Most of us like to relax on our birthday – maybe spend time with the family or see close friends. But for Kesk union activist and socialist Ertan Elsoy, whose union has called a two day strike to support a rebellion against the government, his birthday today has been anything but normal.
‘Last night I was keeping guard in Gezi Park under intensive gas attack,’ he tells me. ‘Now I am resting and preparing for this night... Tomorrow morning I will work on the agitation and propaganda activity in the university to support the strike, because the strike on 5 June is so important.’
The Turkish government had been the subject of several complaints from international trade union bodies such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) over its treatment and in some cases imprisonment of union activists this year. But now, with reports that political activists have been shot dead and that police and Turkish state security forces are stalking the streets with long knives, tear gas and live rounds, the situation in Turkey couldn’t be any more dangerous or unpredictable for trade unionists.
Fighting the dictator
I ask Ertan if he is scared of being killed. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘But there is no choice for us except to fight for freedom, democracy and rights!’
‘They will not give us these rights voluntarily. Turkish people are now learning to get their rights. Turkish people are realizing their own power. This is very frightening for the dictator Tayyip Erdoğan.’
The use of the word ‘dictator’ is a powerful accusation, one which on the outside might look far-fetched. Prime minister Erdoğan was elected in multi-party elections and has been credited in some quarters for trying to deal with longstanding human rights abuses against the country’s Kurdish minority. However his implementation of several conservative social policies with Islamist undertones, on top of vigorous free market neoliberal economic policies, has put the prime minister on shaky ground.
The crackdown on environmental protesters in Gezi Park in Istanbul last Friday was the last straw for many thousands of people in Turkey. Spontaneous protests involving a wide range of political viewpoints have erupted across the country.
The police crackdown, and prime minister Erdogan’s insistence that protesters including trade unionists are ‘arm-in-arm with terrorism’, has only raised suspicions that the government is displaying dictatorial tendencies when faced with legitimate criticisms from the public.
‘We just have the right of voting in elections, no more than this. Pluralism, equity and participation are not present in Turkish democracy,’ says Ertan. ‘There are many barriers against usage of democratic rights. So it is just a stylistic democracy. We just vote for our dictators. Turkish people want a real democracy.’
‘Tayyip Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy is “If I am elected, I am allowed to do whatever I want”.’
Although largely unreported in the Turkish mass media, unofficial estimates from citizen journalists and activists put arrests of protesters at well over a thousand, with beatings, a regular occurrence over the last five days. Ertan confirms that he has been an eyewitness to ‘many people being beaten by police’, and says he has seen police use tear gas guns as missiles, firing them directly at protesters and causing them serious injury.
Ertan distances himself from what he describes as ‘marginal groups’ who have used violence during the protests. But he is clear on who started it and the need for the protests to develop further.
‘Turkish police attacked a peaceful demonstration [in Gezi Park]. And they have attacked in the early morning while people were sleeping and sitting in the park. The government and Tayyip Erdoğan are responsible for the violence. There have been neoliberal policies implemented without interruption. This has created deep, long-run unhappiness among people.
‘In addition to this widespread unhappiness, especially since the last general election, Tayyip Erdoğan’s government Islamised the daily life of people stage by stage and implements discriminatory and alienating policies.’
Despite this political oppression, Ertan says that the response from people has not been unified nor had a clear direction.
His union, Kesk, which represents 240,000 workers, was due to strike at a later date over regressive changes in the country’s’ labour laws. But bringing it forward to today and tomorrow has prompted calls for a general strike of the country’s major trade union confederations.
‘This rebellion is not organised properly and to determine a right direction is quite difficult under these circumstances,’ Ertan tells me. ‘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”.’
However Ertan is confident that this is set to change, if organised labour takes a stand tomorrow. ‘Today Kesk members have started to strike. I expect other trade union confederations cannot ignore the happenings and will join calls for a general strike in Turkey,’ he concludes.
John Millington is a freelance journalist specialising in industrial relations and social movements