Trade unions and deunionisation in Turkey

Banu Uckhan Hekimler, Anadolu University

According to the ITUC (International Trade Unions Confederation) Global Rights Index published in 2018, 65% of countries exclude workers from to establish or join a trade union, 81% of countries have violated the right to collective bargaining and 87% of countries have violated the right to strike. The report announced ten worst countries for working people as follows: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Among these countries, only Turkey is from Europe. Therefore it is worth to find the answers for these questions: “How is the industrial relations system in Turkey?” and “How the union rights are violated by the government and the employers in Turkey?”

Turkey, as a candidate country in the EU integration process since the 1960s, is generally characterized by low union density, decentralized collective bargaining, and authoritarian state figure as well as hostile labour-employer and labour-state relations. The main actor in Turkish industrial relations system is the state. There was neither a bourgeoisie nor a working class in the European sense in the Turkish pre-Republican period. Therefore, all labour rights, gained in Europe through intense class struggle, were always given in Turkey by the state. The workers and employers, two important actors in the industrial relations system, were left behind and the state regulated labour relations unilaterally. This, though, led to detailed legislation non-existent in the European countries.

There are more than 100 trade unions, most of which are affiliated to five divergent and rival labour confederations (Türk-İş, DİSK, Hak-İş, Tüm-İş and Birlik-İş). Only 1.714.397 workers are unionised and the union density rate, which was 11,96 %, 12,18 %, 12,38 in 2016, 2017 and January 2018, respectively. However the collective agreements do not cover all the unionised workers, only 1 million workers are covered by collective agreements. In other words, the level of collective bargaining coverage is well below the level of union density in contrary to most of the EU countries. There are two major and controversial stipulations concerning authorisation: representation of at least 1% of the total number of employees in the industry concerned and representation of more than half of the total number of employees in the workplace concerned. These requirements were probably the most provocative challenges in Turkey to collective bargaining rights and to ILO Convention No. 98.

In Turkey, workers have right to strike only in the event of a labour dispute arising during negotiations for the conclusion of a collective agreement. Other types of strikes and industrial actions, such as political, general, solidarity and wild-cat strikes slow- down, work to rule, have been implicitly prohibited. The postponement of legal strikes, an accepted legal practice borrowed from the US Taft-Hartley Act, has also been a telling feature of Turkish industrial relations, particularly between 2014-2018 under the AKP government. The President may postpone the strike or lock-out for 60 days. Upon the expiration of the 60 day postponement period, the dispute should be settled by the Supreme Arbitration Board. Therefore strike or lock-out postponement is meant prohibition of strike or lock-out in Turkey. 9 extensive strikes has been postponed between 2014 and 2018. So it is possible to say that the state is busting the unions implicitly by strike postponements. Besides the state, the employers has some union avoidance policies. Dismissals, exploiting inter-union rivalry and abuse of strike ballots are among the most common union busting strategies.

In this paper, first the general framework of industrial relations in Turkey will be drawn, afterwards union avoidance polices of state and employers will be discussed by some recent cases.