Politically affiliated trade unions: A chronic disease in Turkey

In the five weeks since opposition parties scored a series of victories in Turkey’s nationwide municipal elections, thousands of local authority employees have switched from pro-government trade unions, an indication of how much labour organisations are under political control.

Following the March 31 elections, pro-government news outlets began publishing reports of municipal workers being dismissed or facing discrimination for being members of the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in places where the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won control of local government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said such moves were unacceptable.

The pro-government Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions (Memur-Sen), Turkey's largest civil servants' union confederation, said late last month that 4,910 of its members had switched unions following the polls.

The Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (Hak-İş), a pro-AKP bloc representing public sector workers, said 5,600 of its members had been forced to resign their membership by incoming opposition party local administrations.

Pro-opposition trade unions said the civil servants and workers were returning to their natural home as they no longer felt pressure from AKP mayors and local administrations.

Given that political parties have dominated unions for decades, it is likely the number of people switching unions will increase in the coming weeks.

It is impossible to talk about independent unions in Turkey. All parties are linked to different trade unions, which they see as their own assets. Whenever power changes hands, the union affiliated to the new party in power becomes the main player in town.

That trend increased sharply after the AKP came to power nationally in 2002. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants joined Memur-Sen, either under the pressure or guidance of government-affiliated bureaucrats, or because they thought it would enhance their prospects of promotion. Public sector workers meanwhile flocked to Hak-İş.

Ties between the ruling party and Memur-Sen and Hak-İş are strong with the AKP picking senior union leaders. Union bosses see their posts as a stepping stone to a seat in parliament. Both Ahmet Gündoğdu and Salim Uslu, the former heads of Memur-Sen and Hak-İş, became AKP members of parliament. Union leaders even compete with one another to be closer to AKP head office and thus exert more power.

The AKP’s far-right junior coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), exerts command and control over its trade union, the Confederation of Unions of Public Employees of Turkey (Kamu-Sen). When a group of senior politicians left the party and formed the rival Good Party, the MHP leadership cracked down strongly on any dissenting union leaders. Media reports said İsmail Koncuk, the head of the Kamu-Sen, along with the leaders of eight unions in the confederation, was forced to resign as a result of threats and blackmail. Koncuk was later elected to parliament as a member of the Good Party.

Meanwhile, the leftist Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) has ties to the CHP and the Confederation of Public Employees' Trade Unions (KESK), the third-largest group of public sector labour unions, is closely linked to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. DİSK’s former leader Kani Beko was elected as a CHP member of parliament last year, following the footsteps of his predecessor.  

The only exception to this rule is the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), whose leadership is close to the government, while its affiliated unions are linked to different political parties.

Union membership numbers reflect the fortunes of the political parties. Memur-Sen, which only had around 41,000 members when the AKP came to power in 2002, now has become more than a million members. As public institutions pay civil servants’ union subscriptions, this means billions of lira of taxpayers’ money is transferred to pro-government organisations.

Inevitably, unions have become tools of the parties unwilling to challenge their political masters. Civil servants and public sector workers inevitably switch trade unions when power changes hands, be it at a local or national level. Senior union officials, appointed by the political parties and not answerable to the membership, meanwhile live lives of luxury thanks to the contributions of their members.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.