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Gezi Park protests reinvigorate Turkey’s labour movement

By: | June 13, 2013

Turkey’s unions struggle to find their role in the protests sweeping the nation.

Hans Rollmann

For years, according to one union organizer, the struggle for democracy and human rights felt like one in which nobody was listening.

Now, he says, they know they are not alone.

Turkey’s unions face greater state-supported repression in their work than most of their western counterparts. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) 2012 annual survey of violations of trade union rights reports 367 documented violations in Turkey, a number that only reflects those which were reported; the actual number of violations may be higher. Turkey’s country report is a sobering read for trade union activists:

“There were many cases of employers dismissing workers simply because of their union membership, notably in the oil, car, engineering, textile and leather industries. There were also several incidents of violence against trade unionists, which in some cases led to injury … Twenty five teachers and one leather worker were sentenced to prison as terrorists for their trade union activities and 111 people faced prosecution for participating in a trade union demonstration.”

Indeed, Turkey’s human rights record is one of the key hurdles stalling ongoing negotiations over the country’s potential membership in the European Union. And human rights violations aren’t limited to trade unionists – Turkey has been described as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” by Reporters Without Borders. Amnesty International has also flagged the harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists as a serious issue. Evidence suggests journalists are being targeted by police forces during the Gezi Park protests. In fact, two CBC reporters were detained for 11 hours for taking photos.

But trade unionists face particularly profound challenges. In addition to a wide range of dismissals for engaging in union activity, some of the incidents documented by ITUC include an arson attack against a camp of striking leather workers, a water cannon and tear gas attack on demonstrators against regressive labour law revisions in the capital in February, and another tear gas and water cannon attack against striking workers at a cigarette factory in April. In October, 25 members of the teachers’ union Egitim Sen were sentenced to more than six years in prison under anti-terrorism legislation. The imprisoned included the president of the public sector trade union confederation KESK, the former KESK women’s secretary, and the current and two former women’s secretaries of the teachers’ union. According to ITUC:

“The ‘evidence’ against them included possession of books that can be found in any bookstore in Turkey and the holding of union meetings. Owing to the lack of evidence it had appeared that the defendants were going to be acquitted, until two of the judges were summarily removed from the trial just before the final hearing. Even the Chief Justice was in favour of an acquittal.”

With such intimidating realities plaguing the lives of trade union activists in Turkey, the protests have come as both a relief and a source of inspiration.

Veysel Kaplan is branch director of Egitim Sen in the industrial town of Izmit. He has greeted the protests with both relief and delight.

“We are so happy because this is the first time we feel so free.

“This is a very important point for us and we think everything is going to change after this movement. These things happened because the government repression was so strong. We [the unions] were trying to speak out but they…didn’t listen to us. But now we’re so encouraged by the movement because it’s a huge movement. It’s a breakthrough for unionization, for the union movement, for everything in Turkey.”

An unexpected salvation

The movement caught everyone off guard, but it is that very spontaneity which gives them hope, amid a realization that while sometimes it seems nothing changes, at other times much can change with very little warning.

“We didn’t expect these things to happen, so we were unprepared for these protests,” says Kaplan. “It happened suddenly – no one expected it. We always tell people about our [unions’] problems…about how the government represses us, how they act like a dictator, how they impose their rules on us…but we didn’t have anyone to listen to us. So this is the lesson: anything can happen anytime! And this is an accumulation of things. Things accumulated day by day, and got bigger and bigger, and then suddenly an outbreak happened. So this is the hope for all of us: anything can happen anytime.”

The other uplifting lesson is that youth and the broader population are not, in fact, as apolitical as they had thought. Many older Turks I spoke with had referred to the younger generation as ‘apoliticals’, a reflection of the stereotype that they were more interested in fashion, electronics and consumerism than politics and human rights. But now people are finding that stereotype turned on its head.

“This is the first time in 10 years that the ‘apoliticals’ were actively involved in this movement,” Kaplan explains. “People who had never had any tear gas or police violence – they haven’t seen any police violence or repression in their whole lives, yet they took a very active role in this movement. So this is very surprising. This is the first time we have had this experience. So we’re so excited.”

A tough job

Being a union organizer is a tough job in Turkey, but dealing with government repression and the constant uncertainty has become a way of life for those I spoke with. In addition to police raids and searches of their offices, Egitim Sen members say police and government party supporters try to intimidate members to deter their involvement in the union.

Unions march toward Istanbul's Taksim Square on June 5. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Unions march toward Istanbul’s Taksim Square on June 5. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“They tried to make union members resign from Egitim Sen because they labelled us as terrorists, as bad people,” says Kaplan. “The government tried to make people stay away from our union. They always say to people, ‘Oh, what are you doing there, they’re terrorists! What’s your job there? Are you a terrorist?’ Things like that. So we feel a big repression.

“We are so afraid of everything,” he continues. “For example this interview could be used, they could use it as fake proof. They could say ‘somebody came from Canada, they interviewed you.’ They could come here and detain, arrest the union members. They could do it in six months, or a year from now … Yes, they can do this in Turkey, they can make up anything to arrest people because as we say, there’s no democracy here. They can really use this as fake proof – somebody came from Canada and talked with you, and you were cooperating with outsiders.”

