STEPHEN SMELLIE reports from Istanbul on the state-sponsored abuse and terror meted out there against trade unions and their brave activists
THE Turkish government could teach David Cameron a thing or two about trade union laws designed to stop unions organising.
While we campaign to stop the Trade Union Bill in Britain, in Turkey the unions deal with laws which determine what union workers can join, and some are banned from striking. The government of AKP President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promotes a rival union confederation, Memur Sen, which competes with every other union to show how loyal it is to the government and as a result members of this “yellow union” get promoted before members of any other union.
In addition those union activists in the progressive unions of Disk and Kesk confederations suffer police harassment and where they take part in the social movements or support the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) they face physical attack and arrest.
On a recent delegation to Diyarbakir in the Kurdish south east of Turkey this point was highlighted by a member from the Kesk-affiliated health union SES, who reported that his branch office had been raided by the police, the door smashed in and staff and members terrorised on Monday September 21. The police claimed to be looking for terrorists.
The Turkish government has over the past few weeks unleashed a violent attack on Kurdish activists in Turkey. This has been alongside the aerial bombardment of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in Iraq. As progressives who supported the peace process and gave support to the HDP in the June election, trade unionists in Diyarbakir have been drawn into this conflict.
Ramazan Kiziltepe, co-president of the Disk health union branch in Diyarbakir, told our delegation that the unions opposed war and that no-one should die. However he said: “We are fighting government terrorism.”
Disk activist Zeynep Denirakger explained how she had visited the town of Cizre, which the army had kept under curfew for eight days and where snipers had shot people, including children, in the street and then fired on anyone going to help them. At least one of the children killed was the son of a Disk member and the union was now trying to organise material and psychological support for the family.
Union activists in Kesk, who are only allowed to recruit in the public sector, and Disk, who are only allowed to recruit in the private sector, are fearful that the current situation will get worse in the weeks running up to the recalled general election on November 1. They believe that the government is intent on using the increasing violence in an attempt to regain votes lost to the HDP and to take half the seats in parliament: a task made easier by the electoral system that denies any party with less than 10 per cent of the vote nationally any seats.
Both Kiziltepe and Denirakger believe that unions outside Turkey have a role to play in supporting them in their struggle with the government. Kiziltepe said: “We are waiting for other trade unions in other countries to help us.”
In a recorded message, Denirakger — in halting English — appealed to workers elsewhere: “We don’t want in this land war anymore … We ask for trade union solidarity from workers in Scotland and Britain.”
Sometimes international solidarity is more than passing motions at conferences and signing petitions on social media. The Turkish trade unions are in a struggle with an anti-trade union government that uses war against its own citizens for electoral advantage. It is caught up in that war and the unions and their members are suffering as a result. Trade unions in Britain and the rest of Europe, can make a difference if they respond to the call from their sisters and brothers in Turkey.
Disk, Kesk and two other labour movement organisations (comprising engineers and doctors) have called a demonstration in Ankara on October 10 to protest for peace. Messages of support would be a start.
However, in the days before the November election visitors from British trade unions to their sister unions in Turkey would help to focus the world’s attention on the violence and human rights breaches they are suffering as they campaign for peace and for a democratic solution to the problems in Turkey and its Kurdish regions.
Stephen Smellie is chair of Unison Scotland’s social work issues group.