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Progressive Health Care Workers Union Of Turkey Report
To July 6, 2009 International Labor Conference

Our union was formed in 1973. We continued our struggle to organize the public and private sector health care workers till 1980. Under the 1980 military junta our leaders were arrested and after torture and military trials they were sentenced to 5 years in prison. The union was shut down for 12 years.

When DISK (the Confederation of Progressive Labor Unions) resumed its activities after 1992, the union also started its work. The entire assets of the union had been seized by the military. Everything had to start from scratch.

There are three labor confederations and 3 public workers confederations in Turkey.


TURK-IS: Was created under the auspices of the US consultants in 1952. The purpose of this union was to control the workers of the newly industrializing Turkey. Currently it has around 300,000 members. Since its inception it is organized in 80% of the public institutions. While identifying itself as “beyond politics” organization adopts a nationalist policy in all political developments.

: Was established in 1967. After the discussions following TURK-IS’ betrayal of the cable manufacturing workers, 5 trade unions, severing their membership with TurkIs formed DISK (The Confederation of Progressive Labor Unions)
As soon as it was formed, DISK became the hope for the working class and gained strength in a very short time. The first May Day was celebrated in 1976. In the huge May Day workers march and celebration in 1977 CIA jointly organized a provocation with the Turkish secret service MIT. They sprayed the workers gathered in the plaza with automatic rifles and the police tanks attacked the crowds. 34 workers were murdered in the celebration where more than 500,000 workers were participating. The class struggle only grew bigger in the ensuing years. The president of DISK was assassinated by fascist militants. With the 1980 Military Junta entire leadership of DISK and its affiliated unions were arrested. After intense tortures and military court kangaroo trials, they were imprisoned for years. DISK was allowed to operate only after 1992. DISK defines the working class struggle as the struggle for socialism in its constitution. Currently it has around 100,000 members.

: This is a workers confederation with Islamic tendencies. However not until very recently it wasn’t able to display any activity. With the help of the Islamic government who came to power in 2002 it started to organize in the public sector. Currently its membership is around 70,000.

KESK: The government workers were not allowed to form unions by law. The :public workers started their struggle to form their organizations in early 1990’s and after 6 years of militant struggles for 6 years they secured their right to organize their unions. However the public worker unions do not have the right to strike. KESK was formed after these struggles. It enjoys around 400,000 members. Politically its ideology is left leaning and is a very powerful component of the labor movement together with DISK.

Was established to prevent the struggle of KESK and to divide the Public Sector Movement by the nationalists. Its membership increased by pressures on the public workers to joint its ranks especially by the conservative/right wing governments. Its membership is around 400-450,000.
MEMUR-SEN: Is a union with Islamic tendency. The recent moderate Islamic government is helping it to gain some strength. Enjoys around 100,000 members.

The privatization drive of the 1990’s brought especially the unions in the public sector to a rapid collapse. Since DISK was allowed to operate after being shut down for 12 years was not organized in the private sector, it was one of the working class organizations that received the biggest blow. TurkIS did not display any serious resistance because it supported the government policies.
In 1978, statistics show that while there were 5 million workers, 2.5 million of them were organized. Today, out of 22 million waged laborers (workers and public employees) only 1.5 million is organized.

Today, a young and unorganized mass of workers constitute the working class. Class consciousness is nearly non-existent. The belief that the union leaders are living an extravagant life on workers dues is common. There is a serious issue of trust between the unions and the workers.

The subcontracting in both public and private is wide spread. Workers belonging to many contracting forms work simultaneously in a workplace. This makes organizing and creating a feeling of unity among the workers very hard.

PRECARIOUS WORK: New regular job creation has stopped in the public sector. People work either as a subcontractor or as an individual yearly contractor. This creates serious problems for the workers and is the main demand in their struggle.

There are two basic reasons for poverty. The first is the decrease in real wages which reduces the buying power where even the basic necessities become unreachable.
The other reason is the increase in the prices of basic necessities and services. Especially the public health and education are becoming commodities. These services, previously free, are no longer available without purchasing them.
Since local governments are under huge debts, transportation, heating, electric, drinking and other water services have seen tremendous price hikes. This prevents a large population from making use of these services.

URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Especially the large cities witness the attempt to destroy the (mostly built without license on government property) homes and neighborhoods of the poor to build luxury dwellings. People are forced to evacuate their homes where higher rents are possible and are shown places to locate in far distances with lesser values. This issue has become the main reason behind violent clashes between government forces and the people.

KURDISH QUESTION: Kurds are an ethnic group living within the Republic of Turkey. Their language was banned and they were forced to become invisible since the inception of the republic. They were forced to assume the Turkish identity. Kurds revolted 28 times against these oppressive conditions, however, all these were brutally defeated.
The latest insurrection started as a guerilla war in 1984 by the PKK (the workers party of Kurdistan). More than 35,000 people lost their lives (soldiers, civilians and PKK guerillas) in this battle. PKK was a Marxist organization when it was formed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they removed socialism from their program. It moved towards an ethnic, nationalist line. However, it is still standing close to the labor movement.
Kurds were forced to migrate to the Western sides of the country due to forced relocation by the government and the deliberate burning of their forests and possessions by the Turkish state.
When the labor movement establishes a strong tie (at the moment the relationship is very weak) with the Kurdish movement, depending also on the development of the Kurdish issue, a very powerful dynamic will emerge, especially in the large cities.


