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Surviving the Storm—Turkey’s Labor Movements Under a Junta

In the late 1970s, Turkey faced intense political fragmentation as its parties each struggled for a majority; due to lack of consensus in the more civil channels of politics, the country’s tensions erupted into violence.

Turkish parliament after failed coup attempt in 2016 (2016) Yildiz Yazicioglu  | Wikimedia Commons
Turkish parliament after failed coup attempt in 2016 (2016) Yildiz Yazicioglu | Wikimedia Commons

With engagements between extreme leftists and ultranationalists culminating in a bloodbath, the military orchestrated a coup and instituted martial law under the pretext of restoring social order.

Immediately after the takeover, the junta suspended the constitution and banned all political parties—including labor unions; this drew the attention of the international community, particularly in the context of the global Cold War. As a crucial ally of the West, Turkey faced pressure to democratize and transition away from martial law.

William Meagher, who had previously worked in Turkey with the Agency for International Development, was recruited into the Foreign Service as the labor attaché to Ankara. With strong language skills and a labor management background, Meagher arrived some months after the coup to face the mandated freeze on labor movements by the government.

Meagher’s first order of business was the mass trial of DISK, the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey. In the wake of the coup, the military had accused many prominent members of the union of subverting the previous regime; this charge carried the death penalty. The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ)—the independent progenitor of DISK—also occupied much of Meagher’s time as it endured the imposed ban on collective bargaining.

In this “moment” in diplomatic history, Meagher describes how Turkey’s labor movements weathered the storm of military dictatorship.

William Meagher’s interview was conducted by Don Kienzle on June 10, 1996.

Read William Meagher’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Wilton Cappel

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Excerpts:

“It was a terribly ambiguous relationship.”

Labor Under a Junta:
Q: What did [the military takeover] mean in terms of the labor movement?

I have to think about how that changed. There was a lot of interest in labor, mainly political interests, and a lot of pressure on Turkey, mostly from Europe for having suspending normal labor activities. One of the main labor organizations was closed. This was a radical leftist group, which had different shades of radical left but the leftist group closed it on the grounds of creating disturbance. They closed it and arrested the leadership of the union, and put them in jail. They began a trial that lasted for over two, or two and a half years. At the same time, we felt, and the embassy felt that we needed to—well—it was a terribly ambiguous relationship. We were strongly committed to Turkey as an ally. It was still pretty much deep into the Cold War period, and we still had the tensions in the Middle East with Iran, of course. There was a strong interest in keeping Turkey stable, and democratic, and in that order. Stable was more important. I think there was also the realization that you could not have an unconditional commitment to an undemocratic Turkey. We had to move Turkey back toward a democratic society, and an interim period of stabilization of the political and social situation. This was acceptable, but a long-term military dictatorship was not acceptable.

Q: Were you particularly concerned about these leftist labor leaders?

Well, they were certainly of a concern. They were leftist, but they were labor leaders. They had legitimate unions that had collective bargain agreements with companies. Many of them had contacts within the Soviet Union and other Eastern European companies, but I do not think that it was ever demonstrated that they were subversive. In fact, the trial ended basically exonerating them.

“They were under a lot of pressure to stay out of politics”

Intra-Labor Divides:

           
DISK Logo (2014) | Wikimedia Commons
DISK Logo (2014) | Wikimedia Commons

Q: Was there much impact of military dictatorship on TÜRK-İŞ?

The military dictatorship limited the latitude of their activity. As you could expect there was a continuum of political attitudes within TÜRK-İŞ and DISK. DISK had split off from TÜRK-İŞ, so there basically was a continuum, and part of that went with DISK. Within TÜRK-İŞ, there were more, let’s say, leftist, rightists in the colloquial understanding of that. There were unions that stayed in TÜRK-İŞ that were more radical than some of the unions within DISK. So, it was a continuum, and also they were under a lot of pressure to stay out of politics and to be neutrally supportive of the status quo. I think everyone recognized the hope that it would be a transition period. One of our functions, at least the way the embassy conceived it, was to keep the pressure on for a return to a democratic government.

Q: Was TÜRK-İŞ able to maintain its independence from the government?

It did maintain its independence. I think, under the circumstances, that they did the best job that they could of representing. Some of the unions within TÜRK-İŞ were openly supportive of the DISK people. They were openly critical of the government’s attitude toward them, but this was a military government from 1981 to 1983. I think. I think this is when the new constitution went into effect. It was a military led government.

“It certainly was a chilling effect on strikes.”

Foreign Support:
Q: I can recall that the European trade unions were very much concerned at this point about constraints placed on TÜRK-İŞ, and struggling how they could figure out how they could restore TÜRK-İŞ to sort of the pre-dictatorship position.

