Turkey: significant strike action against the background of government attempts to defuse the movement

June 5, the 9th day of the mass movement against the authoritarian and reactionary government of Erdogan, was marked by joint strike action by KESK and DISK trade unions, while different government figures were busy trying to contain the movement with talk of concessions.

During the weekend there had been lots of discussions about the need for the calling of a general strike. The people in the squares instinctively understood that such a move would be the logical next step for the movement. By a lucky coincidence the public sector workers’ union confederation KESK had already called for a national 24hour strike on June 5 in defence of collective bargaining rights which are under attack by the right-wing Muslim government of the AKP. An emergency meeting of its national leadership then decided to widen the scope of the strike and to bring forward its start to June 4 at 12 noon. The Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions, DISK, also joined in the call for strike action against the brutal repression of the AKP government.

Finally, there was a joint statement signed by KESK, DISK, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) calling for warning strike action, workplace assemblies and mass demonstrations “against AKP fascism”.

Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike and tens of thousands participated in demonstrations across the country. According to KESK, strike action took place “from Edirne (near the Greek border) to Kars (next to Armenia), from Ardahan (near Georgia) to Hakkari (next to Iraq), from Ankara to Bursa, from Istanbul to Van (on the border with Iran), from Antalya in the Mediterranean to Trabzon on the Black Sea, from Izmir on the Agean to Diyarbakir (in the South East)”, reflecting the genuine countrywide spread of the movement.

The decision of KESK to put itself at the forefront of the movement is to be praised, particularly taking place at a time when dozens of leading KESK members nationally and in the provinces are in jail accused of belonging to “terrorist organizations” after being arrested in February.

While this was not a full general strike, which cannot really take place without the participation of the main trade union confederation Turk-Is, it was certainly a massive action in which hundreds of thousands of workers took part on demands that went beyond the initial trade union issues and have become openly political.

There were huge daytime demonstrations in the main cities with workers gathering outside their workplaces and marching towards the main squares.

VIDEO: KESK and DISK march to Taksim Sq

VIDEO: KESK march in Antalya

VIDEO:  KESK march into Taksim on June 4

The entry of the DISK columns into Taksim Square was particularly significant and moving, as this is the place of the 1977 May Day massacre and the union had been brutally attacked by the police on May Day this year when trying to march to the square. (video)

Even though this was the 9th day of the movement, there were again tens of thousands on the streets of the main cities in evening demonstrations, showing that the movement is still alive. A comrade in Istanbul said that “Istiklal Avenue was more or less half full. But Taksim and Gezi Park were so packed that one could hardly walk. There was chanting, dancing, discussions, laughing.” Having forced the police out of the square was the first victory of the movement and the masses are proud of their gain.

Of smiles, handshakes, tear gas and water cannons

Meanwhile, the government has been using all resources at their disposal to try to contain and defuse the movement. While Prime Minister Erdogan has been away on a 4-day visit to North African countries, the president Abdullah Gül and the deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç have made conciliatory speeches and met with opposition party leaders.

Arınç even went as far as publicly apologizing for the use of tear gas in the repression of the movement and held a meeting with representatives from the Gezi Park protest. The meeting was used by the government to give an image of “listening to the concerns of the people,” while in reality nothing has fundamentally changed and no real concessions have been made. Arınç stated that the building project at Gezi Park had “been stopped,” but didn’t say it had been abandoned, and promised “a full investigation into those responsible for police excesses” against the protestors. He also stated that “the police will also not intervene unless there is violence or damage to public property by the protesters,” an empty promise which was only partially respected in Istanbul, but broken openly elsewhere.

These are in reality empty words designed to deactivate the movement and show that the ruling clique is worried not to provoke an escalation of the movement.

As they were coming out of the meeting, representatives of the Taksim platform made it clear that the movement was no longer just about the question of Gezi Park but also related to “the stance against the war policy for our country and the demands for peace, the sensitivity of our Alevi citizens, the rightful demands of victims of urban transformation, the voices rising against conservative male politicians controlling women’s bodies, the resistance against the requirements on universities, judiciary and artists, the demands vis-à-vis seizure of rights of all the working class including Turkish Airlines (THY) workers, the struggle against all sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and requests for removal of obstacles to citizens’ access to education and health services”.

Basically they are saying that the movement is against all of the policies of the government, which is correct, and this also means that the government has no real room for making significant concessions which will address all of the demands of the protestors.

Furthermore, these are hypocritical weasel words, destined to fool public opinion. The real policy of the reactionary government can be seen in the brutal repression with which demonstrations were met outside of Istanbul. In Ankara for instance, there was a completely unprovoked police charge against the trade union demonstration (video). In Adana, Dersim, Antakya and other cities the police also charged against the demonstrations. In Antakya the attacks were against the funeral procession of Abdullah Cömert, the 22 year old CHP youth activist killed there two days ago by gunshot.

In Izmir, ten thousand, mainly youth, marched through the city to loud applause and support from residents in their balconies, shouting slogans against “Chemical Erdogan”, against the “sold out media”, “shoulder to shoulder, against fascism” and demanding the resignation of the government. At the end of the demo there was an attack by the police with tear gas and water cannons and clashes which lasted well into the night.

This is the real face of the AKP government. Smiles and handshakes for the cameras, tear gas and water cannons in the streets. The level of repression has diminished in Istanbul, as this is the epicentre of the movement and the government fears that further repression would only provoke an even bigger backlash. They are playing a game of dividing and tiring out the movement, waiting for the right time to clamp down with an iron fist.

