Turkey’s Unions in a Time of Imperialist War

On October 4th Turkish unions across all sectors rallied in Ankara. Their message to the ruling party Ministry of Labour was loud and clear: Reform draconian labour laws and release jailed KESK union members (Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions). Reforms include: rights to collective bargaining; scrapping a law stating 51% of employees must favour unionization to become a unionized workplace; right to a general strike. Despite these demands are in accordance with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and European Social Charter, the ruling government has little intention to act. Jailed KESK union members, including their leader, were arrested in raids earlier this year and labeled members of the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan) terrorist organization. Strangely the ruling government seems determined to divide the nation despite fiery rhetoric others are “bolucu” (dividers).

By Coincidence

Mid-afternoon on October 3rd, one day before the planned rally and after months of border tension with Syria and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) attacks on the Turkish military and vice versa, canon artillery from Syria was allegedly fired inside the Turkish border killing five civilians in Akcakale. What ensued on the evening of October 3rd was an emergency meeting in Ankara and phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A statement came from Clinton, confirming the U.S. would stand behind Turkey’s right to self-defense.

That same evening a Presidential Debate between Romney and Obama was in full swing. On October 4th the union rally in Ankara also included anti-war protest that spread to Istanbul, as union members and protesters were met with tear gas. Of 71 imprisoned KESK members, six were released on October 5th. On October 4th a closed meeting in the congress, excluded the CHP (main opposition party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) while AKP ruling party and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) united to vote in a bill allowing Turkey to defend herself in a war situation (tezkere). The Bill skirts around the Turkish Constitution. As the vote was skewed with 320 (in favour) and 129 (against), the ruling party got their way. The Prime Minister announced to the press the next day he had no intention of going to war. It was a measure taken just in case the need should arise. The bill is valid for one year.

Turkey’s Unions: A Lot at Stake

Turkish unions are in a dire situation. Not from lack of class-consciousness or class struggle but sabotage under the ruling party and ‘democracy deliverers’ from abroad. The ‘usual suspects’ (U.S., UK, EU, Canada, IMF, World Bank) advertize and support ruling party re-democratization of the nation to be a model for the Middle East. Despite alleged re-democratization, Turkey’s earlier democracy was tainted with similar neoliberal policies many nations faced. Cold War politics and uprising of the ‘68 generation eventually led to a 1980 coup d’état. Turkish Military Generals took control while the neoliberal government of Turgut Özal took power (some believed CIA masterminded). Thousands of the ‘68 generation were arrested, jailed, tortured and/or fled the country. Under Ozal’s ANAP (Motherland Party) in 1984 Kurdish separatists began a guerilla warfare against the Turkish state. Since then, rampant inflation in the 1990s and continued neoliberal policy under coalition governments has seen a constant reduction of unionized labour; over 25% in 1980 to barely 5% today. Turkish unions were stifled as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stifled British and U.S. unions. There is no need to slander Turkey as unique on labour issues.

Turkey’s sovereignty is heavily reliant on the strength of organized labour as a way of securing stability. Working-class people of Turkey have been defiant in uniting and reviving their pre-1980 strength to fight the storm of global economic depression, putting identity/ethnic politics aside, in a growing awareness all are subject to oppression. Exemplar resistance was that of TEKEL (Turkish tobacco workers) in the heart of Ankara (Sakarya Commune) during the winter of 2009/10 (78 days). Evidence of a re-unification of the working-class (inclusive of every ethnic group), it brought over 2,000 workers from all four corners of Turkey to fight the closure of their factories (after buy-out from British American Tobacco). Thousands across the nation (inclusive of every ethnic group) came out in support and to condemn Bill C-4 (short-term work contracts) and wages reduced to almost half. TEKEL workers defied their own unions and acted in solidarity as streets teamed for months in protest.

But as Turkey’s working-class begins to unite across all sectors, so does a rise in accidental deaths on the job, alleged fires at work places, explosions at factories and freedom to join unions. Not only recent KESK arrests but also last year 25 members of Egitim-Sen Teachers’ Union were tried and jailed for 6 years on anti-terrorism laws. KCK is regularly employed as an excuse to arrest anyone who seeks freedom of speech, unjust action against unionization and/or union members, the right to investigative journalism, protest against rising student fees, unjust work conditions, to list a few. There are well over 770
students jailed, along with university professors and intellectuals. Seen as
subversive elements whose only wish is to undermine the ruling government,
their struggle is for democracy and to shelter one another through working-class solidarity against bosses, imperialism and war. While Ahmet Sik,
a few other journalists and intellectuals like Professor Busra Ersanli have been recently released, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the ruling party being democratically elected and in power since 2002, in grasping cultural nuances within Turkey, their rise to power stems from several reasons. 1) a “return of the repressed”[1] – allegedly a chance for less well-to-do Anatolians to have a go in government;
2) growing disillusionment with the West after the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq in the war on terror; 3) growing social antagonisms and inequality; 4) a majority ruling government (non-coalition) has well-sustained and stable GDP growth at 8% boosting Turkish confidence, although numbers recently fell to 3% (September). Turkey’s economic influence and success in the Middle East came from alliances with predator capitalism, deregulation and privatization along with large amounts of capital inflow from Arab nations. A pseudo sub-imperialist (sub-contractor) in the region, Turkey acquired construction and infrastructure projects from the ‘usual suspects’ and profited handsomely in resource extraction and pipeline deals.

