From the TUC

Turkish trade unionists on trial: the second stage begins

25 Jan 2014, By

Protests outside the courthouse. Photo DISK

Protests outside the courthouse. Photo DISK

As Sean Bamford wrote last week, the Turkish state’s war on the KESK public sector union entered a new phase with the opening of the trial in Istanbul of dozens of activists arrested in early 2013. I had the privilege of joining with trade unionists from across the European Union as well as a representative of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), to observe the opening of the trial.

The ITUC is calling on trade unionists to protest to the Turkish Prime Minister about the judicial harassment of trade unions, and you should add your name and encourage colleagues to do the same.

The 56 KESK members on trial in Istanbul are accused of membership in an illegal organisation, and making propaganda for that organisation. A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the Devrimci Halk Kurtulu Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, which has since 1978 conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state. The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organisation not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States.

On 1 February 2013, the DHKP-C 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 targeting 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. The teachers union is part of KESK, and for that reason a representative of Britain’s NASUWT attended this trial and the earlier one in Ankara.

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 defence of their 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. Public Services International (PSI) has summarised the issues behind the trial.

Some 167 KESK activists were detained in February, though most were released. Today 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. During the break, the trade unionists joined hundreds of KESK members on the plaza opposite the courthouse in a protest. Among the speakers were representatives of the European public services union EPSU, the Swedish public sector union and the ITUC.

Though the demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Resistance until victory” and “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 recognises few of the internationally-accepted rights for workers, and won’t allow civil servants, for example, to have a collective bargaining agreement. Turkey’s flagrant disregard for international labour standards has frequently brought it to the attention of the International Labour Organisation.

The trial in Istanbul is part of a broader series of trials that include some 500 KESK members, as Sean reported. There is no question that the Erdogan government is trying to break the union by jailing its leaders. Nearly all the key KESK leaders have been charged with one thing or another. As one of the European union leaders put it, it’s clearly 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 Britain, 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.