Although union organizing is protected in the constitution, employers don’t want unionized workers and as soon as they sense an organizing drive they start massive layoffs and pressures. It is as if there are no exceptions to this rampant behavior.

At this time, the focus of the union is towards the subcontractor heath workers. In the last 15 years the hiring of regular workers has stopped due to privatizations in the public health care institutions. Currently, 50-60% of all services in the public heath care sector are fulfilled by a subcontracting firm.

The workers hired under such conditions are employed against lawful regulations. They cannot use their vacation rights, are not paid overtime and cannot obtain their lawful right to retirement. On top of this, they are being subject to ridicule and assaults from the regular workers and the management. None of the workers of the growing number of private health care institutions are unionized. The secondary goal of our union is to organize the private health care service corporations. The workers there work with less wages and are under yearly contracts. We believe in our union that the main employment strategy in the days to come under capitalism will be the precarious and temporary workers. Thus we think the organizing of these workers has strategic importance and we expect the most powerful dynamics of the class struggle to be waged in this area. We were able to gain more than 4,000 new members in the last 3 years. We currently have more than 6,300 members.

Wherever we organized, the leading workers of the organizing drive were fired. However, we were able to survive in workplaces by our actions and struggle methods and became the hope for the laborers. We are facing serious barriers from the employers but especially from the police in our organizing drives. Both the police and the employer start lies and rumors against the union and direct the workers to join the yellow unions. Our officials are routinely arrested and are threatened by the police. However, due to our honest policies towards the workers and also our militant defense of laborers these scare tactics do not bear any results. The workers see our union as their genuine organization.

The most common rumors against our leaders and organizers are that they are communists and are Godless. In other, more nationalistic regions where Turkish identity is strong, they spread rumors that we are pro-Kurdish and belong the the Kurdish Labor Party, the outlawed PKK. In the areas where the Kurdish sentiments are high, the Kurdish bosses tell workers that we are pro-Turkish. With these rumors they expect the workers to severe their ties with our union. However, there has not been a single incident where we lost a single worker due to these accusations.

The reason for our success is that we tell the workers upfront the following: “There is only one security we could promise you, and that is our sincerity. We cannot promise you anything beyond that. You could be fired; you could be beaten to a pulp by the cops. However we will be there to live these as well by your side. We do not look at you as our members. And you should not see us as your union managers. We are only your comrades in your struggle.”

This pertains mostly to the traditional union movement. And this method of organizing had not been seen before. In the traditional relationships, the workers are expected to stand up and show respect to the union leaders. We prefer never to stay in a hotel when we go on a trip to organize. We first ask if our worker friends have anybody who could put us up. Usually there is always a worker who opens his home to us.

As the union officials we are working on a volunteer basis and do not get paid any wages or salaries. We believe the union leaders should not be careerists but should be people of struggle. And we believe our tasks will be fulfilled only through such a struggle.

Our union sees the working class struggle as the main dynamic of an anti-capitalist struggle. We are expressing that since we are not “wage unionists” we could help only securing the struggle of equality and justice. The yellow unions have reduced the union work to only an issue of wages and workers are, naturally, very prepared to accept this.

We do not accept the boundaries forced upon us by the law. By law, we are allowed to organize only the health care workers (nurses, health care professionals, physicians etc.). However, we are accepting anybody working in the hospitals for organizing. Cleaning workers, kitchen helps, security personnel, automation professionals or secretaries become our members as well. This is due to our understanding that the health care is a comprehensive area and all workers under any condition should be organized. When we sit down to negotiate with the employers we negotiate in the name of all workers (except the government workers who already have their own unions.)

The principle of joint organizing and and joint struggle is very important in our concept of organizing. This is why wherever we go, we first get in touch with the public workers unions and the Physicians’ Organization. The Physicians’ Organization is a very powerful and prestigious organization in the labor movement in Turkey.

However, this effort on our part has been limited to support only because we are having a difficulty in resolving the tension between regular and temporary workers. For example, while a publicly employed nurse makes 1,200 TL the private sector contracting nurse makes 530TL. Many regular workers who do not have class consciousness treat the contractor workers badly and dump the most hard and dangerous work on them. The most serious issue faced by the “temporary” workers, even ahead of wages, is the not recognition the value of the work they perform. This issue is very important for them and is the main source of anger.

Our union does not consider the working class struggle should be limited to workplace alone. It adopts a model to organize at a regional level. We try to be effective in the labor movement by collaborating with other workers and labor organizations in other sectors in each region.

We also think that working with and having connections with the urban poor and to adopt their demands is strengthening the class movement. We believe that an all encompassing movement with the leadership of the working class against capitalism is a definite necessity.

E mail:
Union Tel: 001-90 212 533 77 19
Union Fax: 001-90 212 631 59 04