By Joe Lombardo
For Turkey, Occupy Gezi is an historically unprecedented event as each declaration of defiance issued from the protesters is met with an equally forceful response from the state and the police. These protesters are unique in that their participants are not only resisting the current government, but also the long speeches by trade union bureaucrats. In other cities, there are even reports of attacks on trade unions by various far-right organisations, making political unity seem more tenuous. Additionally, attempts to compare Occupy Gezi with the Arab Spring have yet to isolate a key component that links these events to Egypt or Tunisia, namely, the role of organised labour.
While Occupy Gezi has been largely populist in both class composition as well as rhetoric, workers’ demands in Turkey have hardly been recognized in the deteriorating political situation. Chants of ‘Turkey, resist!’, ‘Government, resign!’ and ‘We are against AKP fascism!’ are shared by most protesters (even the conservative constituency). These chants, including the demands written by the Taksim Solidarity group, have often evoked comparisons to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in the United States in 2011, as well as the more recent revolutionary Tahrir Square and Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. The difference was in the level of participation of organised labour and the working class. OWS also mobilised the trade union movement and, in some instances, such as Occupy Oakland, attempted alternative forms of labour organising. In New York, where OWS began, there was little evidence to suggest that trade union bureaucrats wanted to see anything beyond a few city-sanctioned, unobtrusive street marches, using the energy of OWS but not necessarily sharing its increasing anti-capitalist message. In Egypt, however, there were attempts to move beyond the trade union apparatus, and the working class therefore provided a critical role in eventually ousting the Mubarak regime.
Not Tahrir Square
During Cairo’s Tahrir Square events, a previously-embattled labour front was responsible for laying the foundation for greater working-class involvement in the Egyptian example of the Arab Spring. Unlike Tahrir, Taksim in Istanbul has yet to experience anything of an immediate and equivalent magnitude from Turkish and Kurdish workers. In Egypt, there was a more continuous dynamic with mass strikes from workers leading up to the start of Tahrir Square events in January 2011. Particularly in the industrial cities of El-Mahalla, Suez, Port Said, and Ismailiya, a solidarity campaign took root from those who considered themselves as allies of the working class. As early as 2008, the 6 April Movement, a progressive coalition of Egyptian youth calling for greater democratic rights, threw its weight behind the striking workers of El-Mahalla. Prior to the uprising in Tunisia, Egyptian workers were already in a position to wield more power thanks not only to their own strikes, but also to the support of 6th April. Worker communes and self-management provided leverage to ultimately topple President Mubarak. The same cannot be said of the less robust Turkish Gezi protests, having little outside assistance.
The closest to outside support which the workers movement in Turkey received was the TEKEL wildcat and hunger strikes from late 2009 into 2010. TEKEL, a former state-owned industry which produces alcohol and tobacco products, was purchased in 2008 by British American Tobacco, a private firm. The result of this transfer was the firing of 12,000 workers, who were then ‘offered’ the opportunity, as former state employees, to find work elsewhere in the public sector, at significantly lower wages. The workers, frustrated with the lacklustre attempts by Türk-İş and the refusal of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to budge on concessions, protested with hunger strikes evolving into mass wildcat strikes throughout Turkey.
Throughout the strike, the Kurdish workers formed an organic vanguard with their Turkish comrades and together they pushed through police obstruction and established a massive tent commune in the middle of the capital city, Ankara. In an attempt to assist the workers, Türk-İş, as well as the more left-wing DİSK, failed to provide leadership to the striking workers. Throughout the strike, the workers were subjected to frigid temperatures by water cannons, tear gas, and batons. Within the more active Sakarya Commune, residents sent food to the workers and offered them showers in their apartments, while leftist groups spoke to the workers about socialism principles. By May, however, the strike ended in defeat. The lack of effective networks weakened solidarity, leaving little trace of the TEKEL workers movement in the current Occupy Gezi protests. The opposite happened with the El-Mahalla worers in the Egyptian uprising.
Green shoots from among the cracks?
Some smaller struggles besides Gezi are gaining momentum. Last fall members of the airline union, Hava-İş, started fighting with Turkish Airlines management after 305 co-workers were dismissed from their jobs. The company itself had undergone restructuring, hiring less qualified pilots (not trained by the Turkish Air Force) and enforcing longer hours on its employees with fewer breaks on international flights, at the same, or lower, wages. In March, the rank and file succumbed to government-backed restrictions on the right to strike. Management refused to collectively bargain with the 14,000 workers, which resulted in the strike declaration on 15 May. Meanwhile, the AKP government has shown little interest in mediating between the company and the workers, preferring to enforce industry-wide strike restrictions. This was by no means accidental. In its 11-year rule the AKP’s vast patronage system has reigned throughout the Turkish economy. The results? Its national carrier is owned entirely by Party members with diminished interest in concessions and negotiations.
Hava-İş also played a role in the symbolic but ultimately ineffective two-day general strike that was called by KESK, the left-wing public sector union, on 5 June. These unions, with approximately half a million workers, protested against ‘AKP fascism’. This strike was not spontaneous but had been planned in May, hoping that Occupy Gezi would provide an additional thrust to their struggles. As soon as the strike started, Yusufhan Yılmaz, a young activist from Trabzon, reported that KESK local had been assaulted by a fascist street gang called the Gray Wolves, after a fight broke out between them and left-wing students. Other similar attacks were reported. Union-led rallies in Ankara were disbanded within minutes by the police, who then launched their trademark weapon – pepper gas – into the crowds. In the past several months the KESK and Metal-İş unions experienced attacks and arrests of 71 public sector union leaders on charges of belonging to illegal organisations. The popular media followed a seven-month protracted battle by Metal- İş against Renault, Arçelik and the Türk-İş labour bureaucracy, fighting against a perceived unfair collective bargaining agreement. After impotent responses from the bureaucracy, workers affiliated with Türk-İş announced their decision to decertify, in favour of joining DİSK. This fracture within organised labour is not uncommon for such confederations, often described as ‘sarı sendikaları’ – yellow trade unions. Unfortunately for the workers, the two-day strike was ineffective.
Those workers who called for a general strike make up the precariously-employed. On the eve of 5 June, unemployed workers in Ankara and Istanbul called for a more class-based resistance, which was rmet by a brutal police assault against the working-class Istanbul neighbourhood of Gazi. Contrasting with the many revolutionary signs and flags which until recently flowed from the top of the Atatürk Cultural Centre adjacent to Gezi Park, the incident was an unfortunate reminder of the submerged class divide.
After the forced evacuation and destruction of the camps located in Gezi Park, solidarity events and militancy strengthened in the working-class Ankara neighbourhood of Dikmen. Residents protested over the death of a young working-class activist who was shot in the head on 1 June by police. Solidarity rallies continued in major Kurdish regions of the country, for instance against the construction of another paramilitary base in the area and against killings by riot police.
Examples of solidarity with working-class Turks and oppressed Kurds make Occupy Gezi worthy of creating a more popular movement to address a citizenry already divided by ethnicity and class, with care not to blur these class lines. On the other hand, the working class in Turkey has yet to carve out its own set of demands or establish a militant workers’ movement that could dramatically shift the protests in its favour.
Joe Lombardo is a doctoral student in Middle East history, specializing in the Turkish labor movement during the Cold War. As an active labor organizer, he is involved in different working-class organizations and solidarity campaigns in the United States and in Turkey. He currently resides in New York City.