The women in the public sector make up one-third of public employees. They participated in strikes, collective bargaining and struggles more numerously than the worker women in labor unions.

The initiators and pioneers of the union struggle were mostly women with leftist political attitudes, determined and resistant. They did much to motivate the participation of thousands of women from the public sector in the union struggle with their unique methods that went beyond union halls and formal organising methods, extending to the home and “private life.” Although those who began the struggle drew their strength from their more militant qualities, the main source of power for the women of KESK (Confederation of Public Employees Trade Unions) in the following years, as they grew in numbers, was the collective work and solidarity networks they created during the common struggle. The struggle of KESK women involved the collective work and solidarity of all women, be they activists or not.

Despite their workload at home, family and social pressures, the fact that union work equaled a third shift for them after housework and wage labour, and the inequalities in the unions, they participated in all aspects of union organising and struggle. As Pınar Ömeroğlu, Leman Kiraz, and Şükran Doğan explain, they were very effective in workplace protests. According to the accounts Sevim Celeb and İlknur Birol, they participated in protest marches to Ankara, leading their own blocks and entering the city square by breaking through the police barricades. According to Emine Akyazılı, they fearlessly went to the protests and burned all bridges behind them. According to Sema Tataroğlu, they were lining up in front of trains in Adana to organise strikes.

Although there were women among them who joined women’s groups at universities during their studies, who were involved in women’s organizations as well as in the trade union struggle, and who defined themselves as feminists, gender equality was not a primary source of motivation for the majority of women in the early years. Over time, they became more aware of gender inequalities in all aspects of life and in their unions. Educational activities and women’s congresses helped turn this awareness into consciousness. As Fatma Vargün recounts, they developed their friendships and women’s solidarity, for instance, when they worked together for the March 8 and November 25 rallies and delivered their first rally speeches with great enthusiasm on those occasions.

Although most of them did not identify as feminists and some even feared that feminism would divide the class struggle, together they succeeded in developing a sensitivity and political stance against gender discrimination and in transforming this stance into a practice that had an impact on the structure and politics of the unions. They also worked with the independent women’s movement, thereby influencing each other.

They established women’s commissions to discuss the problems arising from being a woman in working life and to plan for the union struggle to eliminate these problems. 

As Satı Burunucu and Ebru Dinçer tell us, the women at KESK dealt with union spaces, language and patriarchal culture. They changed the institutional structure and organisational model of unions. As Elif Akgül, who worked as  women’s secretary at Eğitim Sen for many years, explains, they established women’s secretariats to organize women and develop and implement gender equality strategies.

They made gender equality one of the main topics of the unions’ central and local education programs.

They held women’s congresses, as Gülsen Ülker and Yaşar Tarakçı  tell us.

They organised equality campaigns that resonated throughout the country and achieved results.

With these campaigns, they not only demanded an end to gender discrimination in working life and the improvement of women workers’ rights; they aimed to eliminate gender inequality and violence against women in all areas of life. Thus, they realised collaborations and action alliances at the national and international levels. They did all this without neglecting the general work of their union, and therefore worked much harder than their male comrades.

They fought very hard against privatisation, the commercialization of public services such as healthcare and education and the liquidation of public services. and the destruction of social security and job security. They said that the prohibition of the mother tongue was a multiple factor of discrimination against women. For this reason, they defended the right to access healthcare, education and local services in one’s mother tongue.

They implemented quota policies to increase the representation of women in decision-making and administrative bodies. In order to increase the visibility of women in representation positions in KESK and some affiliated unions, they adopted the co-chairmanship system, as explained by Dilek Adsan from Eğitim Sen. They issued statements against sexual harassment in the workplace.

They conducted research, organised conferences and symposiums in order to reveal the problems of women in working life and to develop solutions. They provided space for women’s writings in union publications and released special publications for women workers.

They were not willing to settle for changing and transforming their own unions. They aimed to change life, as in the slogan of KESK’s 2nd Women’s Congress in 2004, “We Organize Our Demands, We Change Our Lives”.

They transformed their workplaces. No one dared to use sexist language in the workplaces where women from KESK were present; female employees felt stronger and more protected against sexual harassment and mobbing in the workplace.

