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Free Ocalan! The emphatic demand from TUC Annual Congress 2019

Free Ocalan. A powerful, emotional and historic call to release jailed Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan was made by enthusiastic delegates at the 2019 annual congress of the TUC.

At the 2019 TUC annual congress, at the end of the first day’s debate, the combined leadership of the UK trade union movement called from the platform for the gathered delegates to show their solidarity with the Kurdish people’s leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Two years ago, our Congress agreed to support the campaign to free the leader of the Kurdish peace movement Abdullah Ocalan. This campaign is now backed by many of our unions and I’m proud to say my own.


Six hundred delegates representing six million workers then rose to their feet and held aloft placards bearing the image of Abdullah Ocalan and demanded – Freedom for Öcalan. The image was created by Jim Fitzpatrick the artist behind the iconic portrait of Che Guevara.

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary Unite the Union, Frances O’Grady general secretary TUC, Mark Serwotka general secretary PCS and president TUC, Tim Roache general secretary GMB

Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan and the battle for Turkeys future

On the second day of the congress, the Freedom for Ocalan campaign hosted a packed fringe, chaired by campaign co-chair and Labour Party Peer Christine Blower.

The fringe, titled ‘The battle for Turkey’s future – the critical role of Trade Unions, civil society and the Kurdish movement’ included many leading trade unionists who have worked with progressive Turkish unions and the Kurds in both Turkey and Rojava. 

Speakers included; Tim Roache, general secretary GMB, Manuel Cortes, general secretary TSSA, Shavanah Taj, PCS and vice-president, Wales TUC, Tony Burke, assistant general secretary Unite and Elif Sarican, anthropologist, writer and activist of Kurdish Women’s Movement.

The Turkish government has embarked on a programme of mass arrests, detention, closure of opposition media, and attacks on trade unionists and NGOs. It is rapidly becoming an extreme authoritarian state. It is also clear that the Turkish regime continues to actively support jihadi groups attacking the progressive Kurdish forces in Syria in their bid to crush the fledgeling democratic state that the Kurds have been establishing.

Free Ocalan!

In what was to become the theme of the fringe Christine Blower used her introduction of the event to emphatically make the case that “Öcalan is the Mandela of the Middle East”

Tim Roache, general secretary GMB and general council international spokesperson TUC, speaking at “The battle for Turkey’s future” fringe at TUC 2019 – image by Stephen J Russell

Tim Roache, In his fiery opening remarks, urged branches and regions to affiliate to the Freedom for Ocalan campaign, declaring “As trade unionists, this is our fight!” adding “Ocalan’s imprisonment is a disgrace!”

Manuel Cortes, in a damning indictment of Turkish democracy, told delegates “The prisons, are full of judges … there is no Rule of Law. In Turkey, it is now impossible to have a lawful protest”. He went on to say “Like Mandela, Öcalan will be free & will lead his people to a new democratic settlement.”

Tony Burke, assistant general secretary Unite the Union speaking at “The battle for Turkey’s future” fringe at TUC 2019 – image by Stephen J Russell

Tony Burke, condemned Erdogan’s anti-trade union practices, lamenting “400 deaths due to the appalling state of workers rights in Turkey.” 

Elif Sarican of the Kurdish Women’s Movement outlined the philosophy of the movement and praised Öcalan for what he has done for women and the wider Kurdish movement “the hope he created makes us undefeatable” she said. “He’s a genuinely uniting force for a democratic, free and gender-equal society. Free Ocalan!”

Shavanah Taj reiterated the pressing need for continued and increased solidarity from the trade union movement with the Kurdish people and the oppression and persecution they face.

Shavanah Taj secretary for Wales & national officer for South West PCS speaking at “The battle for Turkey’s future” fringe at TUC 2019 – image by Stephen J Russell

Speaking from the floor, Tom Murphy of the affiliated London Print Branch and executive council member for Unite the Union, in an impassioned statement eloquently described why trade unionists must support the Kurds and progressive unions “I have seen first hand how Erdogan’s oppression of the Kurds has now been extended to all the people of Turkey including our brother and sister Trade Unions.”

Tom Murphy London Print Branch, Unite GPM & IT Sector and executive council GPM & IT, Unite the Union, speaking from the floor at “The battle for Turkey’s future” fringe at TUC 2019

The Freedom for Ocalan campaign would like to sincerely thank all those who took part in the solidarity action at this years congress, who spoke to us on our stall, signed up to our newsletter, affiliated their branch, spoke at our fringe or helped to organise the event. The solidarity shown by the TUC has been a massive boost to our campaign. Solidarity. 

How can you help the campaign?

With growing support in the trade union movement, devolved governments and the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Freedom for Ocalan campaign is calling on trade unionists and activists to support the many local campaigns now running throughout the UK and Europe.

If you’re a member of a trade union it’s critical you support us by requesting your branch, regional or national trade union affiliate now.

With trade union support in the last twelve months we’ve been able to;

By Freedom for Ocalan

The Freedom for Öcalan campaign is a UK trade union-backed initiative to secure the release of imprisoned Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan.

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