When migrants from Turkey arrived in Melbourne in the 1970s and ’80s, they brought socialist traditions with them. The result was a range of thriving cultural associations that organized strikes, education, mutual aid, events, and solidarity campaigns.
The Union of Australian Kurdish and Turkish Workers (UAKTW) at a May Day march, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1980s. (UAKTW Archive)
The now gentrified suburbs of Melbourne’s inner north were once home to a constellation of leftist ethnic community organizations. Among these were four radical community centers founded in the 1970s and ’80s by migrants from Turkey. Known as derneks in Turkish, these centers were aligned with different Marxist tendencies and Turkish political movements.
They organized migrant workers, supported political refugees, influenced unions, and contributed to the anti-imperialist struggle, both in Turkey and internationally. At their height, contingents organized by Melbourne’s derneks regularly outnumbered mainstream socialist organizations at the city’s annual May Day march.
The Australian Turkish Cultural Association (ATCA) came together in 1974 to meet the growing needs of recent migrants. Its founders drew on the experience of existing leftist migrant associations established by Italians and Greeks. These were at the forefront of a growing “ethnic rights” movement, as it was then known, which demanded language services, better welfare and working conditions, and citizenship pathways for migrant workers.
By the late 1970s, ATCA was associated with the Soviet-oriented Communist Party of Turkey. However, it experienced its first split in 1977 when supporters of the Hoxhaist People’s Liberation movement in Turkey walked out and established their own organization, the Union of Australian Kurdish and Turkish Workers (UAKTW). The UAKTW suffered a split of its own in 1979, when followers of Turkey’s Maoist Partizan movement left to form the Victorian Turkish Labourers Association (VTLA). Then, in 1986, activists from Turkey’s Revolutionary Path — who had been operating from a room provided by the Socialist Workers Party in their North Melbourne building — set up a new association, Halkevi. In addition to these four derneks, women from UAKTW took over administration of the Turkish Women’s Association, which had originally been set up by the Turkish consulate.
By providing individual assistance to migrant workers, the derneks built a strong basis for collective action.
While the active organizers of these derneks took their allegiances to Turkish political movements very seriously, this wasn’t the case with many members. Although broadly leftist, most were not aligned to any particular party.
These thriving organizations attracted hundreds to organizing meetings, operated all-day drop-in centers, employed full-time organizers, and influenced unions and politicians. Recollections from participants in Melbourne’s derneks can help us understand how recently arrived socialists from Turkey achieved this feat.
“They were great organizers and they were involved in all facets of people’s lives,” explains Saadet Özdemir, an active member of UAKTW and the Turkish Women’s Association. Importantly, the derneks offered migrant workers assistance, including advice about accessing welfare as well as about finding employment and accommodation. They also provided childcare and interpreters, and helped with asylum and immigration issues. Şenol Mat worked in the Ford factory in Broadmeadows in Melbourne’s outer north. He was also a founding member of VTLA. Beyond attracting new supporters, he explains that “we saw it as a duty that socialists should always stand on the side of those who are disadvantaged in life.”
The vast majority of this work was voluntary, although some government grants funded research and social workers. One Liberal senator criticized this, claiming that it was “an insult to Australia’s migrant population that public funds are being given to promote communist ideals.” Clearly, the derneks’ many members did not agree.
By providing individual assistance to migrant workers, the derneks built a strong basis for collective action. Günay Koyunoğlu, who was an organizer in ATCA, recalls that in the 1970s, some migrants from Turkey faced obstacles that prevented them bringing their children to Australia. In response, ATCA mobilized affected families to protest outside the Immigration Department. They refused to leave until they were granted a meeting with the minister, who eventually gave in to their demands. “If the derneks didn’t exist,” Koyunoğlu explained, “we would not have known about this issue, and it would have remained an individual problem facing particular families.”
Whenever their members went on strike, the derneks were there to support them.
Beyond these immediate concerns, the derneks also catered to the cultural and social needs of the community. They organized concerts by exiled musicians, wrote and staged consciousness-raising theatre, and organized excursions and summer camps. They also ran weekend Turkish-language schools for children and provided music, dancing, and English classes.
In addition to this, the derneks organized their own media, producing newspapers and weekly community radio shows. By 1985, the UAKTW had two soccer teams, a volleyball team, and a table tennis club. “It was all aligned — the music, the culture, the rallies, the seminars,” says Özdemir. This was not a coincidence, but part of a strategy. As UAKTW’s 1983–84 activity report stated, “When undertaking cultural activities, we must not consider them independent of class struggle.”
The derneks’ strategy also included deep, local-level organizing. A founding member of UAKTW and former Ford worker who preferred to go by the initials ED described this work:
We had district committees of four to five people in neighborhoods like Broadmeadows and Coburg [in Melbourne’s north], who would visit houses of Turkish-speaking people. We would have tea or coffee, ask them about their problems, inform them about our work, and so build relationships with people, even some conservative people, who might otherwise not come into the dernek.
“Labor Has No Country”
“To us, labor has no country — labor is labor everywhere, and so, as socialists, we have to participate in the class struggle wherever we find ourselves,” says ED. This sentiment reflects the emphasis that the derneks placed on organizing at work. This was a pressing necessity, given the terrible working conditions faced by their members, many of whom worked in automotive manufacturing and textile factories. It was also a response to the xenophobia that existed in parts of the union movement.
Both UAKTW and ATCA produced newspapers in Turkish aimed at factory workers, covering their organization’s activities, as well as socialist perspectives on global, Turkish, and Australian news. They sold these newspapers to unions who distributed them for free to their Turkish-speaking members. In the late 1970s, ATCA also ran a union school that provided classes on union organizing in Turkish. Around fifty workers attended these courses, held at Melbourne’s Trades Hall, all while receiving their usual wages. Koyunoğlu, who taught these classes, recalls seeing some of his students later leading strikes.
