Turkey’s ossified unions fail to defend workers’ interests

When Turkey’s main public sector union agreed in August to a wage increase that is likely to barely keep up with inflation, it was a sign of a dire weakness that has have left workers struggling to make ends meet.

Experts say trade unions have become too bureaucratic and union officials are putting their own interests above those of members.

Leftist writer Fikret Başkaya said unions in Turkey had faced serious obstacles throughout their history, but had now become a burden on the working class they are supposed to represent.

“The left in Turkey never bothered much with the decline of unions. They made out like it was better to be in the worst organisation than to be without one. Who on earth would believe that nonsense?” he asked.

It took until 1946 for a Turkish government to allow the first unions, and they faced restrictions from the beginning, with no right to strike or to engage in collective bargaining.

The government placed strict limits on the dues unions could collect in order to restrict their power. At the time, unions had trouble even paying the rent for their headquarters.

In the 1950s, after a great deal of hesitation, the Democrat Party government of the time eventually decided that it would allow the establishment of trade union confederations, realising that it would be easier to exert control over single confederations than a host of individual unions, Başkaya said.

Turkey’s first confederation, the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), was founded in 1952. Unions were granted the rights to collective bargaining and to stage strikes in 1963, though Başkaya said they never strayed much from the government line.

The one exception was the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), founded in 1967, said Başkaya.

“The regime looked at DİSK as a threat. When factions in the military took power in a coup in 1980 and shut down DİSK, the junta’s minister of labour was the general secretary of Türk-İş. Need I say more? In fact, Türk-İş is a focal point of betrayal of the working class,” he said.

The Sept. 12, 1980 military coup came after a decade of bitter fighting between right-wing nationalists and militant leftists. The junta came down hard on society as a whole, arresting hundreds of thousands and leading to a period of torture and extrajudicial killings.

Leftists were hit especially hard, with the junta government targeting trade unions and arresting and torturing many of their members after suspending union rights.

Adnan Serdaroğlu, the head of Turkey’s Metal Industrialists’ Union, said the post-coup period was the beginning of the crisis unions face today.

“The union movement prior to September 12 and the one that came after it are completely antithetical to one another,” Serdaroğlu said.

“Before the coup, people were coming to the unions knowing they’d suffer, willing to sacrifice their lives. There was a class struggle there … After September 12, things went completely in the opposite direction … (The coup) gave rise to a syndicate movement that is completely under the state’s control,” he said.

Serdaroğlu said the pressure on unions after the coup and a wave of disinformation had led to many workers distancing themselves from the class movement and becoming more individualistic.

“The September 12 philosophy became embedded in people’s brains,” he said. “Employers have been using unions as a way to keep workers in line,” he said.

Meanwhile, unions have become staffed by professional bureaucrats who are serving their own interests, and deal with those in power on that basis.

This has left the movement in tatters, with most workers not signed up as members, said Ali Karabudak of the Workers’ Solidarity Association.

“We want to reach the workers that syndicates have not reached,” he said. “There are said to be 15 million registered workers in Turkey, but only around 1 million of them are union members.”

But even membership of a union does not necessarily mean that the workers are able to exercise their rights, he said.

“While there are this many non-union workers, the unions are not showing nearly enough awareness of ensuring their workers can exercise their constitutional rights,” he said.

“In Turkey union dues are supreme. Trade unionists don’t care about subcontracted workers, because they don’t bring in dues. Some unionists are as rich as industrialists. Compared to the past, the social and political solidarity in the working class is much weaker,” he said.

As for Türk-İş, Turkey’s oldest union has long faced criticism for its tight bonds to the government.

“They act as if they’re trying to solve problems, and then act like the government’s outriders, giving them breathing room,” said Mustafa Türker, a former Türk-İş member who resigned and went on to become the chairman of the Tekgıda-İş food manufacturers’ union.

There are significant union disputes still ongoing in Turkey, not least by workers for global food conglomerate Cargill who have been in a dispute with the company for more than 500 days after being dismissed for trying to form a union at their workplace.

The 14 workers have continued their vigil outside the factory in the western Turkish province of Bursa since being sacked for joining Tekgıda-İş, turning their demands into one of the most widely known labour disputes in the country and attracting a great deal of support.

Turkish Metal union member Fahri said better rights would not be won through connections with the government, but bottom-up struggle.

“I don’t think unions are defending workers’ rights. The union bosses have become detached from the workers. Until we can stake our claim and until we can form from the grassroots I don’t think true trade unionism will take place … The best way to do that is by paying our dues. The money’s needed for strikes,” said Fahri.

“To break the bureaucracy, it’s not enough to take action in one factory. We need to form a nationwide front,” he said.