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For years, the working class of Türkiye has been caught in the vice-grip of a global economic downturn and a government hostile to their interests. Now, with presidential elections coming up on May 14, speculation is rising that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could be unseated. On May Day, thousands of workers mobilized in Istanbul, limiting themselves to the outskirts of the city after more central locations were shut down in anticipation of protests. TRNN reports from Istanbul, speaking directly to union organizers, members of Parliament, and more on the condition of the Turkish working class and the prospects the upcoming election offers.

This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.

Producer: Daniel Thorpe
Videographers: Murat Bay and Daniel Thorpe
Video editors: Daniel Thorpe, Leo Erhardt and Murat Bay


Protestors: Long live May Day!

Daniel Thorpe (narrator): In Istanbul, despite the authorities’ ban on protests in Taksim Square, workers and activists refused to stay silent on May Day. The police responded with force, arresting 184 people who tried to reach the square.

Protestors: Leave our comrades alone!
We are going to Taksim Square.
Long live May Day!
We are not giving up Taksim Square.
The dictators will fall.
Your palaces will be demolished.
The people will prevail.

Police: Come!
Get out of here!

Daniel Thorpe (narrator): But the spirit of protest could not be quelled. Tens of thousands of people gathered on the outskirts of Istanbul, organized by their workers’ unions and political parties. Their message was clear: they are fed up with deteriorating working conditions, the cost of living crisis, and they want change.

Protestors: Taksim Square is everywhere,
the revolt is everywhere!
Long live May Day!
Women, life, freedom!

Tuana Oğuz, University student: With this economic and cost of living crisis life is really difficult as a female university student. That’s why I’m here on May Day, to defend my rights and demands.

Protestors: You will never march alone!

Mehmet Kervancı, Unemployed: I came here today to show our strength as organized students and workers. To show that we’re a force against this system.

İbrahim Ercan, Metal factory worker: This capitalist order impoverishes all. Our wages are disappearing with inflation. 

Hassan Karakazan, Pensioner – Revolutionary WorkersUnion: We are being crushed under the economic conditions. Especially the retired. 

Mehmet Kervancı, Unemployed: The cost of housing and food is really high. Life is difficult in Turkey if you’re a student or unemployed. 

Protestors: Either all together or none of us!

Musa Piroğlu, MP – Democratic PeoplesParty: This country became hell on earth for workers. We have the highest rate of workplace homicides in the world and the second highest in Europe. Slave-like working conditions became normalized. Most of our people… One moment, let me have a look what’s going on there. I’ll have a look then come back.

Protestor: How can you arrest people on May Day? We are not terrorists or murderers.

Musa Piroğlu, MP – Democratic PeoplesParty: You are blocking us on May Day. You are trying to stop people from joining. This is a sign that you’re done! 

Protestor: Why are you attacking people for no reason?

Musa Piroğlu, MP – Democratic PeoplesParty: They are blocking my way as an MP. Disperse finally! That’s all it takes. You saw what just happened. This country became a police state. People struggle to breathe under all forms of police brutality. This May Day is also a gasp for air. We’ve come to the end of this. The election is coming up, but this is about more than just an election. The people are increasingly angry. The government is ready to do anything but as you saw this anger is ready to crush everything.

Protestors: For justice!
For democracy!
For peace!
For the struggle!
We give our word!

Hassan Karakazan, Pensioner – Revolutionary WorkersUnion: They say our union is not legal. They constantly close it. A society without union and organization is doomed to perish, to be chained.

İbrahim Ercan, Metal factory worker: Our rights were never given to us. We fought for them. Without the unions we’ll live under a capitalist order that does as it wishes. 

Daniel Thorpe (narrator): As Turkey prepares for the upcoming elections on May 14th, 2023, President Erdogan is facing his toughest electoral battle yet. After 21 years in power, polls suggest that he does not have the support of the majority of the electorate, with many voters disillusioned with his leadership.

Züleyha Gülüm, MP – Democratic PeoplesParty: There’s an important election coming up [14 May]. This election will be about freedom, justice and labor against oppression. For a long time, Turkey has been governed by an anti-democratic ruler.

İbrahim Ercan, Metal factory worker: If we carry on under this government everything will just get worse. 

Kaan Taktak,High school student: I have nothing good to say about this person [President Erdoğan]. He destroyed my youth and took every penny I had. I hope this election won’t be another disappointment and this time we push him off his throne. 

Daniel Thorpe (narrator): The May Day protests in Istanbul were a reflection of this discontent. Workers and activists from all walks of life came together to demand better working conditions, greater economic stability, and an end to Erdogan’s long rule. Despite the police crackdown, their voices were heard loud and clear.

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Daniel Thorpe is a video journalist based in Istanbul. He graduated from Oxford University where he studied Turkish and Persian. He has worked for the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and other media organisations.

Murat Bay is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker from the southeast of Turkey currently based in Istanbul. During his work, he has covered human rights, migration, social movements, armed conflict, and natural disasters in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Antarctica, Greece, and Ukraine. He has worked with a number of agencies and news outlets including AP, AFP, Getty Images, Die Welt, and Stern.