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Turkey: UNION movement an inspiration to us all – Eric Lee

I have just returned from a 3-day visit to Ankara, where I was the keynote speaker at the LaborComm 2010 conference.

The conference coincided with the international labour film festival which was being held simultaneously in three Turkish cities.

It also followed the first legal May Day demonstration in Istanbul’s Taksim Square for some thirty years.

These are interesting times indeed for the Turkish labour movement.

LaborComm was held in the new building of the municipality’s contemporary arts centre in the heart of the Turkish capital. I was told that the social democrats were in power in this part of the city, which explained their willingness to hold a UNION conference there.

The ground floor was taken over by an exhibition of photos from the historic struggle of the Tekel workers. Tekel is a state-owned tobacco monopoly and the workers struggle against privatization lasted some 78 days including a very long sit-in in the freezing winter. It ended with a partial victory last month.

The photos were striking and well-displayed. There was a poster showing a chronology of the long dispute. I have already asked if we can show the same display at the upcoming LabourStart global solidarity conference in Hamilton, Ontario in July. I think we can.

The conference was opened by pro-UNION academics as well as a leader of the Turkish journalists UNION who pointed out that it was world press freedom day. He talked about the dozens of Turkish journalists who are currently in prison and about the killings of journalists. Later, we talked about the possibility of a LabourStart campaign on the subject and I hope we’ll have this ready shortly.

The entire conference was broadcast live by Sendika.TV, the video broadcasting arm of the Turkish UNION portal, Throughout the day my host, Onder Ozdemir (who is a LabourStart correspondent) checked how many people were watching the conference online. The number was far greater than those in the hall, with something like 1,600 unique IP addresses recorded for the first day of the event.

This is extraordinary, when you think about it. Turkey is, after all, not the richest country in the world. And yet it is capable of doing the kind of Internet video linkup that seems futuristic to many in richer countries that have a far higher density of Internet use. What Sendika.TV is doing should be done by UNIONs everywhere, whenever a public conference is held.

They do much more than this, and during the Tekel dispute, Sendika.TV was carrying out live broadcasts from the outdoor protests. Extraordinary stuff, and done on a shoestring.

My presentation was in English — I was told everyone would know enough to understand — but a translation of my notes into Turkish was distributed to participants.

There were three questions (in Turkish, translated to me) and they are interesting and get right to the point.

The first asked if there were any examples of online campaigns having successful results. (I talked about one example — the case of sacked UNION rep Joanne Delaney in Ireland.)

The second asked how the problem of languages (with 6,000 spoken languages in the world today) could be resolved. (I replied with the three solutions I can think of — machine translation, learning English and the best solution but least likely to be adopted: the use of an international, neutral auxiliary language.)

And the third spoke about the multiplicity of efforts and the possiblity that we were dividing our forces rather than working together. (I stressed that LabourStart with its campaigns and mailing lists in a wide range of languages does what we can to strengthen unity and pool our resources together.)

At a reception that evening, I had a chance to discuss the case of Seher Tumer, the jailed public sector trade UNIONist, with officials from her UNION, and the problems faced by Turkish journalists with the head of their UNION. (A reception in Turkish is, apparently, called a “kokteyl”.)

While in Ankara, I also had a chance to look at the local newspapers — or at least the ones published in English, which are versions of the Turkish dailies. On the day I spoke the front pages were dominated with photos and accounts of the giant May Day demonstrations in Istanbul. People who were there told me that 200,000 people came.

I recalled that last year, LabourStart ran an online campaign calling on the Turkish authorities to allow the demonstration to take place. It wasn’t our campaign that made the difference — but I’m sure international pressure played a role. (About 2,500 people sent messages as a result of our campaign.)

Onder took me to one of the Ankara cinemas that is participating in this year’s international labour film festival. This is an extremely impressive event, held at many different cinemas an halls in all the major Turkish cities. The night I was there a gala premiere was taking place with a well known Iranian film director — who I briefly met — in attendance. The previous night, 1,000 people attended the festival launch in Istanbul.

The holding of a major conference on labour communications, an international labour film festival that will be seen by thousands, the first giant May Day demonstrations in decades, the heroic campaign of the Tekel workers — I was impressed by it all, and determined to do what I can to help.

The first thing is to revive the Turkish edition of LabourStart, to translate ourcampaigns into Turkish, to build up a mailing list of Turkish trade UNION activists (as we have done so successfully in other languages), to campaign in support of the jailed journalists, and more.

Turkey is often held up as an example of a successful, secular modern democracy in the Muslim world. This is only partially true. Things are, of course, a bit more complicated than that.

But I have no doubt that the revived, strengthened and militant Turkish trade UNION movement is an inspiration to trade UNIONists not only in the Muslim world but everywhere.