Tuesday June 4th saw the first organised union participation in the Taksim Uprising. What had been scheduled as a strike against neoliberal reforms by teachers’ union Egitim Sen before the mass protests became a two day general strike against state violence by two major confederations. Our journos on the ground, Reuben and Gielty, filed this earlier today.
The largest union mobilisations came in Taksim Square, Istanbul and the capital Ankara. They were called by Kesk and Disk, the two leftwing confederations in Turkey, and saw around 10,000 march in both cities. Their arrival was seen as the logical next step for the protests with work stoppages at lunchtime on both days. On Tuesday and Wednesday these confederations were joined in solidarity by the architects and engineers’ union and sections of the medical workers. Thursday saw a continuation of union involvement in the uprising when university lecturers organised a march on Taksim Square at 6pm, thousands taking to Istiklal Avenue where mass mobilisations and street battles had taken place last weekend.
Despite this the strikes and involvement of organised labour did not bring the level of support to the movement many speculated it might. The Taksim Uprising remained largely out of the workplaces, looking unlikely to replicate the crowds that took to the streets on Saturday yet alone deepen the radicalisation of the population beyond this. It needs another big moment but this week demonstrated that the unions were unlikely to provide it.
The trade union movement in Turkey is fractured and complex. There are six major confederations, whose political allegiances are indicated by the sites of their May Day mobilisations. Islamist linked MemurSen and Hakis meet in Izmir, an AKP stronghold. The Kemalists and nationalists in TÜRK-İŞ and KamuSen prefer the capital city of Ankara. Leftists in Kesk and Disk march to Taksim Square, and they battle police when their meetings there are banned. Union density is low across the board.
The largest confederation is the private sector TÜRK-İŞ, who count one and a half million members in their ranks and were the only union to survive the 1980 military coup under state sanction. They are close to the two leading opposition parties the Kemalist, republican CHP and the ultra nationalist MHP.
MemurSen are the largest union in the public sector but their membership numbers are not publicly available. Their closeness to the ruling AKP is illustrated by the fact that their dues are paid directly by the state. While the other union close to Erdogan’s government, HakIs, were admitted to the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) and International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) in the late nineties, MemurSen’s applications have been rejected. In 2011 the ITUC management committee deemed them not “independent enough”.
The state wants to be able to negotiate with and manage workers, but not on their terms. So it persecutes autonomous unions while incentivising workers to join the pro establishment ones. Their campaign of harassment against Kesk and Disk, the left wing public and private sector unions respectively, was reflected in WikiLeaks’ 2010 Cablegate releases. In one instance a specific instruction was issued in a communication between governors to “warn, arrest and punish any member of Kesk… who take part in stoppages or slowdowns.”
Sevim Kahan is an economist and Kesk member. On the 19th of February, police came to her house and started banging on the door, threatening to break it down.”They pointed guns at my daughter, handcuffed me and ransacked the house.Then they took me to the police station and took my fingerprints. I tried to resist but they used force.”
54 teachers and economists were also arrested that day. Not only mere members, all are organisational secretaries of Kesk. They were accused of being members of the Revolutionary Liberation Party Front (DHCP); a Marxist-Leninist group which is listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey. It has conducted assassinations since the late 80’s, and bombed the American embassy last February.
“We are just teachers and economists, we have been working for 15 to 25 years. We are members of Kesk, not terrorists. When we were arrested, they didn’t ask us about terrorism, they asked us about our union activities.”
They were held for four days and protested their detention by refusing food. The selection then between those who were released and those held seemed arbitrary, and lawyers were denied access to to the prosecution folders. Sevim was also not technically present during her trial, but rather, was teleconferenced from the jail. The only evidence presented against her was an encrypted CD with her name written on it, but during the trial, people were brought into the courtroom and she was asked to identify those who were Kesk members.
Sevim was released on the 2nd of June, but she heard about what was happening at Gezi Park while imprisoned. She is skeptical that it will produce substantial change, “but” she notes, “it is a spark.”
There have been significant labour battles in Turkey in recent years. Workers in Tekel, the state alcohol and tobacco monopoly, fought layoffs, flexibilisation reforms and wage cuts when it was part privatised in 2009. In October a series of public sector strikes resulted in the trade union laws of the post-1980 coup, being replaced with new legislation extending rights to strike, collectively bargain and set-up. Another dispute regarding Turkish Airlines may not have been organised as successfully as the unions hoped but it has still seen a large number of workers engaged in protracted industrial action.
Despite this it is widely accepted here that unions are declining in influence in Turkey. The larger ones coopted by political forces whose interests only occasionally overlap with workers, the smaller and more radical ones subject to state harassment. Turkey has also experienced a boom based on promarket policies that has undermined organising and agitating as tactics for achieving wage increases.
The Taksim Uprising is a young movement and in its relationship with it, Turkish unions experience some of the same problems affecting organised labour across the world. The average age of the Turkish population is 29, with half under 25. Parttime employment is on the rise while numbers in the informal economy are much higher than even the worst of the EU states and youth unemployment is above 25%. Trade unions have responded slowly to the precarity of this young workforce and, as such, have seen a greying membership.
The role of unions in the Taksim Uprising is complicated by the fact that it isn’t directly about class conflict. Certainly, its informing grievances touch on class issues from the restructuring of a city that robs people of their public spaces, to police brutality and harassment of organised labour and leftwing groups, and not being allowed to protest.
But at its core this is still a revolt against authority and the restrictions it has imposed. Scrawled on the Institut Frainçais near Taksim square is a quote from Freidrich Nietzsche: “We strive for the forbidden”. If the workers are to join the Taksim Uprising they will have to embrace that liberatory spirit, as they did in Paris in May ’68. After this week just passed, it does not look likely.This article was written pseudonymously by Irish journalists Ronan Burtenshaw and Tommy Gavin because of safety concerns.