Twenty-first century imperialism triggered Turkey’s neo-empire past. She became a member of the G20 gaining political and financial clout. A long time member of NATO, playing her Ottoman card to foster internal stability amongst ethnic groups and regional business interests, how independent is Turkey? Unfortunately, Turkey appears to be NATO’s trump card to the collapse of Syrian and Iranian regimes and perhaps Libya in North Africa. The Wall Street Journal, in August of this year, praised Turkish attitudes, “We are bored of bloodless internationalism, of imitating the West in everything. We are finally, dare I say, going back to our roots,” further stating, “Turkey has done everything right: We made democracy work; we made a modern economy; we liberated women; we even have one of the world’s top biennials. There is tension, but we’ll overcome it.”[2] After a summer of terror attacks between the PKK and the Turkish Military, her public has been acclimatized to escalated levels of violence. What of ruthless ‘democracy bringers’ and lucrative business deals? Is it possible to trust the ‘usual suspects’?

Defiant Resistance Continues

Turkey’s unions reconvened on October 17th in continued protest to voice their demand for reform to labour laws in cities like Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Adana, Gaziantep and Istanbul. In many other industrial regions across the country like Tuzla, work was slowed
for several hours in support. Employees are struggling for the right to build unions at international corporations like DHL, IKEA, Shell and Burger King, to name a few. Might their Canadian counterparts do the same at their end in the same corporations? Professor Ursula Hews called for precisely such action at a Coalition of Resistance meeting here in
London last fall. No need to smash Starbucks windows… It takes more bravery to organize their employees!

Fully aware of the legal right to assemble as unions, Turkey’s working-class realize their main card in fighting off all other forms of illegal extremism and terror rests in assembling as unions. However as they unite, simultaneously the PKK and Turkish military step up attacks, resulting in loss of life on both sides. The PKK appear uninterested in a peaceful solution for Kurdish rights. Yet there are over 600 inmates in Turkish prisons some of which are on a hunger strike since September 12th for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. Recently protesters in London have been supporting the strike. On October 27th Egitim-Sen Teachers’ union along with other unions united in protest in Istanbul, Izmir and many cities in the East for a peaceful solution. Who will hear these voices, should
war discourse take over the media? Why is the foreign press teaming with visuals of recent skirmishes but ignored earlier bloodshed? Add the contentious
stunt-film on Islam… one might be inclined to think there is NO working-class struggle against bosses, war and imperialism in Turkey. But that would be complete and utter fallacy!

Unions and Education: A Will to Win

In Britain, students have quickly bowed down to high tuition fees, as they pay new annual tuition of £7,000–10,000. Only in 1998 education was free here. Until 1996, students paid a nominal sum for tuition at state universities in Turkey. As a growing number of citizens express discontent with the ruling party, as most sectors have been
privatized, unlike any other government to date in the history of the Republic. Public education is under threat just as in the U.S., maybe on par with the States. Chicago’s teacher strike rejected Charter Schools. One of Turkey’s new education reforms known as 4+4+4 over the long-term, aims to privatize public education. Revamping education allows for more religious schools, which will fundamentally set Turkey back against her progress made in the 20th century.

As Foundation Universities[3] struggle to unionize, Istanbul Bilgi University was victim to the first of such corporate education take-overs by a for-profit U.S. university chain, since its affiliation with Laureate Education Inc.[4] in 2009. For-profit education is illegal under the Turkish Constitution. Not only has the quality of education dropped, employees face, short-term contracts which may or may not be renewed; loss of academic freedom; lower wages; increased workload; rise in taxes; lost job security to outsourcing; unlawful job termination. Currently reshuffling programs or cutting them, sacked employees have been protesting at Bilgi University for over 45 days. Other universities (state and foundation) are protesting similar grievances.

