notice it was only for cleaning when they made a deal with the new subcontractors?" Anyway.

It was getting curiouser and curiouser. It felt a little like Rektör was making a small concession to the pissed off faculty by offering to hire back the departments' beloved çaycı and office staff. In fact, before the faculty organized, individual departments had heard of the pending layoff and petitioned the Rektörlük to do something to save the jobs of the workers they had shared offices with for years, and with whom they had personal relationships. These petitions were ignored, naturally.

And who would believe a subcontractor would hire workers with a known history of organizing and demanding basic rights? Not me. Not anyone, really.

So the faculty arranged a meeting in the auditorium with Rektör. He didn't turn up. Someone heard he was meeting with some people in the business school, so everyone went over there and occupied the hallway outside that meeting so Rektör couldn't escape. An hour and a half later than planned, Rektör stood in front of the faculty in the auditorium and explained that that worker thing was a done deal, out of his hands, nothing to be done.

I didn't attend this meeting myself. Like most people in my department, I decided it's best to keep my head down. We're far too dispensable in hazırlık. Those from hazırlık who did attend sat in the back and didn't contribute.

I guess somewhere in the meeting, people started talking about the lack of transparency between administration and the faculty. And that fact that we have to carry out whatever policy Rektör says, even when it's insane or impossible, because disagreement is frowned upon and people get fired for being too complain-y. All those workers getting fired just reminded everyone we're carrying on like that every day, doing our jobs as best as we can, often in the face of complete apathy (students) or complete insanity (admin), but no one really says much formally because we've all been given to understand that if we don't like how things are at this job, we can just go find other jobs.

And the meeting turned into three years of pent-up rage and angst about what it's like to work in an environment of constant tacit threat. I'll spare you the rest of the details of the meeting because it was mostly inside baseball and also I don't want to get fired.

That's the other reason I quit posting about this. It's because I don't want to get fired. What I really wanted to do was go to the gate and take pictures and talk to people and blog every second of the rare bit of campus excitement. But I chickened out and talked myself out of it.

So I feel pretty bad about that. Really bad. That's another reason I haven't been writing about it. I'm too ashamed.

The first day the gate was occupied, I wasn't sure if it was a strike or what, and I kind of panicked because for sure I never want to be someone who breaks a strike (where did I get this conviction from anyway?), but at the same time I knew if I stayed in a strike, I'd lose my job and have a hell of a time finding a new one that's anywhere near as good.

Luckily for me, it wasn't a strike. But there has been a spirited young woman boarding all the minibuses all week (a line of students blocks the road when the minibuses come in). The first day, she was demanding ID, presumably to prevent the new workers from entering the campus. This didn't sit right with me because the new workers wouldn't be in any more of a position to risk their jobs than the old ones, and it's not up to largely upper class students to threaten them or decide things for them. Since then, I've heard some workers from the new subcontractor have joined the gate occupation. This pleases me.

On subsequent days, the same young woman got on the minibus to shout a breathless update. On Friday, she handed out some flyers in Turkish. She didn't give me one. For a few days, I'd been trying to decide if I was annoyed with her or impressed by her, but I decided it was the former when she didn't give me a flyer. I was mostly annoyed because I managed to run late pretty much every day that week. I didn't mind the little holdup for the breathless updates in Turkish, but not getting a flyer was a bit... I don't know.

Most emails Rektör has been writing to everyone have been in Turkish. He has no excuse for this. He was a dean at Stanford for 30 years. Over half the faculty are foreign and the rarefied environment of Koç allows people to get by without learning Turkish if they don't want to. It's supposedly part of the appeal of working here. I can mostly read the Turkish emails, but most foreign faculty can't. No one knew if this was laziness on the Rektör's part, or a deliberate move to exclude people.

Anyway, I'm still a bit impressed by that girl. And I'm terribly impressed with (dare I say proud of) everyone at the gate because they have dug in their heels for real, and everything has been peaceful and nice. Fun, even. Friday night I saw several of the minibus drivers sitting on blankets with their families, and other families were hiking up the hill to the gate, picnic supplies in hand. A call has gone out among the faculty to start giving mini-lectures to the workers on interesting stuff they might want to know about.

People are still dropping their trash everywhere and the campus is starting to look like the rest of Istanbul, but some of the kids have organized cleaning up the most dire places on campus and in the dorms, like emptying trash cans and cleaning toilets. Toilet paper is a matter of individual initiative, however. One of my co-workers bought us the poshest toilet paper ever. It's like 6-ply and you only need a square or two.

At first, they were dropping the trash in front of the Rektör's office with sticky notes about workers' rights, but now it's moved to a central spot, in the square between the library and the Student Center.

Emails in Turkish, followed by emails in English with apologies for not coming in English sooner, have started coming from the Rektör's office with updates on the negotiations. They're saying the ISS people will be eligible for hiring by the new subcontractors. There hasn't been anything about their other demands, like time and a half for overtime and sick leave, but it's a small something.

Still, if it was possible for the new subcontractors to hire the ISS people, why didn't someone think of this earlier? Curiouser and curiouser.

Sometimes I think Rektör just made a bunch of human mistakes and is now trying to fix them. Or maybe there's enough pressure, such as increasing media coverage and petitions of support signed by faculty at other universities, that actually worked and the protest was effective. Other times I think this whole thing was somehow a tremendously well-planned farce-- a big display of power and dick-waving following the march, then a bunch of concessions to make everyone feel like we're cared about.

When I started my radio show a couple of months ago, there were two cleaners, a man and a woman, who hung around outside the radio cabin when they weren't working. The woman was always in a noisy fury about something. The man listened to her quietly. Had I known what they were up against, I wouldn't have poked fun at her on the radio for always yelling, "Sana ne? Sana ne?" I don't know if she was mad about this thing or something else, but boy, was she ever mad. Every week. This week, their abandoned carts made me sad.

I reserve judgment on the result until there is an actual resolution. I'll be surprised if my contract is renewed next year, but I'll also be surprised if it isn't. It's not like I've done anything, really, but I haven't done totally nothing either. I've just tried to do my best, and I'm not at all happy with it.


Bill said...

I knew you were sad and unsettled today. This demonstration has all the elements of Occupy Wall Street, including all the arbitrariness, conviction, and uncertainties for everyone.

Backto Bodrum said...

A rock and a hard place - that's mostly where we find ourselves living here. I made myself a promise when I returned to live in Turkey that this time I would keep my head down. It feels wrong but I sat in too many court rooms the first 20 years I lived here and I'm now just looking for the quiet life.

Stranger said...

It's been a heavy week for sure.