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Turkey's Labor Protests Gain Momentum

This week, millions of workers in Turkey joined in a one-day strike. The protest was in support of a small group of tobacco workers who, for nearly two months, have been protesting in the capital Ankara over pay and job security. Their protest as has become a focal point of growing labor discontent in Turkey.

Workers held demonstrations across the country in Turkey's biggest labor protest in nearly two decades.

The demonstrations are in support of workers employed at 12 factories that belong to a former state-owned alcohol and tobacco company. The workers are striking over job security and pay conditions at the Tekel company, which wants to close a number of its factories as part of its privatization plans.

But Sami Evren head of KESK - the civil servants trade union - says the plight of workers is symbolic of wider threats facing trade unions.

He said, the workers have shown that they are in solidarity with the Tekel workers. He says they are protesting for all the workers to guarantee their job security and working conditions.

For the last 50 days, the workers have been protesting in the center of the capital Ankara, despite near-freezing temperatures. The protests have been very high profile, with many TV channels broadcasting daily.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan originally dismissed the protest, but later met with trade union leaders. As talks stated breaking down, however, he reverted to a hardline stance.

He says he has seen this all before and it has nothing to do with jobs and working conditions. This is ideologically motivated, he says. I call on Tekel workers not to fall into a trap. Showing our government as an enemy against the workers . Their actions are a kind of invasion and we won't let their actions to go on after this month, he says.

In the last few weeks the prime minister has accused supporters of the secular state and, in particular, the army, of trying to overthrow his Islamic-rooted government. But
Thursday's mass strikes were a rare show of solidarity, with left and moderate trade unions being join by pro-Islamic unions. And, many of Tekel workers are Islamic-veiled women.

One man who supports the protests says the Tekel workers are right in what they are doing.

"The fact that they are facing such difficulties shows us the hardship that workers are facing in this country. But people are now realizing this," he said.

The European Union is pressing Ankara to introduce trade union reforms as part of Turkey's membership requirements. But the government has shelved some plans for reform.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bachesehir University says the government's Islamic beliefs are a factor behind their reluctance to introduce labor reform.

"They prefer obedience to the boss, so they are are not interested in these modern techniques. They think labor should continue to work and don't ask for much. This is their way of seeing the labor relations," said Aktar.

He warns that the country is set to face major labor unrest as the world economic crisis tightens its grip on Turkey .

"Turkish industries are struggling to cope with low cost countries. Of course, the labor movement is paying - actually workers are paying. Social benefits are diminishing and the labor struggles are getting much worse and very tough," Aktar added.

Observers say the Tekel workers' protests are igniting an overall demand for greater trade union rights in Turkey. And, with both sides saying they will not back down, a major political confrontation could be in the offing.