04/30/2009, 00.00
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May 1 a holiday again, after 30 years

by Geries Othman
It has not been celebrated since 1977, when there was the massacre of 36 workers in Taksim. There are difficulties for tomorrow as well. The economic crisis is testing the country, and unemployment is high in both urban and rural areas. The scourge of black market and child labor.

Ankara (AsiaNews) - After an absolute ban for thirty years, beginning tomorrow in Turkey it will again be permitted to celebrate International Workers' Day on the national level.

It was 1977 when in Taksim, one of the most popular and crowded squares in Istanbul, the demonstration on May 1 attended by half a million people ended in a massacre. Thirty-six people, attacked from an armored car, lost their lives. Labor union organizers were accused of communism, Workers' Day was abolished, it was prohibited to demonstrate in Taksim, and the riots continued until the state coup in 1980 that led to the successive transformations of the country by the Kemalist military.

So the holiday on May 1, which Ataturk called "Spring Day," instituted by the founding father of the modern Turkish republic in 1935, was completely eliminated from the calendar, becoming a controversial date, full of tension and confrontation, a line in the sand, a question of principle that has endured for three decades. And it appears that it has not yet died down.

In recent years, May 1 has become a day of riots, beatings, tear gas, and blood: labor union organizers assemble their members illegally in Taksim, to "make up for the interrupted holiday," and the police disperse the illegal rallies by force. Last year, the police used fire hoses and tear gas to drive back the many demonstrators who wanted to reach the prohibited area at all costs: more than 500 people were arrested (see photo), including a number of labor union organizers; some journalists were injured.

This year, under strong pressure from labor unions, the government declared May 1 a national holiday, and a vacation day is being granted to all workers. But after some uncertainty, although the possibility of demonstrating has been granted, gathering in Taksim Square in Istanbul has again been prohibited.

It was the prefect who yesterday confirmed the ban, for security reasons. The square has real logistical problems: it is heavily trafficked, represents a point of passage for millions of people a day, and is the main point of arrival and departure for buses and minibuses, in addition to being a nerve center for taxis and private automobiles, which are difficult to block or reroute. The Prefect of Istanbul has therefore provided three other areas, more peripheral, larger, more suitable and secure. But the labor unions don't like it, and are protesting: "For 30 years we have wanted to pay the debt of conscience that we owe to our 36 worker friends who were killed."

Prime minister Erdogan himself has had to intervene to soothe nerves, which were already raw: "On the day of May 1," he said yesterday to journalists, "how much we would like to be witnesses not of riots, raids, fighting, violence, but an atmosphere of celebration, brotherhood, and solidarity." "Let us leave behind us," he added, "ugly memories and take new steps forward: do not be stubborn, do not give in to provocation, our population needs to grow in peace, serenity, and well-being." And the Prefect of Istanbul is asking the labor unions to select a suitable delegation to commemorate the event by placing flowers at the foot of the anonymous sculpture, in one corner of the enormous Taksim Square, the only trace of that day which Turks still recall as "bloody May 1."

Rather than looking to the past, the government and labor unions are challenged by the present and future. In fact, there is an urgent need to create a common platform for dialogue in order to combat the economic crisis. In January, the unemployment rate reached 15.5%: 3.65 million people are jobless, more than a million more than last year. Unemployment in the cities has gone from 13% to 17.2% in one year; in rural areas, it has risen from 8.4% to 11.8%. The most troubling figure concerns youth unemployment, which has risen to 27.9%.

But the greatest scourge is black market labor: according to figures provided by TurkStat, workers  not officially registered with the Labor Ministry represent 43.2% of the entire labor force, in agriculture they reach the extremely high level of 85.2%.

Another calamity for Turkey is child labor. According to the DISK (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey), there are more than 650,000 workers under the age of 16 in the country, who are forced to work as many as 10-12 hours a day in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. For years, the Confederation has been involved in projects for justice together with the International Labor Organization, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Suleyman Celebi, secretary of the DISK, issued a provocation two years ago through the website of the news agency "Observatory on the Balkans": "From the point of view of the labor union, the Erdogan preiod has been the most negative, he is not really interested in labor union questions, and I believe that for us they have been lost years. For years, the right has been in power in this country, and the left has been unable to be an alternative. As a labor union, we have long been involved in the attempt to foster a coalition on the left, in order to have a more modern social democracy that would be a concrete alternative for the country."

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