Report and analysis of the Turkish "general strike" of 17 June and the developments in struggle on the streets since then. Now with additional notes.
In the following post I shall attempt to address several different overlapping subjects, combining both first hand reportage and secondary analysis. First, I shall run through the events of Monday 17 June 2013, the day of the impromptu ‘general strike’ as I perceived them, providing some quotations from different participants I spoke to. Second, I intend to make some preliminary notes on the size, composition and role of the unions in class struggle in Turkey. Third, I shall endeavor to lay out a general overview of the economic situation in Turkey from a working class perspective, highlighting changing patterns of employment, precarity and the extraction of surplus value. I shall end by discussing some of the broader developments in the struggle in Istanbul over the last 3 days.
In the wake of heavy street fighting and police terror of the 16-17 June, a one day general strike was called for Monday 17 June by the the KESK and DISK union confederations1. Despite being declared illegal by Interior Minister Muammer Guler three professional associations added their support, TMMOB, TTB and TDB; respectively the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, the Turkish Medical Association and the Turkish Dental Association23.
On the afternoon of Sunday 17 June I contacted the DISK functionary I had previously met with members of Çarşı. I did this in order to attempt to establish exactly what the strike would mean in practice and when and where the strikes would take place. A point of clarification is necessary here before I proceed further with a presentation of the days events.
As I shall discuss later, establishing absolute figures on union membership in Turkey is wrought with difficulties and estimations vary wildly based on different criteria. Nevertheless, if we accept the figures cited by the unions themselves the combined membership of these unions and associations amounts to at most around 2% of the working population of Turkey. I make this clarification not in order to diminish the significance of this action but rather to provide as accurate a picture of the situation as possible. This clarity is especially important in regard to the term ‘general strike’ which in English speaking countries can often convey something more like a ‘mass strike’ i.e. a mass simultaneous withdrawal of labour by the majority of the working class.
I arrived at the head quarters of the DISK union confederation in Şişli, Istanbul at 10 am on Monday 17 June and was greeted by Kıvanç Eliaçık, Director of the International Relations Department. We had a brief conversation in his office in which he emphasised the political nature of the strike, citing the intense police brutality against demonstrators. He also situated the current upheavel within a longer history of workers struggle making reference to the 1977 Taksim square massacre, persecution of trade unionists by the Erdoğan government, the ‘general strike’ of 5 June 2013 and the recent strikes by Turkish Airlines.
He was open about the comparatively small size of the DISK confederation in relation to the working population of Turkey but was keen to emphasise its influence beyond its numbers stating: “people feel stronger when they hear DISK and KESK have called for a strike.” Commenting on the role of the union in the broader movement he went on to add “the logo of DISK is a gear, that is how we see ourselves, we are one gear in a much larger machine.” Kıvanç informed me that the KESK and DISK shop-stewards were being sent to workplaces in which the respective unions had a presence in order to call on workers to stage walk outs. Whilst at the DISK offices I spoke to an Associated Press camera woman who had been present at the police attacks on the Divan Hotel. A hotel in which protestors were sheltering and in which those injured in the clashes were being treated in improvised medical facilities4.
From the DISK headquarters I travelled to the Şişli municipality janitors depo where I had been informed that the workers were preparing to join the strike. On arrival I was met with the sight of around 30 cleaning workers dressed in orange overalls having a meeting in a car-park with two DISK shop stewards. I was also met with the realisation that no one spoke English, my arrival was not expected and I had no one to translate. Nevertheless, with the help of a few common words of English and a dictaphone I was able to interview one of the shop stewards in Turkish and later translate it into English, I found out later, I might add, that his opening words were “I don’t know what you’re asking me, but I’ll pretend that I do and say everything I can think of.” He informed me that: “In our workplaces we are putting into effect the decision reached by our confederation, other confederations, professional chambers and NGO’s relating to the Gezi Park events: A one-day cessation of work”. He condemned the policies of the government stating “all of the things the prime minister did in his 10 years in power involved taking away the rights of oppressed and working people” adding “in this country a series of anti-democratic laws installed with the 1980 military coup are still in effect. There are no efforts to democratize Turkey through legislation.” He situated the revolt in terms a long development of discontent in Turkey:
“The Gezi Park and Taksim demonstrations are a result of the explosion of 10 years worth of discontent caused by loss of rights. The education system is in serious paralysis, the healthcare system is similar. Students are still going through three entrance exams to get into the university system and they suffer a slew of psychological issues. They are taking away the rights of public sector workers with a new laws [...] there are still no laws made in this country to improve union organizing [...] women are still being murdered today in this country. There is still a very seriously high level of violence directed at women.”