Dealing with the reality of such repression makes union organizing a challenging job. But the organizers with Egitim Sen have accepted it as part of their reality, and there’s a stoic determination to their attitude.

“This is our reality, in our country. We know what goes on here in Turkey. We’ve had so many bad experiences here in the past. They put people into jail with no reason, they make fake reasons, fake proofs,” says Kaplan.

“This is our struggle. We know democracy can come here. Democracy can only come by struggling against these things. So we’re not afraid. We have to struggle. We have no choice.”

Defining a role for unions

The protests caught everyone off guard, including the unions, who then had to determine what their role would be.

“Some of the unions were supportive from the beginning, but some of them were not,” Kaplan explains. “For that reason, it also shows a kind of division within the union structure … For that reason, there is no one single line that I can describe.”

Last week, KESK – the public sector trade union confederation that includes Egitim Sen – moved ahead a previously planned one-day strike to coincide with the protests. They expanded it to two days and broadened the theme to encompass the pro-democracy messages of the protestors. Thousands of union members rallied in Ankara, Istanbul and other cities, and thousands of unionists marched to Taksim Square on June 5.

Kuvvet Lordoglu, a professor of labour economics at Kocaeli University, says it’s important to note that the unions did not take the lead in organizing the broader Gezi Park protests. “They were part of it, but not the leaders,” he says. “They were just part of the demonstrations. They wanted to take part, but not as members of unions. This is a very independent movement.

“Unions shouldn’t occupy a role as if they are the teachers or the leaders. We have to simply be part of it.”

He notes that one month ago, on May 1 (Labour Day in Turkey), the unions tried to organize a rally at Taksim Square, but a heavy police presence and use of tear gas prevented it from going ahead. For the unions, this has given a special meaning to the current protests, and one Lordoglu feels can create a new kind of solidarity between unions and the broader public.

“The unions must follow,” he says. “Now, people without union affiliation, without political affiliation – apoliticals, young people, and women, many women, young women – they are participating in these protests. Studies show that many of these young people have never participated in a protest ever before. It’s their first time. Their first time to protest! Unions can learn something from this, when it comes to democracy. Like a stone dropping into a pool of water, the ripples affect everything: unions, politics. It’s like a domino effect.”

Yucel Demirer, a professor of political science at Kocaeli University and officer with KESK, feels positive about the union response, which he says has maintained a good balance of support and solidarity.

“The unique part of these events, the most important aspect of it, is that it’s been out of the grassroots organization,” he explains. “For that reason, unions shouldn’t occupy a role as if they are the teachers or the leaders. We have to simply be part of it. We have to say that we are supportive, and that should be our role. That’s what the unions are doing, and I’m happy with that.

“Some people have the tendency to be pessimistic about this,” he continues. “But I prefer to see the bright side. I don’t care who is running the show, but I am interested in the fact that something is happening, and that people are occupying the streets. That’s the most important thing.”

Unions have found other creative ways to respond, as well.

Derya Demirer, a professor of labor economics at Kocaeli University, recounts how the teachers’ unions were quick to take action to support the students leading the protests. The protests began during the final examination period of Turkey’s academic year, and with thousands of students protesting, occupying or under arrest, it’s posed a unique challenge to the Turkish schools.

“We were on strike on Wednesday, and the final exams were cancelled,” Demirer explains. “The university didn’t cancel the exams, we as the members of the union decided not to have the exams. The union decided, and we just obeyed that decision…then the university decided to give students the chance to have make-up exams for the whole week … Nobody had their exams in our department. We are conscious.”

A litany of issues

Even before the broader protests began, KESK had been campaigning against government plans to introduce regressive changes to Turkey’s labour legislation.

“The government is trying to make jobs more precarious,” says one union activist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other proposals under discussion include plans to change the minimum wage structure.

“They are intending to create a different minimum wage for the Kurdish part of Turkey, because the numbers of the workforce there are much greater than the western Turkish part,” Yucel Demirer explains. “For that reason they are testing the waters – it’s not clear yet but there are too many ugly things happening.”

Istanbul's Taksim Square has been the focal point of protests around the country for the past 12 days. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Istanbul’s Taksim Square (pictured here on June 9) has been the focal point of protests around the country for the past 12 days. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Prof. Derya Demirer also notes there are increasing numbers of unemployed graduates in the public education sector, a result of growing austerity measures by the government in spite of Turkey’s booming economy.

“The government is not employing as many teachers as they used to. This is part of the process that has been going on around the world – governments, the state, just want to get rid of their responsibilities as public providers,” she explains.

“They just want to get rid of public services. It’s happening in education and in all kinds of public services like transportation, communication, just name it. Everything is in the process of being commodified. So education has become commodified too … Even in public schools, people have to pay more for everything in public schools because government does not supply those things, and then the parents – the families – have to pay, more and more.

“They’re working on a new draft of a new higher education law,” she continues. “The unions, my union at least, criticized this new law because it is marketizing university education…[which] will affect job security for the teaching staff, and also academic freedom.”