Whenever their members went on strike, the derneks were there to support them. At workplaces like Ford and the Kortex textile factory, the derneks set up barricades, camped overnight, supplied homemade food, and took care of the strikers’ children. They also contributed to strike funds, translated information, and built morale by singing and dancing on the picket line. Some of the derneks also organized factory subcommittees, to lead their efforts at specific workplaces.
Most of the derneks’ leading organizers were influenced by Third Worldist versions of socialism. As a result, they understood the oppression they faced not as the result of their being Turkish or even Kurdish, but as the consequence of their position within a global system of imperialism. This strengthened their commitment to international anti-imperialist solidarity. As Mat explained, “Wherever there was a struggle in the world for independence, it was our duty as socialists to support it.”
For example, both UAKTW and VTLA had representatives in the Melbourne H-Block Committee, which organized solidarity with imprisoned Irish republicans on hunger strike. In 1981, when the queen visited Australia, the H-Block Committee organized a protest. In response, in the early hours of October 2, 1981, police raided the houses of eight members of the H-Block committee, including ED and another UAKTW member. As ED recalls,
They broke down my door, laid me face down, handcuffed me, and accused me of organizing to assassinate the queen. There was no evidence, so they let me go — they did this to obstruct our solidarity protest.
Naturally, the derneks also organized solidarity with progressive struggles in Turkey. This was particularly crucial after the coup on September 12, 1980, in which the Turkish military took power and launched a full-scale assault against Turkey’s growing left.
The junta imprisoned and tortured thousands, and some who fled found themselves in Melbourne, where they continued to agitate for revolution in Turkey. While many experienced organizers and intellectuals joined, the influx pushed the derneks to focus more on Turkey. It also intensified ideological fractures, detracting from the focus on workplace organizing and migrant rights activism. Muzaffer Oruçoğlu, a well-known writer, painter, and former political prisoner arrived in 1988. In his account, by then, “the politics of Turkey and Kurdistan had come to dominate over concrete issues facing workers and migrants.”
The derneks remain examples of the power of organization and disciplined collective work, as well as the importance of international solidarity.
The derneks formed the Turkey Solidarity Committee, which coordinated with the National Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Turkey. They organized protests against the regime, lobbied parliamentarians and unions, and sent delegations of doctors, lawyers, and politicians to Turkey. They hosted seminars and conferences in Turkish for the diaspora and also wrote English-language newsletters and reports to raise awareness about the junta’s repression. They corresponded with their imprisoned comrades in Turkey and collected funds for political movements. In return, the Turkish consulate spied on the derneks, intimidated their members, and in some cases, stripped them of their Turkish nationality.
In 1983, seven members of the derneks went on hunger strike for over two weeks in protest against the military junta. They camped in Melbourne’s City Square, distributed flyers, and received visits from sympathetic unionists and politicians. The then foreign minister promised the hunger strikers that he would raise the situation in Turkey at the United Nations.
The derneks were part of international networks of the Turkish left in exile. The Halkevi, for example, was the local branch of the Devrimçi Işçi (Revolutionary Worker) movement. This movement had branches in many cities across Germany, France, Switzerland, and elsewhere, and was a powerful source of opposition to the Turkish regime. The Devrimçi Işçi newspaper facilitated communication between these branches. It reported on news from Turkey, hosted theoretical debates within the diaspora, and circulated updates from member branches in different countries.
Lessons for Today’s Activists
Vivian Gornick has described how the Communist Party of America offered its members a “wholeness” or “all-in-allness” that couldn’t be found in everyday life. This applies just as much to the derneks in Melbourne. “It wasn’t a job, it wasn’t a role — it was their lives,” notes Özdemir. “We were there at the dernek every day, after work, before work, on the weekend. . . . Our lives were built around it.” The derneks brought together families, friends, work, culture, and politics.
To sustain such intense activity required enormous self-sacrifice. “We had friends who worked twelve-hour night shifts at the Ford factory and then came to the dernek to work for a few hours before going home to sleep,” remembers Koyunoğlu. As Mat recalls, “On weekends, we would drive to Mildura [six hours from Melbourne] to pick grapes and bring the cash that we earned back to the community center.”
Mutual aid work further strengthened the bonds between dernek members. Koyunoğlu recalls traveling to Mildura with twenty to twenty-five people, to repair the farm buildings of an ATCA member that had been destroyed by heavy wind days before harvest. “We saved their harvest that year . . . and those who did that work were strengthened by the knowledge that there are people who would support them in their own times of need.”
A deeply held political vision also reinforced this intense commitment. As Özdemir notes, dernek members “believed that change was possible — they were passionate, and they were true believers.” At times, this came at a price. Looking back, Mat cautioned there is a “difference between belief and knowledge — and the Turkish left always operated on the basis of belief.” Self-sacrifice also has a cost, at times relegating the personal aspirations of individual members to second place, behind the needs of the collective and the demands of their political vision.
One recurring criticism that former members make is that the derneks did not found lasting institutions. Unlike more conservative groups founded by migrants from Turkey, although government funding would have made it possible, the derneks did not establish and maintain schools and retirement homes. As ED explains, “We thought only about the revolution and couldn’t see the long-term view.”
Of course, the present differs considerably from the era that saw the derneks flourish. But the derneks remain examples of the power of organization and disciplined collective work, as well as the importance of international solidarity. They are also a testament to the importance of culture and mutual support within a movement. “To be a revolutionary,” reflects ED, “is to labor, to work, to help one another, and to love people. That’s what it means to be a revolutionary.”