Well, they were supportive; at least several American unions were supportive of the DISK people as well. The embassy also was supportive in the sense of showing support (without interfering in the due process of the trial). There were people that were actively involved in the revolutionary activities of the pre-takeover of Turkey. There was credible evidence, at least, that they were interested in changing the form of the Turkish government. Still, the due process, and the U.S. concentrated emphasis was on the due process, was the Turks’ business, but that we should show our support for due process for democratic principles. Again, there was the understanding that it would be a temporary transition period that would give Turkey an opportunity to stabilize its politics and serve again as a reliable ally in an important part of the world.

Q: Aside from these political issues, were there economic issues like collective bargaining going?

There was collective bargaining going on. Strikes were prohibited for a period of time, but it was a relatively short period of time. It certainly was a chilling effect on strikes. There was no doubt about that. Within a couple of years, strikes began again. Subsequently, there were a number of pretty broadly based strikes in the mining industry, and U.S. bases. So, it was about two years. For about two years, there was a real chill put on active labor management relations, strikes, and demonstrations. Demonstrations had to be authorized by the military. It was a real chilling effect, of course, of the military takeover.

“There was a broad spectrum of people running for election.”

Elections and DISK Trial:
Q: As I recall, elections were held, was it around 1985 or so?

The elections, I think, were held earlier. I think it was 1984. I think it was about—I am trying to pick a benchmark of when that would have been. I think it was 1983 or 1984.

Q: Did that signal the reestablishment of democratic processes?

Yes. As for the DISK trial, I went to see what was happening and to see that it was a trial, that there was representation, and that people were going to have an opportunity to defend themselves. They did. I think almost the military court acquitted all of them.

Q: Was there a feeling that foreign interests had an impact on the outcome of this trial?

Well, there was the feeling of being grateful for the support of the Europeans, who had shown the most support. On the other hand, the United States had not been that outspoken, at least on the official level. The United States sort of took a hands-off attitude. It is hard to evaluate what kind of an impact the informal initiatives of the United States to avoid trials and to expect a due process if there were convictions.

Q: You were there for a number of years? So what happened at the end of the trial in terms of democracy?

I can’t get the years exactly straight. I left in 1986. It must have been in 1983, 1984 when the first elections were held. There was a broad spectrum of people running for election. There was a religious conservative party, a social democratic party, basically two social democratic parties. One was more rightist, and the other more leftist. The Azal party won the election. They were the motherland party. The other was the “correct way” party. The government that was formed was a type of conservative government. I believe it was 1984. They were business and enterprise oriented. Fairly successful revitalization of the economy. The new constitution put severe constraints on the political activities of labor. The constraints were rather severe. The Turkish understanding of U.S. labor was as a business unionism limited to economics and staying out of politics. That was the Turkish understanding of U.S. labor, which of course is not quite an accurate reflection. So, the former DISK unions were outlawed. I don’t think they were ever accepted back. However, they did have influence within the existing unions. I don’t know how they have evolved since that time….

“There were tanks right outside of my hotel.”

The Secret is Survival:
Well, I think that Turkey does have a good, sound labor movement. It had to weather some difficult times. 1980 was not the first takeover, nor was it the first revolutionary change in Turkey. Revolutionary changes happened in the 1930’s; then Turkey went back to a more rightist regime. Then, the military lynched it back to the center. The rightist regime was the religious right, and it also, ironically, has tended to be an economic right in terms of encouraging private enterprise. This was especially true of the presidents who were in power at the time.

Q: Under these turbulent conditions that have existed in Turkey, it is amazing that a viable labor movement could establish itself, and continue on. Why was it successful in Turkey when so many other countries that had similar kinds of problems found it impossible to establish a labor movement? What was the secret of success in Turkey?

Well, the secret is survival. The military in Turkey is interesting. They had been reluctant dragons, but they had wanted to get out of the ruling. Of course, they had lots of indirect influence, but they were willing to get out of a leadership role. They took over the government in 1960, but they allowed another non-military government to develop. This was basically a leftist military concept. In 1971, a similar leftist move by the military occurred. By leftist I mean opposed to the right and economic liberalism. They wanted to have a more planned and secular economy. I remember this very well because I was in a hotel during this time, when the tanks rolled out in 1971. We stayed there for three days waiting to find out what was going to happen. There were tanks right outside of my hotel. So, it was an interesting time.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA, University of Texas at El Paso 1948–1952
MA in Industrial Relations, University of Texas 1952–1954
Joined the Foreign Service 1981
Ankara, Turkey—Labor Attaché 1981–1986
Bonn, Germany—Labor Attaché 1986–1987
Washington D.C.—Special Advisor’s Office 1988–1992