He emphasised the unity created through opposition to the government stating “the Gezi Park protests have signaled how successful we can be as people who defend democracy and freedoms as part of a united front [...] I take this very seriously. From now on we need to develop a united front in this country. We need to take stronger common actions. We need to do whatever it takes on this point. Our slogan in Taksim was to ‘continue the struggle’.” On Gezi Park he stated “He [Erdoğan] may have cleared Taksim with a high level of police violence and militarist force, but this spark here in Taksim has now spread to all the streets of Istanbul, and all streets of Turkey and even beyond.” He closed by stating “the Gezi Park resistance in Taksim has been a loud message to that effect. We will win by resisting and resisting again! Thank you.”
After several cups of tea, I travelled back to the DISK headquarters to join the union march, ostentatiously planned to march to Taksim Square. On arrival at around 15:00 pm where a small crowd was already beginning to congregate. By a remarkably stroke of luck I was immediately able to find a fluent English speaker, a young Turkish man who identified himself as an anarchist, lets call him Özkan. He told me about how he become politicised through a beating he received from the police, for which he had received a 3 year suspended sentence. Özkan explained “the court said that if I do something small I will be sent to prison, so that is why I am here, I am here for freedom.” He informed me that he had been involved at Gezi Park and elsewhere “I have been her for 21 days.” I asked him about his views of the KESK and DISK unions and their role in Turkey and in the current struggle, trying to gauge his opinions on the days ‘general strike,’ Özkan replied “all the people are against the government now. We [the anarchists] are against all governments, but now we are all moving together, because we are facing a dictator [...] the anarchists in Turkey are different, we are more Marxist. I went to England, I went to India, it was all very different, here we are more Marxist.”
With the help of Özkan I was able to interview a group of workers gathered for the strike demonstration. The group consisted of workers previously employed at both Yurtiçi Kargo and MNG Kargo, they had been fired five months previously for attempted to organise workers at their respective work places. With Özkan help I was able to interview a former employee of Yurtiçi Kargo “I was working for a company called Yurtiçi Kargo and I was fired for joining the union, for 5 months about 150 of us have been demonstrating in front of the company. 25% of the company is owner by GeoPost, a subsidiary of France’s La Post, so we also took our protest in front of the French embassy. We will not work without payment, they would made us work 18 hour shifts.”
When asked about the strike, the same man informed me “this is not only the strike of the workers, it is the strike of all the people in Turkey, we are in solidarity with them.” He went on to state “if the prime minister continues saying the same things [...] if he keeps doing what he is doing, we will always be on strike, we will always be on demonstrations and we will always be on the streets.” When asked if he had any message for those outside of Turkey he answered “we are waiting for the solidarity of all the countries, particularly Venezuela and Cuba, and from all the workers of the world who are fighting against their governments, we want [them to know] we are fighting with them. Also we are with them in Syria against Assad [...] we thank those who are doing solidarity actions wherever they are in the world.” I ended by asking the group what they would do if the police tried to prevent the demonstation, the same former Yurtiçi Kargo employee said the following “we are not here to attack the police, we are here to give solidarity to the demonstrators and we want to say that we are with them today, we came here to show it. But if the police attack us we will defend ourselves.”
By this time the crowds had swelled to a level of perhaps 3500 and the demonstration set off along Halaskaryazi Cd in the direction of Taksim. An important admission that I must make here is that it was impossible for me to know with certainty how many of those that had gathered had taken industrial action in order to be present. Certainly a great number of those present carried KESK and DISK union flags or wore t-shirts or caps barring the the union ensignia, nevertheless I had no way of differentiating the unemployed from the precariously employed from those on strike. Added to the numbers were groups from various left-wing parties, generally identifiable from party flags along with activists from Gezi Park.
I have at least one further observation to make about the demonstration itself, namely the reaction of passers by and those living in the apartments along the demonstration route. People cheered from windows, honked their horns, clapped and waved Turkish flags from balconies. Having been joined by a Turkish comrade towards the beginning of the march he impressed on me that this was for him a surreal sight. He stated that he could not have previously imagined such a generalised and obvious sense of support from passersby for the strike and the demonstration. In particular he commented on the juxtaposition of the red flags of the various Marxist-Leninist parties and the unions with the Turkish flags and images of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk being waved from balconies. After a few hundred yards however the demonstration came to a halt in front of police blockade. The predicted clashes did not materialise and the unions gave a press conference demanding an end to police brutality and arbitrary arrest. Following this the crowd began to slowly peter out. Some demonstrators (I would assume from the Gezi Park activist milieu) attempted to stage a sit in, this was joined by some members of the left-parties and by some trade-unionists, but did not inspire a mass action. This was not the end of the days events, however this is everything I am going to discuss at this stage.
