KESK trials: Turkey must start respecting trade union rights



Edgar and Günter summarised it well sitting on the wooden benches in a cold courtroom in Ankara. “We are shocked. If participating in strikes and demonstrations, and organising them, is a criminal activity and seen as radical, then we are all radicals.”

Together with the Austrian colleagues of the European Public Services Union affiliate GdG, a colleague of the Dutch union AbvaKabo and several others, we comprised an international trade union delegation which attended the first hearing of the trial brought against 502 Turkish trade union leaders and their supporters.

On 28-29 March 2012, the Turkish trade union confederation KESK organised a demonstration to protest against the draft Public Services Trade Union law.

They were also rallying against proposed changes to the education system, which according to many, would change the role of teachers and allow more religious teaching.

The protestors also rallied against a law on public sector unions which would curtail the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike despite demands for profound changes to the law from the European Court of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The police prevented a press conference and used violence to break up the demonstration, injuring several protestors and damaging public property.

The public prosecutor brought complaints to 502 trade union leaders, members and others supporting the strike, including members of the confederations KESK and DISK, and the professional organisations of doctors, engineers and architects.

In the largest case ever brought against trade unionists in Turkey, union leaders were charged with organising the strike and demonstration, and with damaging public property.

Several hearings took place over the course of last year.

The first took place on 13 January 2013 in Ankara. It focused on the leadership of KESK (including its President and General Secretary), Egitim-Sen (the Education union), the President of the Ankara branch of SES (the health union) and the former President of DISK.

Several workers and teachers also stood trial.

Based on the evidence brought by the unions, it was clear that the government was seeking to criminalise the unions.

The judge summarised the testimony checked by the lawyers of our union colleagues, who pleaded not guilty. Facing three to five years in prison, EPSU sent a letter to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan demanding the dismissal of the case and an end to the criminalisation of Turkish trade unions.

Another hearing will take place on 23 and 24 January 2014 in Istanbul, also involving trade unionists.

The Supreme Court has already dismissed the cases but the prosecutor sent them back. Another international trade union delegation will be present to observe the trial, including the EPSU General Secretary Carola Fischbach-Pyttel.

Following last year’s demonstrations in Gezi Park and Taksim Square against the country’s increasingly authoritarian regime, the situation is changing in Turkey.

The municipal elections in March 2014 could be a crucial moment.

Turkish unions are also changing with new leadership and organising drives. The changes to the trade union law also make it easier for workers to become members.

But there are still problems as employers seek to dissuade workers from joining independent unions.

We see this with the court cases brought against KESK members, which are being used to hinder trade union work in Turkey and to prevent the growth of the movement.


A full, unedited version of this blog was originally published on the EPSU website.