Imperialist Wars

Tensions are mounting from all sides from continued destabilization in the region. There is an ever-pressing need for working-class solidarity to strengthen unions. It is no wonder, then, unions are being divided on ethnic lines (some as allegedly KCK terrorists). In so doing the ruling classes, in effect divide working-class solidarity which risks dividing the country. Renewed attacks from the PKK, as the civil war in Syria rages on, the ‘usual suspects’ fully support Turkey’s involvement in the war. Supposedly ‘war-weary,’ do they need to ‘sub-contract’ their wars to other NATO members to do their imperialist dirty work? The Free Syrian Army, allegedly funded by a bankrupt (financially and morally) United States government, is doled out quantitatively eased (printed money) that keeps the war going. American/German historian William Engdahl[5] believes instability in the region might be one desired strategy, as new sources for oil will be driven elsewhere.

No coincidence all summer long, Canada held Big Brother imperialist Britain’s hand whilst remapping the Arctic, deluding the Canadian public they were looking for lost shipwrecks. A desire for peace in the Middle East has precisely nothing to do with peace and probably not too much to do with Iran either. Rather control over Russia and China; how to win in a currency war; and Israeli agriculture/water resource expansion in the region. Can neo-Ottomanism possibly be ‘going it’s own way’ or is it entangled in a geopolitical clutch under US/UK/EU/Canadian Imperialism in crisis?

Some Turkish business elites do want war! The working-class people of Turkey do not want war (76% against). Corporate media doesn’t portray it that way. Media could sabotage possible Turkish involvement only later to condemn it. Isn’t that what happened to Pakistan? Turkey’s working people need your solidarity. They need you to challenge your own corrupt governments, not to sit passively while ‘usual suspect’ foreign policy funds groups to create more bloodshed. Remember Yves Engler stated a Canadian clean foreign policy never existed.[6] Don’t think war economy profits will trickle down. Most certainly we do not need drone technology. But if imperialists get their way and their foreign policies of aggression prevail, it will mean your children and grandchildren will need a pair of boots!


If working people don’t join in solidarity with unions
in Turkey and other countries, they shoot themselves in the foot. Unions don’t divide people, as government would have it. Unions unite, not only in class
solidarity and bargaining power but also against terrorist extremism and war. It’s not only about pay cuts or a contract. Unionization is about making a safer world.  It stops the ‘usual suspects’ bringing democracy from bringing terror! Unions are in trouble everywhere. While Canadians lose homes, stability and
work, others stand to lose their lives. Millions across the globe need your cooperation to challenge your government. Don’t stop where the ‘buck stops.’ Cultures and civilizations, humanity in its truest sense is at risk.

War and austerity are one and the same. It isn’t just about your son or daughter coming home from war. It’s about everyone’s son and daughter.
Forget identity politics of ethnicity or religion preached in Uncle Sam’s Clash of Civilizations (1993). Forget pedestrian films demonizing Islam. Remember, “An injury to one is an injury to
all.” Remember spinmaster Ignatieff not so long ago dropped his poison into a glass of war discourse and stated it was possible to “engage in preventive detention” as we might even have to “engage in certain forms of targeted assassination of terrorists.”[7] A failed politician… what of the war discourse he advertized?

What happens if a union member is allegedly labeled a ‘terrorist’ in Turkey, Greece, Spain, Egypt, Pakistan, Colombia, South Africa, China, United States or Canada? Will you consent to such labels and policy? Don’t blame a foreign government alone as your government is equally involved. Remember the 1931 Bienfait, Saskatchewan Estevan miners strike. Workers died there! Shot by the RCMP! Annie Buller union organizer, who traveled across Canada, organizing textile and mining workers, was convicted and did time in North Battleford prison. But that was then and this is now. History doesn’t always exactly repeat. North Battleford prison wasn’t targeted with ‘surgical precision’ drone attack from an inhumane aggressor nation bringing democracy… now was it? •


Slavoj Zizek uses the term in psychoanalysis to indicate what is repressed in the unconscious always returns in a new form. As those in power now aim to represent the underprivileged of Anatolia, they were once less fortunate and economically demeaned. Now they seek their time in the
sun. In reality there is a split in two dominant classes and their business interests; TUSIAD (Turkish Industry and Business Association) and MUSIAD (Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) – Secularist versus warm-Islamist.

Lawrence Osborne, Dreaming in Ottoman: Istanbul at a Crossroads, Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012.

Foundation universities opened in the 1990s. They were part of an effort to break state-run universities, an outcome of neoliberal policy and a step-change in education. Initially they attracted/pilfered some of the best professors from State universities, leaving State run universities depleted. Foundation universities were initially only partially privatized, established by large family enterprises to educate students as elite employees for those enterprises. Capital earned (by law) was to be invested back into the university.

See website: www.laureate.net.

See William Engdahl, Myths, Lies and Oil Wars, Germany, edition:engdahl, 2012.

See Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (2009).

Michael Ignatieff on Charlie Rose.

Anita Oǧurlu is a writer living in Istanbul.