Accurately assessing the number of those that took part in the strike on the 17 June proves extremely difficult, with figures from media and other sources varying wildly. Nevertheless it was my impression that, whatever the intentions of the unions (I do not pretend to know precisely what these were) the strike did not produce a powerful impact; I am however open to correction on this issue. Walking through Istanbul between 9 am and 18:00 pm there was practically no visible signifiers to suggest a strike was underway, almost everywhere business carried on as usual. I do not doubt the sincerity of the KESK and DISK unions nor the militant rant-and-file in their attempts organise a meaningful general strike; a strike capable of significantly impacting capitalist accumulation in such a way as to destabilise the government.
These trade-unionists, whether one wholeheartedly agrees with their politics and their tactics, which I do not, have repeatedly shown a willingness to call illegal political strike action, in spite of a genuine, indeed actual threat of violence and imprisonment at the hand of the state. I would add that the recent situation in Turkey has shown itself to be remarkably unpredictable. In the same that no one could have predicted that the police crack down on the original Gezi Park protest would result in 21 days of near continual mass mobilisation, so it would be foolhardy to see the failure of the strike to act as a broader catalyst as a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, based on the numerical strength and influence of the unions the likelihood of a truly effective mass strike was from the outset limited. For despite the difficulty in accurately judging the level of unionisation in Turkey the most reliable data puts the figure at around 5 to 6%, with the share of membership held by the combative unions standing at around 2% at most5.
The reasons for this are complex, relating both to the specificities of the history of state violence in Turkey and to the changing economic trends brought about by global capitalist restructuring. Unlike the majority of those states situated at the core of capital during the Keynesian ‘golden age’ of 1945 - 1973/4 Turkey never experienced an extended steady period of corporatist union-employer relations mediated by the state. The period bracketed by the the end of the Atatürk era, around 1950 and the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2003 was characterised by a general hostility towards trade unions by elected governments, punctuated by periods of extreme state repression under military rule; with the trade-union movement being successfully fractured by the 1971 coup before being smashed in 1980 under the junta of General Kenan Evren. This fairly weak position had been maintained via the policies of stringent judicial restriction on trade-union organisation and state repression of union militants that have continued and under the present administration.
The ability of unions to secure collective bargaining and to engage in legal strike action are stringently restricted by a raft of labour legislation including the so-called ‘double threshold’ on collective bargaining. This legislation confers only unions with more than 50% of the workers on the establishment level as members and more than 10% of workers of the concerned sector nationwide the power to legally negotiate and conclude a collective agreement6. This restrictive legal framework has been, in recent years, coupled with direct bans on sectoral strikes in certain areas, notably aviation7. These restrictions have, furthermore, been coupled with an expanding use of arrest and imprisonment of unionised workers, with conservative estimates putting the figure at 143 arrests, 25 imprisonments and 197 dismissals in early 2012 alone8. This application of state terror against trade-unions and unionised workers has expanded further during with the high profile sentencing of 25 members of the teachers’ union Egitim Sen to 6 years imprisonment on 25 October 2012 and the mass arrest of 167 KESK members on 19 February 20139.
Yet despite the historical specificites of Turkey’s long term use of state violence against organised labour, the present predicament of the Turkish trade union movement nonetheless mirrors broader patterns precipitated by the global evolution of capitalism. The relative strength of the Turkish labour movement during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its subsequent murderous liquidation, serve as one extreme of a global trend in the crisis in capitalist reproduction. A crisis characterised by, on the one hand a fall in the rate of profit and on the other an expanding set of class demands mediated by powerful trade-unions. Global capitalisms structural reaction to this is well known, the ‘neo-liberalism’ that emerged in the 1980’s and continues in different forms up to and including the present moment. This shift manifested itself in an emiseration of worker wages, the intensification of work through enforced ‘flexibility,’ the globalised integration of the labour market and, critically, the disciplining of the working class through the destruction of trade-unions.
Much has been made by global observers of the apparent success story of the Turkish economy. Yet, this apparent success story masks a very different story, one in which the ‘growth’ of capitalism has meant nothing but intensified exploitation with reduced renumeration. As the 2011 ILO report on working patterns in Turkey makes clear, in spite of six years of rapid economic growth between 2002 and 2007 little direct improvement in the lives of working people was experienced. The sustained economic growth did not reflect itself in an increase in labour force participation, the unemployment rate remained around 10.5%10. Youth unemployment remains high and inequality is high and rising at around 40.4 on the Gini coefficient with the poverty rate at around 23%11.