At the same time that the government wants to appear as being responsive to the movement, they also cunningly try to separate the “legitimate” “honest” protesters, from the “looters” and “radicals” intent on “destroying property” and “using violence.” How hypocritical! Any violence there has been in the demonstrations has been in response to the brutal repression by the police against unarmed peaceful demonstrators.

The government has also conveniently promoted the idea that there is a secret conspiracy by foreign agents and home terrorists behind this whole movement. In Izmir, dozens of youth were arrested in raids in 36 homes, accused of “spreading misinformation” and “incitement to revolt” on social media. These are basically young people using twitter and facebook to communicate about forthcoming demonstrations. Their arrest is meant as a warning by the authorities against others.

20130604-Gezi Park-Julie FacineGezi Park, 4 June. Photo: Julie FacineAt the same time a dozen foreign nationals were arrested in different parts of the country for the only crime of having participated in demonstrations. These are hardly “foreign agents”; one is an Erasmus exchange student, two others are Iranian refugees from the movement against the regime there.

Even these conciliatory gestures are too much for Prime Minister Erdogan, who has made it clear that the Ottoman Artillery Barracks will be built in Gezi Park and that he will not stand back from the original project. In an open criticism of the talks between his deputy and the Taksim Platform he declared: “The logic of ‘If I take this, I give this,’ ‘If you give this, I want this’ has no place in running a state.”

The arrogant stance of Erdogan can make the situation worse from the point of view of the regime. He will probably want to use his return to the country later on today into a show of strength by gathering his supporters. Already in Rezi, his hometown, a crowd of AKP supporters violently assaulted a small group of Taksim solidarity protestors. Any such move in that direction could re-ignite the movement with renewed force.

Right now the movement is leaderless and with no clear focus or strategy. In those places where the police are not intervening there is a mood of celebration. To a certain extent there is a carnival atmosphere in Taksim Square. A library has been set up; people are discussing ideas, sharing experiences. After the brutal repression of the first days, this is a welcome respite.

A comrade in Izmir describes the situation as one where, “Thousands of people are gathering at a square downtown near the sea every day after work. They are chilling, singing, chatting, drinking etc. Some are chanting slogans. There is a great spirit of solidarity outside. Everybody is trying to help each other and everybody is sharing everything! Food, meds, books... Just like it is supposed to be.” Where this is possible, the masses are enjoying the first hard won spaces of freedom.

However, this cannot last for very long. Either the movement goes forward to challenge the government and then there will be further repression, or the movement slowly withers away and then there will be further repression.

The Kurdish question

Another comrade in Istanbul described the spirit of solidarity which has been created between demonstrators from different national groups, united in the common struggle against repression and the reactionary AKP rule. “I was witness to a really heart-warming and hope giving incident. There was a group of 50 people from the Kurdish BDP. They were swinging Kurdish flags, flags of the PKK and flags with the picture of APO (Abdullah Öcalan). Then one of them recognized someone outside of the group and said hello to his acquaintance. After that the Kurd asked his friend if he could take a photo of him holding a flag depicting APO. The acquaintance said ‘Ok, I'll take the photo. In reality I'm a Turkish nationalist but today we're all brothers’.”

As we said in a previous article, this shows graphically how national hatred and chauvinism can break down in the course of the struggle, though of course they have not disappeared completely and can again raise their ugly head in the next period.

The Kurdish national movement is actually divided over these protests. While prominent leaders of the BDP like Onder, were in Taksim Square from the very beginning and he was hospitalized as a result of brutal police repression when attempting to stop the bulldozers, there are others who fear that any attack against the AKP will destroy the current peace negotiations with the PKK and throw the whole process back.

BDP president Selahattin Demirtas, for instance, said that while he supported the legitimate protests of the people and did not support repression, he would not “join the racists, nationalists and fascists in Taksim Square”, and warned that in the movement against the AKP there were elements which “wanted to make the peace process flounder”.

This is an extremely short-sighted approach. As a matter of fact, the only way to achieve freedom and democratic rights for the Kurds is through a revolutionary movement in Turkey. Erdogan has entered into a peace process with the PKK for his own reactionary reasons. He wants to use the Kurds in Iraq and Syria in order to expand Turkey’s sphere of influence and markets in the Middle East. For him, the national and democratic rights of the Kurds are just small change to be used in order to further his wider dreams of regional domination. In the same way that he previously supported Hizbollah against Israel and now sides with the FSA and Israel against Assad and Hizbollah, tomorrow he might change sides again. The only God he has is Money; the only national interests he holds dear are those of the stock exchange.

The unity in struggle of Kurds, Turks, Alevis and other national and religious groups in Turkey and across the region is the only way to achieve genuine democracy, national freedom and above all social liberation.

What next for the movement

The strike action of June 4 and 5 showed the potential that exists. The movement needs to become more organized and more mature. In an interview published in a British magazine, a KESK trade union activist puts it very sharply:

“This rebellion is not organised properly and to determine a right direction is quite difficult under these circumstances. Trade unions and their confederations should join this rebellion by general strike in order to support and gain the initiative. The organised working class has the ability to find the right way intuitively. However, so far the working class have not joined the rebellion as a ‘political participant’.”

For this, committees of action should be set up to give the movement a democratic and accountable structure, with representatives from workplaces, factories, working class neighbourhoods, schools and universities, and preparations should be made for an all out political strike to bring down the government.

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