An attempt to decapitate: Turkey’s trade unions on trial

by Eric Lee

Police in action against KESK demonstrators Thursday

Police in action against KESK demonstrators Thursday

On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel.  An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions.  The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.


I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers.  The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization.  A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.


The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state.  The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States.


On 1 February 2013, the organization carried out a suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara, killing one person in addition to the attacker and injuring three.

A few days later, Turkish police launched raids across the country targetting the offices of KESK — a fiercely independent union which has challenged the Erdogan government’s policies in a number of areas, most notably in education.


There are no proven links between any of the KESK defendants and the DHKP-C.  According to the union, their members are being framed and their only real crime is the militant defense of KESK members against the ongoing attack by the government.


Following the arrests, at the request of global and European unions, LabourStart launched an online campaign that generated nearly 13,000 protest messages.


Some 167 KESK activists were detained, most were released, and 56 of them are awaiting trial.  Of those, 29 have been held in prison for nearly a year.  Naturally their families, union leaders, journalists and others wanted to attend the opening of the trial.  But the court decided to hold it in one of the smallest chambers they had, cramming in dozens of people, forcing many to stand in a hot, airless room.


The three judges confirmed the identities of those standing trial and then allowed the defendants one by one to state their cases.  The first was a school teacher 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 Erdogan 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 ended with rousing applause from the audience, which included a trade union delegation from a number of European countries.  During the break, the trade unionists joined hundreds of KESK members on the plaza opposite the courthouse in a protest.

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 recognizes few of the internationally-accepted rights for workers, and won’t allow civil servants, for example, to have a collective bargaining agreement.

The trial in Istanbul is part of a broader series of trials that include some 500 KESK members.


There is no question that the Erdogan government is trying to break the union by jailing its leaders.  As one of the European union leaders 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 is in the grip of Erdogan’s AK Party.  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.

Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site

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