This generalised exclusion from the economic ‘gains’ of growth have been coupled with a broad attack on working conditions aimed at increasing the length and intensity of work in order to increase surplus value12. The Labour Law No. 4857, which was enacted in 2003 was specifically crafted with the intention of increasing more work in less time, whilst simultaneously lowering the cost of dismissals13. This has been combined with the widespread normalisation of flexible, precarious and irregular working conditions in the labour force market14. This process of intensified exploitation facilitated by precaritisation and flexibility have further undermined the ability for traditional trade union structures to operate effectively. The inability of traditional union structures to be able to effectively adapt (if adaption is indeed possible) to these changing patterns of employment is arguably reflected in the further decline in union membership, which have further declined from 9.28% in 2004 to 6.06% in 201015.
I lay out these points not in order to straight forwardly criticise the combative sections of the Turkish trade-union movement, nor to question that they are playing an important role in the present development of the struggle in Turkey. Rather, I make these preliminary points in an effort to present an accurate representation of the balance of power in the class politics of Turkey and to stimulate debate on the role and function of union organisation in the face of inevitable developments in global capitalism. I have attempted here to steer a path between two common lines of argument on the left. Firstly, the fantasies of much of the Marxist-Leninist/Troskyist left, with their fixation on the rebuilding of a mass trade-union movement and mass workers party, a desire blind blind to the realities of global capitalist restructuring16. Secondly, the varying knee-jerk reactions of the anarchist and left-communist milieus. Reactions that commonly ignore or disregard currently existing trade-union structures, or that, propose the creation of mass horizontalist alternative union models without properly engaging with questions of anti-union legislation and capitalist restructuring.
It is difficult to provide an accurate impression of the overall class composition of the movement in Turkey. I for one can only speak of what I have seen and read about in very specific areas of Istanbul. Nevertheless following my attempt to characterise the state of the Turkish trade-union movement and, indeed, to highlight its relatively small size, I feel it is imperative to provide some impression of the overall class composition. Contrary to some sources, particularly those that came out during the very early stages of the upheaval I do not feel the movement can be characterised as, for lack of a better term, ‘middle class’17. The movement certainly contains a mixture of individuals and groups from different financial stratifications of the working class and, in some instances, the petty-bourgeoisie. Furthermore, it has drawn the approval and active support of sections of the Turkish bourgeoisie opposed to Erdoğan as well as sections of the Kemalist former ‘deep state’.
Nevertheless, it has been my clear impression that, at least in Istanbul, those who have so far participated in the upheaval, i.e. those that joined the mass mobilisations in the outer districts, those that converged on Taksim square, those who resisted the police, overwhelming come from the working class; including the precarious, the unemployed,18 along with those small sections of the working class mobilised through union militancy, political organisation membership or football club loyalty. The sheer numbers of people alone support this. Throughout the recent upheavel the mass participation of the majoritively working class neighbourhoods of Besiktas, Kadikoy and Gazi, amongst others, both in the street fighting and the convergences towards the centre of the city have been clearly apparent. This involvement highlights, perhaps, new potentials for working class self-organisation in the face of capitalist exploitation and state repression. Self-organisation capable of overcoming the limitations of the traditional trade union structures to incorporate effectively the unemployed, the precarious, the youth-without-a-future.
The days between Monday 17th June and Thursday 20th June have been characterised by relative calm on the streets. There was a mobilisation on Monday and I believe again on Tuesday along Istiklal Cd and quite possibly more that I am unaware of, but not a repeat of anything like the levels of mobilisation witnessed at the weekend or over the previous weeks. Nonetheless this apparent calm on the streets has been coupled with a terror inside peoples homes, inside peoples places of work and inside of the prison cells, with increasing numbers of arrests. Nevertheless a continuity of resistance has been maintained by two phenomena, the widespread multiplication of the so-called ‘standing man’ protests, of which more in the next post and, critically, the formation and proliferation of numerous ‘acik forum’ or open forum19. These open meetings, which have been gathering across the neighbourhood districts of Istanbul and other major cities each evening reflect perhaps the greatest potential for the further development of the struggle. I hope to discuss these issues further in my next post.
Following the original post on 20th June, I have, through discussion with members of KESK, DISK and non-unionised workers in the movement, been able to establish the following important points:
-The number of participants in the 17th June 'general strike' was markedly smaller than that of the 5th June.
