Turkish trade unions in death throes

Restrictive laws and government hostility have crippled Turkey’s once-mighty labor movement, which made a poor showing this May Day.

al-monitor Plainclothes police walk on the main pedestrian street of Istiklal during a May Day demonstration in Istanbul, May 1, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkish protests, turkish politics, taksim square protests, istanbul

May 5, 2014

On May 1, 1977, a human sea of 500,000 workers packed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, flowing in from all over Turkey. Kemal Turkler, the head of the Revolutionary Labor Unions Confederation (DISK, Turkey’s largest leftist trade union), was in the middle of his speech when bullets rained on the crowd from the 10th floor of a hotel and the roof of a public building, both overlooking the square.

Panic led to a deadly stampede. The death toll, announced the following day, included 28 people crushed, one overrun by an armored vehicle and five killed by gunfire, in addition to 136 injured. The scenes of chaos remained engraved deep in Turkish memory. 

May Day in Turkey unmistakably evokes Taksim Square. Workers insist on remembering their comrades at the spot they died. This year, Istanbul's governor banned May Day commemorations at Taksim, telling workers to gather in Maltepe or Yenikapi, away from the heart of the city.

Trade unions, however, were resolute. Ali Berberoglu, a senior member of the Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), challenged the government on Halk TV late on April 30, saying, “Our martyrs fell at Taksim, and that’s where we are going to remember them. Where do we commemorate the Gallipoli martyrs? At Gallipoli, right?”

May Day blockade

Despite repeated requests and assurances of a peaceful rally, the government sealed off Taksim Square on the grounds that “provocations” had been planned. In defiance of the government, DISK, KESK, the Union of Turkish Architects and Engineers Chambers and the United Public Workers Union Confederation decided to descend on Taksim.

On the morning of May 1, members of DISK and its allies as well as a number of lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party gathered at the DISK headquarters in Sisli, not far from Taksim. They managed to march only 100 meters to where riot police had blocked the way to Taksim. Water cannons dispersed the crowd, triggering clashes in side streets. The police fired tear gas at the protesters, who responded with sticks and stones. The water cannons also stopped thousands of other people who tried to reach Taksim from other routes. 

Elsewhere, rallies were allowed to proceed. The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Turk-Is) gathered in Kadikoy, on Istanbul’s Asian side, while the Rights Trade Unions’ Confederation (Hak-Is) marked the day in Kayseri, central Turkey.

In Istanbul, an army of 39,000 police and 50 water cannons was mobilized. All roads to Taksim were sealed off. The blockade choked the whole city as the authorities suspended subway, bus and ferry services. The anticipation of a clampdown appeared to have discouraged many potential participants, as the crowds looked smaller compared with last year.

How did the trade unions fade?

May Day, celebrated for 158 years across the world, remains restricted in Turkey mainly because trade unionization is badly crippled. With unionization declining quickly, labor is ceasing to be an organized force. The more trade unions fade, the more easily they are being ignored.

Membership in Turkish trade unions today numbers less than half of the 2,204,000 unionized workers in 1980. According to the Labor and Social Security Ministry’s statistics, only 1,096,000 of Turkey’s 11,600,000 workers belonged to a trade union as of January 2014. The portion of unionized workers has declined to 9%; the European average is 23%. Nearly half of the unionized Turkish workers are not entitled to collective bargaining, meaning they cannot negotiate their wages with employers.

CHP lawmaker Suleyman Celebi, the former head of DISK, spoke to Al-Monitor about the labor movement’s plight.

“Some 1,040,000 workers are registered in unions. But only about 580,000 of them are entitled to collective labor contracts. The others are denied this right because their unions remain below [legal membership] thresholds. So, for many workers, trade union membership lacks the benefit of collective contracts,” said Celebi.

And how did the labor unions come to this point? Prior to 1980, Turkey’s workers were the mightiest civic power in the country. Trade unions were forces to be reckoned with, organizing highly effective rallies, strikes and resistance movements. Following the 1980 military coup, legal amendments were introduced to curb trade unions, including certain benchmarks for the right to negotiate collective contracts. 

Three thresholds are currently in place. The unions, Celebi explained, first face the “work sector” threshold, with a total of 18 work sectors legally designated. For instance, if 1 million people work in a given sector, a trade union has to recruit at least 1% of them. Then comes the “workplace” threshold, which requires unions to recruit at least 51% of the workers in a given workplace.

And finally, there is the “chain business” threshold, which bars trade unions from collective bargaining unless they recruit at least 40% of workers in nationwide chains such as supermarkets.

Celebi said: “Many unions are hampered by the thresholds. This system exists nowhere else in the world.”

The largest Turkish trade union today is the centrist Turk-Is with 702,000 members, followed by the 166,000-strong Hak-Is, which has ties to the government, and the leftist DISK with 107,000 members.

Unionism is dead, long live subcontracting!

Another major blow to the labor movement comes from the subcontracting system, which has been heavily promoted in recent years. Even state institutions are increasingly outsourcing to subcontractors, who pay lower wages to non-unionized workers. The practice has expanded so much that even parliament, supposed to lead efforts to protect labor rights, has outsourced many of its own needs, such as cleaning and catering. About 600,000 workers are employed today in the subcontracting system.

Even doctors may be soon subcontracted. The Labor Ministry has drawn up a draft law abolishing a provision that bars subcontracting in “essential services.” If the bill is passed, medical services, which constitute the “essential service” of hospitals, or cleaning services provided by municipalities would be up for grabs to subcontractors.

Trade unionists in parliament

What about the former trade unionists who are now parliament members? What are they doing as the labor movement wanes? 

They have failed to help revitalize the labor movement. Under the law, trade unionists resign from their organizations when they join parliament, thus relinquishing the clout they commanded over hundreds of thousands of people. Stripped from the labor power behind them, they effectively lose their say in affecting legislation.

This situation is in stark contrast to the practice in Europe, Celebi stressed. “Trade unionists in Europe are not required to quit their posts when elected to parliament. So, they are able to feel the pulse of both sides,” he said.

Today, trade unions are so weakened that they cannot weigh in even on the venue of their once-a-year celebration. If the regression persists, May Day — officially “Labor and Solidarity Day” since 2008 — will lose its meaning altogether, shrinking to nothing more than a spring festival for Turkish workers to admire blossoming flowers in parks rather than shout their demands in the streets, if only once a year.

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