The public workers’ struggle since the mid-1980s for union rights, including strikes and collective bargaining resulted in the establishment of unions. These formed the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions-KESK in 1995 as an umbrella organization. 

The union struggle of public workers, together with the student youth, the working class and the women’s movement, became an important component of the democratic social opposition movement that, beginning in the mid-1980s, would dissipate the atmosphere of oppression and intimidation created by the September 12, 1980 Military Coup.

Demanding a university free of state control (academic freedom), university students were fighting for academic democratic rights through the associations they founded. At the same time, the working class took to the streets with astonishingly creative actions to compensate for the loss of income and social rights caused by the military coup period and carried out effective strikes.

The women’s movement, on the other hand, managed to leave its mark on the country’s agenda with the mass mobilizations that started with a campaign against domestic violence (the Campaign Against Violence towards Women) in 1986.

The initiators of the strike, collective bargaining, and union rights struggle of the public workers, who played an important role in this democratic movement, were people who had taken part in public workers’ organisations and/or the left, socialist struggle on the periphery or sympathised with this struggle before 12 September 1980. Their determined and persistent characteristics made it possible to develop a trade union struggle that succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands of workers under conditions of heavy oppression, where public employees were forbidden to even become members of associations.

This struggle, which started in the workplaces, developed in a short time. It continued during the 1990s, with hundreds of thousands of people filling the squares of the cities; with rallies and general strikes that caused the public services to stop; with hunger strikes; and with the Ankara Marches, which lasted for days with participants coming from all over the country to the capital.

The 12 September Constitution did not regulate the right of public employees to form trade unions. Public employees believed that unionising was a legitimate right guaranteed by international conventions which Turkey had signed, and they waged a “de facto legitimate struggle” to obtain this right. Their basic slogan was “Rights are not given, they are taken”.

Public authorities, on the other hand, interpreted the absence of any regulation in the Constitution as “prohibition”. Attempts were made to suppress the struggle for union organising by administrative disciplinary punishments, judicial trials, prison sentences, banishments, and intense violence by law enforcement. The governorships refused to receive the petitions for the formation of the unions. The doors of the unions were sealed. In the early 1990s, many union members and managers, including Health Union member Ayşenur Şimşek forcibly disappeared under custody or fell victim to unsolved murders. In the 1990s, especially in the regions under state of emergency, the cost of fighting unions was very heavy. Security forces raided the union buildings in Muş in 1998 and demanded that the detained women teachers, who were members of Eğitim Sen, receive a virginity examination by force.

Despite all this, the most important reason why public workers’ union organisation struggles could not be suppressed was the leftist political and resistant nature of those who started the struggle. There were two reasons why the struggle was not limited to just one person but mobilised hundreds of thousands of public workers of all kinds of worldviews. One of them is that the military coup of September 12, 1980, condemned all wage earners, workers and civil servants to poverty. The second was that union member workers had succeeded in compensating their income losses and regaining their rights through strikes and various union actions. Public employees, who did not have an agenda such as union organisation, believed in the power and necessity of unions when they witnessed the workers in the same workplaces gaining back their lost rights through union organisation and actions. Thus, KESK emerged as a trade union organisation led by resilient and combative people with leftist values and principles, succeeding in organising and mobilising hundreds of thousands of public workers with different kinds of worldviews.

The spirit of its founders also determined the spirit of KESK and its affiliated unions. As a matter of fact, these organisations have become democratic rights organisations that deal with the struggle for the social rights and economic interests of public workers together with the struggle for democratisation, social justice and peace, instead of being organisations of interest in the narrow sense.

Gender equality has been among the principles adopted in this struggle from the very beginning. However, male dominance, which governs social, political, cultural and institutional structures, was also effective in KESK. For this reason, the actual implementation of gender equality, going beyond being just a principle on paper, was only possible with the efforts and intense struggles of KESK women.

KESK’s accomplishments in the active participation of women in unions and ensuring gender equality have become a very special example among the trade union struggle tradition in Turkey and other union organizations. The subject of this exhibition is the struggles of KESK women.

One third of the members of KESK and KESK-affiliated unions are women.

While the rate of female members in Eğitim Sen, which is organised in the education sector, one of the sectors with high female employment, is close to half, the membership rate of women is higher than that of men in the SES, which is organised in the health sector.

Although the rates of representation of women in the KESK union decision-making and management bodies are considerably higher than in other unions and confederations, there is still under-representation. Women, who make up one-third of KESK members, are represented by only one-quarter of the decision-making and administrative bodies. It is possible to talk about a relative and partial success in this regard.

Since its establishment in 1995, KESK has a women’s secretary within its organisational structure to organize women and to create and implement gender equality policies.

After the establishment of a women’s secretary in 2001 in Eğitim Sen, one of the unions with the highest number of female members, KESK and Eğitim Sen Women’s Secretaries organised very effective equality campaigns together with the women’s commissions in other unions.

With these campaigns, they not only helped to end discriminatory practices in the public sector, such as the ban on women’s wearing trousers, and to promote women’s rights such as maternity and maternity leave, but also transformed their unions. The significant increase in female membership rates because of the campaigns was effective in breaking the male-dominated resistance in the unions.

Today, a gender quota is applied, and a budget allocated for women’s work to ensure equal participation of women in decision-making and management bodies in KESK and affiliated unions, although not all. To increase the visibility of women in representation and spokesperson positions, and to ensure the sharing and transformation of power, the co-chairmanship system is being implemented in KESK and it is envisaged that this system will be expanded in the affiliated unions.

KESK's unIon struggle

Public workers unions affiliated with KESK

  1. Education and Science Workers’ Union-Egitim Sen,
  2. Health and Social Service Workers Union-SES,
  3. Office Workers’ Union-BES,
  4. Transport Workers Union-BTS,
  5. Press, Broadcasting, Communication and Postal Workers’ Union-Haber Sen,
  6. Agriculture and Forestry Service Branch Public Workers Union-Agriculture Orkam Sen,
  7. Road, Building, Infrastructure, Environment and Urbanisation, AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management), and Land Registry and Cadastre Public Workers Union-Yapı-Yol Sen,
  8. Energy, Industry and Mining Public Workers Union-ESM,
  9. Union of Culture, Art and Tourism Workers-Kültür Sanat Sen,
  10. Religion and Foundation Workers’ Union-Dives