News Archive

Unions join the uprising in Turkey

Date Released: 06 June 2013

Rónán Burtenshaw and Tommy Gavin in Istanbul: The hundreds of thousands that have taken to the streets across Turkey this week may represent diverse interests and have a range of grievances but they take their inspiration from the same kilometre of green space in Istanbul. Gezi Park, the spark that ignited a revolt, is situated in historic Taksim Square, home of the city's May Day demonstrations. It overlooks the site where on 1st May 1977 42 trade unionists and leftists were killed by right wing militias.

The government's plan to demolish Gezi Park and turn it into a shopping centre has proven unpopular in Istanbul. The battle for the site offered a physical and symbolic representation to the growing grievances with the authoritarian and conservative AK (Justice and Development) Party across Turkey. The use of force to expel people from a public space in the hope of turning it over to business interests is viewed as indicative of the government's strong-arm attitude and lack of respect for democratic rights.

On Thursday (30th May) morning the small group of protestors who initially occupied the park were violently expelled by police. Further crackdowns on Friday, bloody images of which were spread across social media, prompted massive rallies of support the next day - reaching six-figures in Istanbul and probably over a million across Turkey. Clashes continued over the weekend but since a police withdrawal on Saturday (1st June) night protestors have held Taksim Square and Gezi Park, turning them into communal spaces of celebration and resistance.

On Tuesday (4th June) some of Turkey’s largest unions weighed in to support the #OccupyGezi movement. A strike originally called by the teachers' union, Egitim Sen, for 5th June to protest neoliberal education reforms was endorsed by their public sector union federation, Kesk, and the focus changed to opposing state violence. This in turn received support from radical factory workers' union Disk.

Larger unions in Turkey - like the nationalist, private sector Türk-Is and the Islamist, public sector Memur Sen - did not join the protest, limiting its mobilising capacity. Nevertheless a crowd of around ten thousand converged on Taksim Square on Tuesday with many more marching in cities across Turkey.

One of the reasons for low union density in Turkey, and the small turnout on this week's marches, is the state repression of trade unions in the country. On various occasions, such as after the coup in 1980, unions have been disbanded and their leaders imprisoned. Both Kesk and Disk have had general secretaries murdered in office.

This has continued under the AKP government. On Wednesday (5th June) SIPTU.ie spoke with Ozgur Dogan and Sevim Kayhan, officials in Kesk. Both were arrested, along with 60 others, in February after the police accused them of being members of a left-wing terrorist group. The charges were  never substantiated and both were released, but not before Sevim spent four months in prison. They say their trials are "political games" meant to deter people from joining unions.

"You see on May Day, when in 2012 we got a million people out to protest, that there is support. But this year they banned us from Taksim Square and the police attacked us so we got 60,000. They are afraid of the millions so that's why they attack unions." Ozgur also says that May's confrontation, which also saw the police deploy tear gas to clear crowds from Taksim, set an important precedent for the current wave of protests.

While neither believe #OccupyGezi will be strong enough to topple the government they do believe that it will restore some power to the workers. The AKP government has found a boundary, imposed by the popular revolt, and their opposition has found a new energy. Today Ozgur wears a t-shirt carrying her sister Berivan's face - she is one of the 62 picked up in February yet to be released. They are hopeful that the uprising will put an end to the persecution of trade unionists in Turkey.

{If you want to support the campaign to free imprisoned Kesk officials please follow @kesklitutsaklar on Twitter or send an email to the prisoners' campaign at kesklitutsaklar@yandex.com}


Bookmark and Share

NEW MISC