03 May 2010, Monday

If there is no road, there is no traffic

With bewilderment, I’ve navigated my way through Turkey, and for as long as I’ve been here people have explained to me, “it’s the Turkish way.”

MOLLY MCGRATH molly@emekdunyasi.net

With bewilderment, I’ve navigated my way through Turkey, and for as long as I’ve been here people have explained to me, “it’s the Turkish way.” Sometimes I’m guided by these insights like they are light towers on a dark, stormy night. In four months, I’ve tried to take in a country and people with a history and political heritage so rich that coming from the U.S., I must constantly remind myself Anatolia is “one of the cradles of civilization.”

Yesterday, on International Workers’ Day, I was given one of those insights. A friend said to me with a grin, as we made our way down Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, “You see, it’s the Turkish way. If there is no road, there is no traffic.”

He gestured to the immense police lock-down: tens of thousands of police had been transported into Beyoğlu, the area between the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn harbour; and they covered an area with a radius of, perhaps, three kilometers.

Two blocks behind us, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and political activists were rallying inside the fences and police battalions surrounding Taksim Square. In Istanbul, there is a long history of violent repression on May 1, and this year, expectations were the same. Yet, it was a completely peaceful day.

However, the Turkish government’s decision to allow unions to march into Taksim Square is the bigger symbol. For more than thirty years, the government has not given trade unions and political activists the road they needed to commemorate the 1977 Taksim Square massacre. The massacre included the deaths of 37 people, and preceded the military coup in 1980. You could say from that time, it’s only gotten worse for Turkey’s labor movement.

Beyond the obvious pubic relations value that the peaceful May 1 commemoration gives the Turkish government, its permission to open Taksim Square shows that if Turkey’s labour movement is given a road for progress, it will make traffic. And without doubt, the labour movement needs more avenues to improve people’s lives.

Turkey’s unions face many other obstacles other than restriction on the freedom to expression. The unemployment rate in the country is at an all-time high, at about 15%. It rose about 35% in the past year, and now more than 3.5 million are unemployed. That doesn’t take into account underemployment and a huge informal sector that consists of many migrants, including the Kurdish, whose resistance movement has been in violent conflict with the Turkish government for more than 20 years. Further, Turkey’s labour laws make it almost impossible to form unions – some of them oddly mirror the U.S.’s. And the list goes on.

In my short time in Turkey, I’ve seen that the labour movement and social movements for democracy and equality are alive and strong. My participation in the march yesterday showed me that again. I just hope that the Turkish government will pave the road for more progress in the future.

Istanbul will host the European Social Forum from July 1-4.  How it is received will be important too, given the region’s geopolitical location. In Greece, the May 1 demonstration turned to police clashing with rioters, due to the country’s economic collapse. And of course, the U.S. is still leading wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’ll see what happens then.

İstanbul - Labour World