03 May 2010, Monday

Long live May 1st!

This year the day to celebrate all those who work was declared an official holiday in Turkey. This, in itself, represents a great victory!


This year the day to celebrate all those who work was declared an official holiday in Turkey. This, in itself, represents a great victory! After the bloody massacre on May 1, 1977 killing over 37 people, whose numbers are often an issue of speculation, the working class of Turkey has been involved in a long-term struggle to occupy Taksim Square ever since. In 2009, a small victory was won and a small, limited group of workers and unions were allowed to enter the square, while the majority were always pushed back, attacked with pepper spray and police bludgeons in the back streets of Kurtuluş, Şişli, Tarlabaşı and Beşiktaş.

May 1, 2010 placed Taksim square as a site of victory with well over 200,000 participants flooding the streets and square. It was truly an atmosphere of celebration and joy, without any provocation from the Turkish State. Workers were bused in from all over the country, participants brought their children, friends and other family members, all the unions participated along with all Socialist and Revolutionary political parties. The usual euphoria of workers chanting slogans, singing revolutionary and folk songs and showing unprecedented solidarity in action and speech, gave the day a mood of renewed hope and struggle.

New areas of working-class resistance appeared, namely Istanbul Bilgi University, that marched with Sosyal-İş a union affiliate of DİSK (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey). Hundreds strong, both blue and white collar workers, students and professors turned out in equal number to state their claims against the new takeover by Laureate International Universities, a for-profit educational corporation, that is American-based with a consortium of private investors and trades on the stock market. “Knowledge is on the Street”, “Workers, Students, Professors, United”, “Free, Fair, Academic Language in our Mother Tongue” (Turkish and Kurdish), “Workers United Will Never be Defeated” and “United Against Capitalist Education” were just a few of the many slogans voiced by Bilgi employees and students. Istanbul Bilgi University is currently unionizing with Sosyal-İş and represents the first ever Foundation University to be bought out by an international education chain for profit, technically illegal according to Turkish law. A small group of foreigners who work at Bilgi also attended making it possible to witness that the struggle is international in the true sense – no matter where you are on the globe, the situation is the same!

The majority of workers and participants who marched managed to enter Taksim Square, never the case in former May 1st celebrations. A very large contingent representing BDP (Peace and Freedom Party), a newly formed party with primarily Kurdish members replacing the former DTP (Democratic Society Party) closed down by AKP (Justice and Development Party), barely managed to squeeze their massive numbers into the square. Once Taksim Square was filled, speeches by the presidents of Turkey’s four major unions began. When it was turn for the Turk-İş (Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions) to speak, a group of workers from Tekel (Turkish Tobacco and Alcohol Monopoly – bought out by BAT [British American Tobacco] sold off and then shut down under deregulation policies of the AKP government) took over the stage as they had done once before in Ankara earlier this year, when they demanded Mustafa Kumlu (Turk-İş President at the time) step down and a general nation-wide strike be called. To see their militancy on the sta
ge, yet again, brought great cheers from the crowd. Metin, a Tekel worker representing the group, later was invited to speak freely and called on all the working class to think critically of unions, believe in themselves as workers, their need to unite and called for more “militant actions” on behalf of the working-class. Representatives from international unions also took the stage and gave a message of support and solidarity. A list of all the Socialist and Revolutionary parties that participated was openly stated on stage and as each name was announced, the respective groups cheered. In a final act of solidarity, Ciao Bella, was played from the stage and all in unison with raised fists, sung out the lyrics, making it a truly emotional moment, that will not be quickly forgotten!

Throughout the day, students came to me and reiterated how their father’s had been in Taksim Square in 1977 and how they were astonished at the possibility that they could meet in the square again. Students introduced me to their uncles and other family members. Students incited us to find provocative slogans to agitate and keep contingents full of energy. It was truly a day that spanned all generations, uniting them, in both a moment of nostalgia, but yet clearly focused on the working-class struggle and its newly found momentum as the world economic crisis deepens. In Turkey the official number of unemployed stands officially at 15% but it is well over 20%.

While the day was filled with optimism, a few final observations must be considered to keep us in touch with reality and not be blinded by the victory to win Taksim Square alone! First, there are very few workers that are unionized in Turkey post 1980. The numbers have dwindled remarkably. In 1980 over 25% of Turkey’s workforce were unionized. Today this number hovers around 5% approximately 600,000. Second, many workers were bused in from other cities, meaning that the vanguard showcase of May 1st was Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Did this weaken the movements in the provincial cities, where there is equal need for resistance? Third, in terms of statistics, Turkey in 1977 had much less than half the population (43 million) it has now of 75 million. If 500,000 were in Taksim Square in 1977 and there were over 200,000 in Taksim today, then technically May 1st was represented by less of the working-class. Fourth, we must consider one final point – the power of media – a topic never to be taken lightly! This year, as all went well in Taksim, there was different coverage of the event. While in former years, May 1st was shown on major television channels as “sensationalized violence”, participants being sprayed with tear gas, chased by police and eventually beaten, this kind of television viewing was what Guy Debord would have termed, “society of the spectacle” – a means of mediating the public under capitalist ideology – polarizing the public to love or hate the crowd as if watching a TV series or Hollywood movie. However, this year as things went smoothly, there was somewhat less coverage and the “holiday” media discourse of May 1st, “softened the day” or perhaps, “tamed the resistance” in the eye of the viewer.

The change in the May 1st discourse should be carefully monitored because in the future, day by day, as workers lose more and more, the struggle to win our labor back should become more and more! Let us hope that May 1, 2010 is just the beginning!

(Photo: Gökhan Tan)

İstanbul - Labour World