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Turkey: trade unionism on trial

As the Erdogan government in Turkey takes an increasingly authoritarian turn, trade unionists have been in the firing line. But a mass trial in Istanbul, little noticed by the international media, has not gone entirely the government’s way.

Enemy within?: outside the trade unionists' trial in Istanbul. Photo: Eric Lee.

Members of KESK, the Turkish public-sector trade union, have reason to celebrate. A court In Istanbul has decided to release 23 union members held in jail for nearly a year. Six of their colleagues—three men, three women—remain imprisoned, however, until at least early May. And a very large number are awaiting trial on various charges.

The episode began nearly a year ago, following a suicide bombing at the US embassy in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The bomb left two dead (one the attacker) and three injured. The Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C)—the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front—admitted responsibility. The DHKP-C, which has pursued violence for over three decades, has been branded a terrorist organisation not only by the Turkish government but by the European Union and the US as well.

Pretext

Nothing links the DHPK-C to KESK but the bombing provided a pretext for the anti-union government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use the country’s excessively broad anti-terror laws to crack down on an old enemy. KESK and its affiliated teachers’ union have been a thorn in the side of the AK Party government—strongly opposing unpopular neo-liberal policies, in education and elsewhere, which it has been trying to push through. Hundreds of leaders of KESK and the teachers had already been arrested following protests in Ankara.

Days after the bombing, police swept through KESK offices across the country and many trade unionists were arrested at home—nearly 170 were caught up in the raids. Many of the detainees were swiftly released and others arrested in provincial towns were eventually sent home to await trial. But in Istanbul the police decided that 29 KESK leaders were simply too dangerous to be let out on to the streets. At the request of global and European unions, LabourStart launched an online campaign, which generated nearly 13,000 protest messages.

The charges

That’s why I found myself sitting last month in a tiny, hot, airless hearing room inside the largest courthouse in Europe. The charges against the 56 KESK leaders (half of whom were on bail) were membership of an illegal organisation, making propaganda for that organisation and, in some cases, being leaders of it. The trade unionists denied all the charges.

It had taken nearly a year for the arrested KESK members to have their day in court. The three judges confirmed the identities of those standing trial and then allowed them, one by one, to state their cases.

The first was a schoolteacher who spoke at length about the history of the Turkish trade-union movement, crushed first by the military dictatorship in the 1980s and now again by the Islamist government. The lead judge interrupted her, asking how long she would go on as he was keen to take a break. “As long as I need,” she replied. “I have a lot to say!”

Her speech met rousing applause from an audience which included trade unionists from a number of European countries. During the break, they joined hundreds of KESK members in a protest on the plaza opposite the courthouse.

Pesky KESK

Though the demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Down with fascism”, Turkey is clearly not a fascist state. (Fascist states don’t allow demonstrations of this type.) But Turkey is a state that recognises few of the internationally-accepted rights for workers and won’t allow civil servants, for example, to have a collective-bargaining agreement.

There is no question that the Erdogan government is trying to break the union by jailing its leaders. As one of the visiting European union representatives put it, it’s an attempt to “decapitate” the troublesome KESK.

These trials, like those which preceded them, have been ignored by the mainstream media. In Turkey, this is to be expected, as the media are in the grip of AK. But few journalists in Europe and elsewhere have shown any interest in these events. Apparently, unless blood flows in the streets—as it did last spring in Taksim Square and Gezi Park—Turkey is of no interest to the world.

About the author

Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

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