An atmosphere where individual and democratic liberties are tenuous at best, and where power is concentrated in the hands of government officials, can create an uphill struggle for any opposition.

“In the white collar environment, political power is something that’s very important,” says Yucel Demirer. “For instance, we are the number one union here, but [other unions] are always trying to steal our members by threatening them by using the government’s power. You know, ‘Come to us if you want promotion, if you want job security, if you want this and that.’ This is a big issue and we are the opposition, it is an oppositional stance we are occupying, and they use the discourse of the power.”

Youth power

The protests have challenged other barriers, as well, and not all of them political. One younger union activist describes to me how, in a culture where age has traditionally been accompanied by greater social power than in the west, the leading role young people have played in the protests has created a social revolution within Turkish culture at the same time.

“We are kind of an ageist society,” she explains. “Age is so important. But right now it’s changing. The young people are taking up the important roles, and so it’s changing now.”

Yucel Demirer concurs.

“It’s been said that in the crisis moments, the youth become the teachers of the old ones, and this is happening right now,” he says. “And for that reason, in my culture here in Turkey, we have to support this idea. In the local setting, I’m very careful not to take my stars and my age to any table where I am occupying a place.

“It’s been said that in the crisis moments, the youth become the teachers of the old ones…”

“Maybe for you, coming from a western society, it might not make sense. But here, in this society, there are some barriers that we have to destroy. And this is the moment that it will happen.”

Lordoglu also feels the leading role of youth has signaled a breakthrough for Turkish society.

“Up to now we’ve never seen this before – graffiti, graffiti about the prime minister, people in the streets. It’s astonishing. And before now, I never had hope in young people. My students, for example, always seemed apolitical. They didn’t read. They didn’t write. They adored electronics. It’s a different mentality for us. I’m astonished,” he says.

“Some parents are afraid for their daughters and sons, and others are encouraging their daughters and sons. And other older people, some of them are getting involved as well.”

Will what happens here have an effect on people’s ability to protest?

“Very much so, in my opinion,” Yucel Demirer says. “If this movement hadn’t happened, [the government] would be more aggressive and more repressive. Maybe they would become real dictators, and do anything they wanted.

“There is an unseen earthquake has taken place within the political environment…[that] let us know that there’s a limit for the power structure and political elite,” he continues. “The political elite had started to think there was no limit for them … [I]t showed their limitations to them.”

Kaplan agrees. Whatever the outcome, he says the protests have shown the government the limits of its power, and have shown the rest of Turkey that the struggle for human rights and democracy remains a potent movement that is not going away.

Whatever the outcome, he says the protests have shown the government the limits of its power, and have shown the rest of Turkey that the struggle for human rights and democracy remains a potent movement that is not going away.

“There are many unions that have been struggling with these issues, with the anti-democratic policies of the government. They’ve been struggling for years, for ten years, twenty years, for more,” he explains. “And we got really hopeless about the people, because they were so silent, they never reacted to anti-democratic issues.

“But now everything has changed, because millions of people – what we call the apolitical people – are walking on the streets. They’re everywhere. So this is the lesson for us – that everything can change. This is a hope for all the unions, because the people are not sheep. We are very hopeful now.”

A new future

What’s exciting for the union organizers is that the protests have tapped into an entirely new demographic, and brought thousands of new people into the struggle for rights and democracy.

“The most important part of these local protests [is] that we started seeing faces who’d never been around the room before,” Kaplan says. “That’s the most exciting part to me.”

There are lessons to be learned here, too. According to a recent survey, the vast majority – 70 per cent – of protestors do not claim any political affiliation. To Yucel Demirer, this is something that organized opposition bodies need to take very seriously.

“Seventy percent of the people claimed that they have no political affiliation. They are apolitical. But they do not hesitate to protest,” he says. “For that reason, it’s also a lesson for the opposition. There is a huge group of people who are creative, well-educated, and they are still unattached to the political arena. For that reason, there are lessons for all of us. I have a feeling that it will kind of refresh all of us.

On June 10, a renewed police assault on the protestors began. By Alan Hilditch [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On June 10, a renewed police assault on the protestors began. Photo by Alan Hilditch via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-2.0] .

“As we all know…sooner or later there will be a conclusion, an end to this,” he continues. “But then we need to take some energy from this and use that fresh air to make new organizations and new structures. In the unions, in the political parties, it shows us that we [need to] stop thinking that we have to organize only around political power…there are some regular Joes and Janes around and we have to be interested in them.”

Kaplan does not limit his hopes to Turkey. He dreams that the enthusiasm and spirit of the protests will spread beyond its borders.

“Many African, many European countries have showed their support … This is a really good point for all of us. It shows we are all together – the whole world is together. We’re all very excited …We hope our Gezi Park resisting brings democracy to the whole world.”

As our interview comes to a close, I’m cognizant of the union leader’s comment that this interview could be used against him by the government. I ask him once again whether he’d prefer to remain anonymous. He smiles broadly.

“You can use my name,” he confidently replies. “We’re not afraid. The police, they’re listening to us right now. They record everything, they listen to everything. We stand behind whatever we say. We’re brave. Otherwise we wouldn’t do this. Especially in Turkey.”

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