Turkish gov’t contempt
miners fuels protests
More than 300 killed by bosses’ profit drive
|May 16 march in Soma, Turkey, where more than 300 workers were killed in mining disaster. Sign reads, “No coal can warm the children of fathers who died in the mine.”
BY SETH GALINSKY
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Turkey to protest the deaths of more than 300 coal miners in Soma, 150 miles south of Istanbul. “This was not an accident, it was murder,” was the message of the demonstrations. The actions quickly grew into a show of popular opposition to the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which not only backed the mining bosses, but put its deep-seated contempt for working people on open display.
A fire broke out May 13 in the underground mine run by Soma Mining Inc. Mine shafts rapidly filled with smoke and carbon monoxide, asphyxiating miners in the middle of a shift change.
More than 1,300 miners in Turkey have been sacrificed on the altar of profit since 2000.
“These accidents are things which are always happening,” Erdogan said in a May 14 press conference in Soma. “Death is the destiny of coal miners.”
In response, thousands of miners and other local residents surrounded Erdogan’s car caravan, many demanding the prime minister resign.
Erdogan physically confronted protesters and challenged those jeering him to “come and boo me here to my face.” Video footage shows Erdogan and his entourage briefly taking refuge in a supermarket where he struck a miner.
Protests rapidly spread across the country as four union federations — Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, Confederation of Public Workers’ Trade Unions, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, and Turkish Medical Association — called for strikes in solidarity with the miners.
On May 15, 10,000 miners held a one-day solidarity strike at state-run Turkish Hard Coal Enterprises in the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, where 263 coal miners were killed in 1992.
Workers from the Tuzla shipyards of Istanbul marched May 16 carrying banners and chanting, “The workers in Soma are not alone.”
“We are the people who can understand the situation of the workers in Soma because tens of friends have also died in these shipyards,” Kamber Saygili, president of the Port, Dockyard and Shipbuilding-Repairs Workers’ Union, told the crowd.
According to Today’s Zaman, a website that brings together news from Turkish media, some 200 workers have died in Tuzla’s 40 shipyards since 1985. The number of shipyard workers there has grown from 3,000 in 2004 to 25,000 today.
“No coal can warm the children of fathers who died in the mine,” read a handwritten banner at the head of the May 16 march in Soma. Police attacked the march with water cannon and rubber bullets, touching off a running battle through the streets between cops and demonstrators. Police have since set up checkpoints on roads around Soma to prevent people from entering the town to join protests.
There were also protests of tens of thousands in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey. Actions also took place in Samsun, Ankara, Izmir, Yozgat, Edirne, Kirklareli, Tekirdag, Istanbul and Mugla, Bursa and Antalya provinces.
“I just came from a demonstration near Taksim Square,” Samil Altan, Istanbul co-chair of the Democratic Party of the Peoples, told the Militant by phone May 17. “But we were not able to hold the demonstration. It was chaos. The police attacked us with water cannons, gas canisters and rubber bullets.”
On May 1 thousands defied a government ban on demonstrations and gathered at Taksim Square, where they were assaulted by cops. More than 140 were arrested and 90 people injured. Taksim Square was also the center of anti-government protests last summer demanding political and democratic rights for religious and national minorities, women and unions. Cops killed seven people during those protests.
According to Altan, there have been demonstrations in support of the miners in many towns throughout the Kurdish areas. “This is important, because we are trying to unite the struggle of Kurdish people with the struggle of workers,” he said.
Turkey is home to an estimated 13.4 million Kurds, an oppressed nationality in the region with a long history of struggle. In June last year, thousands of Kurds marched in Istanbul to protest the death of Medeni Yildirim, who was shot by police during a protest in Diyarbakir. In an unprecedented show of sympathy with the Kurdish struggle, they were joined by Turkish workers, students and others, many of whom had participated in the earlier anti-government actions.
Prior to the disaster, Soma Mining said it was one of the safest in the country. At a May 16 press conference, Soma Chairman Alp Gurkan said, “It was an unforeseeable accident.”
No safe room in the mine
When asked why the mine did not have a safe room stocked with oxygen masks, Gurkan said the company had planned to complete one in the next few months, but that it wasn’t legally obliged to do so and “it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“The mine has been thoroughly inspected 11 times since 2009,” said Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party . “There’s no negligence with respect to this incident.”
The mine in Soma is government-owned, but privately run by Soma Mining since 2005. In an interview printed in Hurriyet daily two years ago, Gurkan boasted that his company had reduced the costs of extracting coal from $130 per ton in 2005 to $23.80.
“Since the privatization of the company, they more easily violate safety regulations,” Cafer Alp, an electrician and leader of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions in Izmir, a couple hours from Soma, told the Militant May 18. Alp went to Soma and spoke to miners after the disaster. “The bosses run the mine with their own rules to maximize profit,” he said.
After the fire started, “the miners created their own rescue crews because they know the tunnels,” Alp said. “But the company didn’t have adequate equipment.”
Most of the miners live in Soma, Alp said. But many are small tobacco and cotton farmers who live in rural villages, where they have also joined protests.
Mine bosses know when inspectors are coming, and clean up in preparation, Bicak, 24, one of the surviving Soma miners, told the Associated Press May 17.
“The company is guilty,” Bicak said, noting that supervisors had devices to test methane levels in the mine. “The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn’t tell us in time.”
Yasemin Aydinoglu in Elmira, New York, contributed to this article.
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