Pro-government union membership up as intimidation grows

While there is a steady increase in the numbers joining trade unions close to the Turkish government, the membership of those critical of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration is falling.

The main reason, union leaders say, is the need for job security and the perception that, unless employees join a pro-government union, they could be dismissed as part of a widespread crackdown on dissent.

The anti-government Confederation of Public Employees' Trade Unions (KESK), one of the four major national trade union confederations in Turkey, has lost more than 90,000 members in recent years.

In the public sector, the anti-government Public Labour Union (Kamu-Sen) has lost about 31,000 members, while the rival pro-government Confederation of Civil Servants Union (Memur-Sen) has gained 170,000. The total number of union members is also in decline. In 2017, 72,000 civil servants resigned from unions altogether.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Aysun Oral secretary-general of the leftist Education and Science Workers' Union (Eğitim-Sen), “wants to control every domain, they want every entity to be loyal to the party. As a matter of fact, this is the primary reason for the enormous growth of membership of pro-government unions."

More than 100,000 state employees were dismissed from their jobs during a two-year state of emergency following a failed military coup in July 2016. Critics said the crackdown targeted opponents of all shades, not just the followers of the reclusive U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who were blamed for the coup attempt.

"They are using the state's might to intimidate workers. Workers feel like unless they join pro-government unions, they won't have job security, or even be promoted. As a result, knowing the pervasive lawlessness, the workers join those unions to secure their jobs," Oral said.

A former member of the Health Workers' Union, dismissed from his job, said fear spread when authorities began targeting members of the union.

“We have our principles, but most of us also have families to feed. Unfortunately, we had to abandon our principles. Some of our friends were dismissed from their professions. Some were re-instated. But uneasiness and fear pushed us towards compliance," said the health sector worker who declined to be named.

Cihan Koca was an Eğitim-Sen representative at Istanbul Technical University before he was dismissed from his post by government decree under state of emergency powers.

"During the state of emergency, the government violated the fundamental rights and security of workers through decrees. They tried to silence anyone who demanded democracy, peace and justice,” said Koca, who now works for his brother's pest control company.

"We were dismissed from our jobs because we were standing up for the employees. Because the union the employers imagined is the opposite of what we are, they wanted the unions to be more pro-employer. We refused to play along," he said.

"I know many teachers, academics and educators who never sign up to a union. I happen to agree with some of their concerns about the unions. But in general, I can say many employees in Turkey do not have job security or job safety … many choose not to sign up to a union for fear of losing their jobs," Koca said.

A physics teacher at a vocational religious school in Istanbul said he felt intimidated into joining the pro-government Memur-Sen union.

"I started working last year. Almost all the teachers in our school are members of Memur-Sen. I can't risk joining a different union. They ban educators from the profession for being a member of the wrong union. I know I shouldn't be intimidated, but unfortunately, I am. I cannot possibly risk losing my job," he said.

Arzu Acar, a former education employee and union member, was fired from her job and now runs a bar in Istanbul.

"Government's pressure, dismissals and investigations during the state of emergency period created a legitimate feeling of vulnerability among public workers. The deterioration of legal safety nets, the collapse of institutional protections of employees, uncertainty and growing political pressure caused great concern among workers,” she said.

“Lawlessness and unpredictability are at unprecedented levels. The accounts and struggles of the people who were fired without any evidence of wrongdoing, the unjust, illegal investigations, the imprisonments ... are all very upsetting."

Science teacher Emrah said he had resigned from his former union for fear of losing his job. "The labour unions are not there to protect the workers' rights anymore, now the government is using the labour unions to profile workers."

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