-A key factor in the smaller turn-out was the lack of participation of the organised Kurdish sections, this lack of participation was agitated for by Kurdish union leaders linked to the BDP party, in an effort to divide Kurdish workers from the broader movement with an eye to maintaing the Kurdish peace process.
-Added to this the doctors union did not fully participate.
-There is a broad impression amongst the workers that I spoke to that the trade union leadership have sabotaged the movement. The reasons cited for this are three fold.
-Firstly, that the unions two 'general strikes' have been too short and orientated towards symbolic action to have a genuine material effect.
-Secondly, that the union leadership has failed in articulating clear class demands, both in their participation in the Taksim Solidarity Platform and in their role and rhetoric during the 'general strikes'. In effect ignoring spontaneous class demands articulated by the broad protest movement, most notably the slogan 'Saturdays should be holidays'.
-Thirdly, that the union leadership has sought to divide the organised working class from the broader protest movement. Frequently cited examples of this include orders articulated by union officials on both the 5th and the 17th of June that union members should go home / leave the demonstration once the leadership begins delivering their press statement. The apparent purpose for this was to avoid the striking workers freely mixing with the broader protest movement, joining confrontations with the police etc.
-This final point (which was clearly articulated to me by two members of KESK) satisfactorily explains why, with the beginning of the press conference, the majority of union members filtered out of the demonstration. Many of these strikers regrouped at a mass demonstration along Istiklal Caddesi (a major shopping street akin to Oxford Street that runs onto Taksim Square). This demonstration formed spontaneously on 17th June and was eventually dispersed by water cannons and tear gas.
1 KESK, the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions and DISK, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey. Both have a cross over in membership with the various left and Marxist-Leninist parties.
2 Russia Today, ‘Turkey threatens to deploy Army against protesters, dubs union strike ‘illegal’, Russia Today, 17 June, 2013, viewed 19 June, 2013,
3 For a public statement from DISK see: http://www.disk.org.tr/default.asp?Page=Content&ContentId=1538
4 M Flowers, ‘Timeline of events in Turkey: police escalate attacks, including on healthcare workers and doctors’, in Global Research, 16 June, 2013, viewed 20 June, 2013,
5 S De Spiegelaer, ‘Unionisation Rate’, in Industrial Relations in Turkey, 17 June 2013, viewed on 18 June 2013,
6 S De Spiegelaer, ‘Collective Agreements in Turkey - 1989 to 2011’, in Industrial Relations in Turkey, 22 October 2013, viewed on 18 June 2013,
7 A Serdaroğlu, ‘Working Conditions and Flexibility in Turkey’, in Reflections Turkey. July, 2012, viewed 18 June, 2012,
8 ITUC-CSI-IGB, ‘Violations’, in Turkey - Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights, 2012, viewed on 18 June 2013,
9 H Rollmann, ‘Gezi Park protests reinvigorate Turkey’s labour movement’, The Independent, 13 June, 2013, viewed 19 June 2013,
10 H Ercan/ILO Ankara, Occupational Outlook in Turkey, 2011, viewed 18 June 2013, [p7]
11 International Institute for Labour Studies, ‘World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of Turkey’, in World of Work Report 2013: Repairing the economic and social fabric. 2013, viewed on 18 June 2013,
12 N.B. The economic ‘growth’ itself is of course based on the maximilisation of general exploitation and the maximilisation of the extraction of surplus value through both the opening up of the Turkish labour force to international capital and the driving down of wages and the intensification of work through enforced ‘flexibility’.
13 A Serdaroğlu, ‘Working Conditions and Flexibility in Turkey’, in Reflections Turkey. July, 2012, viewed 18 June, 2012, 14 Ibid.
15 S De Spiegelaer, ‘Unionisation Rate’, in Industrial Relations in Turkey, 17 June 2013, viewed on 18 June 2013, [N.B. These figures do not admittedly provide a detailed breakdown of how this decline has been distributed amongst the different union confederations]
16 These arguments are for instance articulated by the Turkish Trotskyist Sungar Savran.
17 I appreciate that this is a very nebulous term, that does not correspond to Marxist classifications of class, however for the purposes of this post I struggle to find a better one in terms of articulating certain cultural, education and financial stratifications within the class.
18 In short those that can be termed (not unproblematically) ‘surplus population.’
19 Arguably comparable, at least in formation and structure, with the varied neighbourhood assemblies established in Spain, Greece and Egypt in recent years.