Labor unions in Turkey and in Gezi protests – F. Serkan Öngel

I’m not saying “Don’t unionize.” Do it, but do it in your spare time.

The Turkish original of this article, “Sendikalı olma demiyorum hobi olarak yine ol!”, signed F.Serkan Öngel, was published on August 4th, 2013 in Birgün newspaper. For our English-speaking audience, we prepared a shortened translation of the article.

Permission to Collective Agreement and Strike

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security takes its power to violate labor rights from the laws and regulations introduced by the military intervention on September 12th, 1980. One of the most important of these regulations is the issue of syndicate thresholds, which gives the state a tremendous power to intervene in the relationship between employer and employees. The law issued after September 12th restricted the right to strike for the collective agreement process and prohibited any other type of strikes. And then introduced thresholds for competency to collective agreement. The labor unions that can make collective agreement would be decided by the Ministry. The AKP government enthusiastically welcomed this anti-democratic practice and adopted it with joy. This is the mentality underlying the recent Labor Unions and Collective Agreements Law, effective by November 7th, 2012.

The direct result of this law is the robbery of the right to collective agreement. By 2018, nearly half of the registered workers will not be able to make collective agreements, even if s/he became involved in a labor union. This new law is far beyond the 1980 policies.


Where are the Labor Unions?

By the Gezi Park protests, a public demand for general strike came out. Suddenly, everyone focused on labor unions. “Where are the labor unions?” This question was the reaction towards the unions. It is nice that people, who typically are not conscious that unions are the solidarity and unity organizations of the workers (ie. themselves), who see no other choice other than submission to their boss, who cannot dare to show solidarity to their fired colleagues, who prioritize competition over solidarity in their workplace, seek for unions all of a sudden. However, the problem is that in a society where 60% of the population takes part in the wage labor, unions are seen as an external agency. It is as if unions are some superheroes waiting somewhere for a public call. In fact, any place where unity and solidarity transform into struggle for rights is the real ground for unionization.

The basis of this ground has been destroyed by the organizational changes in the production and management strategies. While laws tied the hands of labor unions, the union movement imprisoned itself within legal boundaries. Labor unions regressed dramatically. Being a union member became an exception. The state tried to tame the unions so that they would be compatible with the interests of the capital and the state, so that they are broken off from the working class. This was mostly successful.

As a result, while around half of the registered workers were unionized before 1980, this number was reduced to 20% in the 80s, then to 10% in the 90s, and finally to one-digit numbers by 2000s. The new law mentioned above removes the notary requirements [see Labor Rights in Turkey] and thereby makes unionization easier, but makes the right to collective agreement completely out of question, therefore practically forbids strikes. Unionization becomes a pure hobby for workers after this reconstruction. The logic is to increase the number of members of labor unions (as a parameter of democratization) while at the same time making them ineffective. However, all these attempts will fail as can be seen clearly in the uprising of the non-unionized masses.

The portion of labor in the national income decreased from 52% to 30% in the period 1999-2012. In the same period, the numbers of workers who practiced collective agreement fell from 11% to 5.5%. It is obvious that there is a correlation.

This picture shows that the bells toll for the working class. It is possible to say the blue-collar workers are hardly kept in the factories1, and the June uprising is an indicator of this.

1  Reference to the statements of PM Tayyip Erdoğan who claimed that he hardly keeps his 50% [of the population] at home during the Gezi protests.
Ege M. Diren

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