They influenced the collective bargaining and contracting processes. As Gülistan Atasoy emphasises, they criticised that collective bargaining is nothing but a bargaining table where only men only discuss wages. They demanded the elimination of discrimination against women in working life and the improvement of their social rights to collective bargaining. They set an example for other unions and confederations.

They played an important role in spreading the women’s movement and organisation all over the country by establishing women’s platforms in the cities they were in. As Sevim Celeb and Gülay Lale  recount, they transformed the public spaces of their cities by taking to the squares and marching.

Three factors led to the KESK women’s success: their experiences gained in their struggle; the fact that they shared their experiences with each other; and that they transformed themselves and each other while working together.

In addition to all this, the educational work they did with feminist academics, as Emine Akyazılı, Nilgün Yıldırım, Nurşen Yıldırım and Elif Akgül tell us, played an important role in these developments. The relationship and cooperation between KESK women and feminist academics influenced and transformed both groups, as well as the production of academic intellectual knowledge. This is underlined by the feminist academics in this exhibition.

Latife Kahya Demirci underlines in her account that the independent women’s movement was influential in the transformation of the KESK women; Gülsen Ülker and Meral Serinyel added that the interactions with international trade union organisations also played a very important role in this transformation.

KESK participated in the 2000 and 2005 Women’s March Global as part of the Turkey Coordination. These demonstrations made it possible for thousands of women to come and work together with joy and enthusiasm, following their creative and original action models, and flexible and horizontal relationship style. This also contributed to the transformation of women from KESK. The World Women’s Marches’ relationship style and rich forms of action not only affected women, but also affected women’s union work and joint efforts, thanks to the synergy it created.

Ever since the establishment of KESK, its women have been affected by the ongoing oppression, banishments, administrative and judicial sanctions against the union, and the violence applied by the security forces on the streets. For example, as Serpil Açıl Özer and İlknur Birol explain, some of them were dismissed from their profession in the 1990s. According to Nebahat Akkoç and Zübeyde Caner and Cansu Yurtsever, the price of fighting for unions in the 1990s, especially in the regions where a state of emergency applied, was very heavy for women. As Nilgün Aklar recounts, the security forces raiding the union buildings in Muş in 1998, for example, wanted to force a virginity examination on the women teachers who were members of the Education and Science Workers’s Union / Eğitim Sen, whom they had taken into custody.

KESK is the only organisation able to gather public workers in corner of the country and to create a common voice. In the 2010s, operations began to brand KESK with accusations of “Kurdism” and “terrorism” and to present the union as criminal. Women were specifically targeted in this vilification campaign. As Canan Çalağan remembers, a detention operation was carried out against only women in 2012. All of the women who were detained and some of whom would be arrested later were women’s secretaries and active female members of KESK and its affiliated unions. When they were taken into custody, they were all busy with the preparations for the upcoming March 8 events.

KESK had accumulated knowledge and experience in combating sexual harassment in the workplace since its establishment. However, in 2010, when faced with a harassment incident that occurred within KESK, they did not make use of this knowledge and mismanaged the process. Despite the fact that the women of KESK later practised self-criticism, it caused independent women’s organisations to distance themselves from KESK. In 2012, relations were normalised again following the detention and arrest operations against Kurdish women activists from KESK. Women’s organisations showed strong solidarity with the imprisoned KESK women.

The stigmatisation of KESK through such operations made it difficult to become a member of KESK and to defend one’s identity as such, especially in cities where nationalism is intense. Just as being a member of KESK in the regions which were under state of emergency in the 1990s required courage, being a member of KESK in the Black Sea or Central Anatolia in the 2010s required courage. Despite all their difficulties, women carried the KESK identity with pride. They did not stop shouting the slogan ‘Long Live the Friendship of the Peoples.’ They exclaimed: ‘We are leaving a dignified future for our children, what about you?!’

Many female KESK members were dismissed from their public jobs with the Decree-Laws enacted under the state of emergency after 15 July 2016. It is of course a great injustice and cruelty that people’s right to do their profession, their economic and social security is taken away from them overnight. On the other hand, long years of organisation and experiences of struggle, political awareness, and a culture of solidarity make it possible for KESK members to stand up and resist the persecution they are subjected to.

The stories of Ebru Dinçer and Canan Çalağan exemplify how collective production and solidarity can meaningfully and impressively enable resistance and hope despite oppression and persecution of all kinds. Both women were discharged by statutory decree.