The struggle of trade union activists in Turkey

This is an interview with an Internationalist Communist from Turkey active in the trade union movement, in which she describes the situation of brutal repression facing worker activists in Turkey and the effects of the recent economic crisis on the labour movement.

Interview with an Internationalist Communist from Turkey active in the trade union movement

The following article is based on an interview with a trade union activist in Turkey. For her own safety she cannot appear in the media with her real name.

Threats, abuse and capricious confinements are part of everyday life for union activists in Turkey. Thousands of workers have been tortured, sentenced and imprisoned since the military coup in 1980 and two union leaders have been murdered since 1999. Their crime consists of wanting better working conditions and the right to negotiate.

In March 1999 Suleyman Yeter, education expert of the dockworkers' trade union Limter-Is, paid a visit to the workers' magazine Dayanisma when the police made a sudden raid against the magazine's office. Five people were arrested, among them Suleyman Yeter, and transported to the anti-terrorist department at the Istanbul police headquarters. The trade union leader was interrogated all night. He was forced to lie naked on ice and he was badly beaten. During the following day the brutal interrogations continued. On 7th May Suleyman Yeter's trade union received the message that he had died in custody!

Two years before this event Suleyman Yeter had been arrested and tortured by the police, to such an extent that his arms were partially paralysed. He sued the policeman who had mistreated him, but for two years the trial dragged on without any result. In May 1999 the case was concluded, the court deciding that the policeman who had tortured Suleyman Yeter 1997 should be censured!

In connection with the Turkish mineral workers' trade union congress, Maden-Is, held in 1999, its union president Semsi Denizer was murdered outside his home in Zonguldak by the Black Sea. He was shot in the head with six bullets. Later the police arrested a man who confessed to the murder and the motive was said to be that Semsi Denzier owed the man a large amount of money. But Bayram Meral, the union president of Turk-Is, is convinced that Semsi Denzier was murdered because of his popularity amongst workers and his commitment to the trade union. He had immense support from the Turkish workers since he lead 50,000 miners in a protest march from Zonguldak to the capital city Ankara. Semsi Denzier was also the Secretary-General of Turk-Is.

During the last six months more than ten thousand people have been victims of illegal, and unprovoked confinement, which often ends with a trial and then imprisonment.

The Turkish police have also started to check-up on people in the streets at night-time. Everyone is a potential victim, being questioned, beaten or subjected to some other humiliating treatment. Especially in the workers' districts this is systematically going on. The bourgeoisie who run Turkey fear a social explosion among the workers since the financial breakdown in February of this year. That's why the police are being used to terrorise and beat workers.

This economic crisis has been harsh for working class people. With the devaluation of the currency, many lost half their savings and compensation from the companies, in the form of higher wages has been out of the question. On the contrary, people are forced to do overtime without compensation, and yet their wages have even been reduced. Furthermore, the employers seldom pay the workers on time. Around 600,000 people have lost their jobs and the standard of living is falling dramatically. Many factories have gone into bankruptcy and it's difficult to find new jobs.

According to official unemployment statistics the figure is about eight percent, but the true figures have turned out to be somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. Unfortunately, the government is trying to conceal the real situation and make the statistics look better than they really are. Higher inflation means that prices are rising every day, and when oil prices increase, the prices of all basic necessities immediately rise. Many people have also become victims of large debts because of the devaluation. Unemployment and lousy wages are the reasons why people cannot pay their debts, and therefore they are evicted from their homes. Lots of them are suffering depressions and suicides have increased dramatically in our country.

The minimum wage is way under the poverty line, but the workers don't dare to complain or make demands for higher wages because of the risk of getting sacked. In Turkey there is no unemployment benefit, and therefore it's a catastrophe to loose one's job. There are 65 million people living in Turkey and among them there are about 20 million of working age, but only 900,000 are organised in unions. It's difficult to set up trade unions because laws regulate in detail how the unions' internal rules and statutes operate. For instance, a person who is a candidate to a union position must have been working for at least ten years in the same industry the union is representing. Furthermore, trade unions have to apply for permission to arrange meetings and they must accept that the police are present, documenting the debates. The Turkish State has repeatedly sued Turk-Is under the pretence that demonstrations have been illegally organised and demanded that the union representatives should be sent to prison. The bourgeois government does not tolerate any protests. They have the legal means to stop a strike for 60 days by declaring it a risk to national security or public health. So the union is forced to apply for exemption from the government council to be able to continue the strike. If their application is denied, the union is forced to a binding arbitration, but if it is accepted, there will soon be a new 60 days injunction, and so the Government can manage to delay a strike forever.

Turkey has an accumulated national debt of about 210 billion dollars, which contains a great deal of so-called short-term debts. Consequently the Turkish economy will collapse if the IMF and the World Bank doesn't assist with money and a transformation of the short-terms debts into further loans with longer term repayments. The IMF and the World Bank is pressing the government and is demanding that Turkey should endure a strict structural adjustment program to get credibility for these new loans. That's the main weapon in their struggle to organise and defend imperialist investments. They want to see a more open economic structure in the country so that they can get complete control of the Turkish economy. There are still lots of holes in the Turkish economy.

According to the IMF inflation has to diminish by cutting wages, raising the retirement age, speeding up the sell-off of the already weak public sector and monopolisation of the banks.

The weak financial structure in Turkey has made it possible for the bourgeoisie to build up around a hundred small banks with total means equivalent to the capital in a middle-sized American bank. Because of the economic crisis, 20 of these banks have already gone bankrupt and several more are on the verge of ruin. The IMF is demanding that the remaining banks should be merged into greater units and that subsidies to farmers should stop. Many farmers are living way under the poverty line, but the bourgeoisie is able to keep their support anyway, because they're buying Turkish agricultural products at a higher rate than world market prices. Some state owned banks are also responsible for paying out subsidies to farmers and small businessmen. The problem is that these subsidies are burdening state expenditure. That's why the IMF wants these banks to disappear or change direction.

The main reason is that the IMF and the multinational companies want to crush the national agricultural market and force Turkey to become more dependent on the world market. The bourgeoisie have also been affected by the economic crisis so they are pretty displeased with their leaders in the government. Actually, they don't like the opposition either, so a lot of voices have been raised for changing parties as well as leaders. They have no confidence in their leadership under the current circumstances.

There's no mass socialist party in Turkey and since the military coup in 1980 it is forbidden to create one. However, now, when the bourgeoisie, for their own reasons, want to simplify laws concerning the creation of parties, it may be possible to begin the creation of a Turkish socialist party. After 1980, the bourgeoisie used religion to break down the left and they encouraged religious leaders to create parties, and this was promoted by the USA.

During the last three or four years, however, the religious leaders have become more and more unpopular among the bourgeoisie, so now religious leaders and parties are attacked and pursued by the police as well. The bourgeoisie realise that they've created a "Frankenstein's monster" and now want to get rid of them.