May Day and changing unions in Turkey

May Day and changing unions in Turkey

This year’s May Day celebrations posed a big challenge to workers’ unions in Turkey. Should they turn it into a show of force against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government? Or should they go back to pressing for their own rights and own agenda? Turkey’s leading unions, DİSK, TÜRK-İŞ and KESK, opted for the second choice. 

Taksim Square has been and forever will be the holy site of Turkey’s unions. Ever since the bloody massacre in 1977 that took 34 lives, the memory of Turkey’s leftist movement has been haunted by the struggle to get back to Taksim. This is not just related to reminiscing about the good old days of former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, when the left was flying high, but also about the solidarity between different social groups that filled the square: From movie stars to writers, from coal mine workers to farmers, more than a million men and women came together in Taksim in 1977. 

Since then, the square has been completely off-limits to workers and leftist groups, with two exceptions in 2010 and 2011. Just before the Gezi Park protests broke out in 2013, the AK Party had started to get edgy and banned Taksim on May Day. It remains a no-fly, no-park, no-protest zone.

Why didn’t the unions push for Taksim this year? The answer is hidden in the results of the recent referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system. DİSK, and KESK were open naysayers, while TÜRK-İŞ was somewhat undecided (but probably voted no). This coalition reads the results of the referendum as a potential bargaining ground for better working conditions, better severance payment and retirement packages, job security, women’s employment, and a more decisive fight against child labor, etc. So instead of a symbolic and never-ending fight against the AK Party, the workers unions have decided to use their bargaining power as leverage for their members.

The Turkish Statistics Institute’s (TÜIK) latest report showed the poverty threshold for a four-member family as being 1,500 liras (less than $500 per month). In a country where the minimum wage has recently been raised to 1,300 liras, workers are almost like the Houdinis of making ends meet. Trade and workers unions are aware of the acute fact of diminishing membership if they do not push for workers’ rights and instead opt to wade into the daily grind of politics.

The referendum also showed signs of early solidarity in the ranks of city dwellers. Many white and blue-collar workers in big cities voted together against the constitutional changes, which almost pushed the AK Party over the edge. The research conducted by IPSOS for CNN Türk proved once again that when economic trouble emerges, workers do not hesitate to cross party lines and demonstrate their discontent. In cities like Istanbul, Adana and Mersin, blue-collar workers were the silent engines of the “no” vote. 

Hakan Bayrakçı, the founder of the SONAR research company, has said the 2019 local election could be a game-changer in places where workers traditionally vote for the AK Party or the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

So the scene is set for a new and renewed labor union movement. Speaking on CNN Türk, KESK co-chair Lami Sezgin also stressed the need for a better solution to the Kurdish issue, while DİSK chair Kani Beko urged the government to drop the ongoing state of emergency. “Turkey can do better,” he said. “We do not deserve to be locked into this situation.”