Breaking down the barricades

By Sharan Burrow

 

Today I was witness to the frontline of an attack on workers’ rights in Turkey.

I was at the barricades when police and security forces, on the orders of their government, fired tear gas at small groups of workers.

(AP Photo)

From early morning until late in the evening on the first of May, workers in Istanbul came under brutal attack.  40,000 police in riot gear and gas masks are thought to have been on the streets of the city.

The scars from May Day 2013 will run deep for millions of workers in Turkey.

We wanted to go into Taksim Square and sing songs of peace but instead the government unleashed the instruments of war, the President of the Turkish union confederation DISK told me.

While the unions continued negotiating until the last minute for a peaceful celebration of May Day, the government was busy bringing in extra police from the Georgian border, a drive of more than thirty hours.

Last year 600,000 workers celebrated May Day in Taksim Square, bands played into the night, as people danced in the streets.

For thirty years the square has been a symbol of democratic freedoms and worker rights after more than thirty people were killed when right-wing extremists open fired in 1977.

 

A citywide lockout

This year the government has unleashed an extraordinary degree of martial law. Many of us spent the day asking why.

All arterial roads and bridges in Istanbul were cordoned off by government barriers, backed by water tanks, armoured trucks and armed police.

Drivers of buses picking up workers in factories had their driving licenses confiscated by police, and bridges across the Golden Horn dividing the city of Istanbul were raised for the first time since 1970 to stop workers making their way to Taksim Square.

 

Extraordinary force

For those that did make it to meeting points, the police were under orders to disperse groups as small as five people with force.

First they used tear gas to blind us, then came out the water cannon and finally they fired the rubber cartridges filled with tear gas at us, a young worker told me.

The president of the energy workers union was on a side street with one other person when the police fired rubber tear gas cartridges at him.

With blood streaming down his face, he made it to the headquarters of the Turkish union confederation DISK as the building came under siege.

Inside, the General Secretary of DISK – a doctor by profession, and the first woman leader of a Turkish trade union confederation – gave him emergency medical treatment as a cloud of tear gas enveloped the building.

Later that afternoon when I visited the union building, the acrid stench of tear gas hung heavy in the air.

 

Over 200 injured in May Day attacks

When I met Ali Duman, his shirt was covered with blood and his head bandaged. He wasn’t the only casualty of the day. Two people remain in critical condition, and over 200 people have been injured.

A young 17-year-old girl was chased into a house – the police broke down the door and shot her at close range with tear gas cartridgess.

At the end of a painful day as workers made their way home, police stopped buses and indiscriminately detained people who looked like they had been caught in tear gas, or been on the barricades.

By early evening on May Day, seventy people had been locked up.

But the attacks on workers did not stop there.

On this very May Day the Minister of Labour announced he would be taking rights away from workers by reducing severance pay and creating more subcontracting roles.

What a tragic 1st of May. But it marks a beginning rather than the end of a day.

Today’s legacy in Turkey is already flowing through the veins of the international workers movement, giving us strength.

We are building workers power in every corner of the world.

We will stand as brothers and sisters together.

We will stop the oppression, the attacks on workers’ rights and the attacks on democracy.

We will stop the barricades to decent work and social justice.

 

May Day in Istanbul, see the ITUC photostream

 

 

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