On July 16, 2016, there was an attempted coup in Turkey, seeking the overthrow of the AKP government and the Presidency of Erdogan. Although there were no political parties who supported the coup and no trade unions which supported the coup Erdogan used the attempted coup as a sufficient cause to purge the nation of his political opponents; especially in the unions and the media. All pretence of democracy has been set aside and Erdogan has been ruling Turkey by decree as a modern Padişah.
The purging of his enemies and the jailing of his political opponents had been a feature of his presidency in the past, but the ferocity, scope and viciousness of these purges after the attempted coup are unprecedented. Over 150,000 public sector workers have been dismissed from their jobs or suspended; losing not only their jobs and salary but also any right to social benefits. An addition 52,000 people have been arrested and jailed. There were already 200,000 prisoners before the current mass arrests. These included journalists, soldiers, professors, judges, lawyers and others in the private sector, including managers of corporations. Erdogan had to release 35,000 ordinary crooks from their prison cells to make room for the political prisoners. He is now building new prisons so he can arrest and jail others. Ten broadcasting stations were closed, 370 journalists have been put into jail, 2,000 employees sacked, eight newspapers were closed. The numbers are extraordinary. More than 8,000 army officers, 8,000 police officers, 5,000 academics, 40,000 teachers and 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been forced out. The social cost has been significant. Reports say that around 1,200 schools, 50 hospitals and 15 universities have been closed. The political history of Turkey has not always been a process of democratic improvement. The mass jailing and detention of opponents is a Turkish tradition which precedes Erdogan.
Turkish Political Background
For a long period of its post-Ottoman history, Turkey has been ruled by a strong military force which, when it wasn’t governing itself, exerted a powerful influence on any civilian governments which were formed.
After the Second World War, Turkish politics was dominated by a single political party, the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) of national hero Ataturk. Ataturk allowed two other parties to form but soon banned them because of their pro-Islamist tendencies. In 1946, the head of the CHP, Ismet Inönü, introduced democratic elections to Turkey. Due to widespread dissatisfaction with the CHP in the four years after its victory the party lost the second multi-party general elections in 1950, and Celâl Bayar replaced Inönü as President. Bayar was the head of the Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti, DP) but the real power within the DP was Adnan Menderes, the Prime Minister. The DP was a moderate right-wing party but whose policy options were constrained by the Kemalist policies of secularism, nationalism and statism and the 1924 Constitution.
The main differences between the CHP and the DP was in its economic policies; the DP pushed for a privatisation of Turkish industries and was less secular than the CHP. During the ten-year Prime Ministership of Menderes and the DP, Turkish domestic and foreign politics underwent great changes; industrialisation and urbanization accelerated. The Turkish economy grew at an unprecedented rate of 9% per annum. Turkey joined NATO and was the recipient of a great deal of economic support from the Marshall Plan. The economy was modernised; agriculture was mechanized; and there was domestic and foreign investment in transport, energy, education, health care, insurance and banking.
Along with this modernisation of the economy, Menderes restored many of the religious practices removed by Ataturk and the CHP. He reopened and built mosques across Turkey and used religion as a political weapon against his enemies. He expanded Turkey’s ties to Muslim states in the Middle East and conducted a purge of Greeks living in Turkey (the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom). Most importantly, the DP announced that the parliament had the right to restore the Caliphate. He established a Commission of Inquiries (Tahkikat Commission), formed from only DP Members of Parliament, which allowed this Commission to take on judicial powers and to issue verdicts, judgements and punishments – a direct violation of the separation of powers built into the Constitution
As a result, on 27 May 1960, thirty-seven "young officers" made a coup against Menderes and the DP. Despite international protests, Menderes was hanged on 17 September 1961 on the island of Impala for violating the Constitution and for massacring the Greeks. On 17 September 1990, he was posthumously pardoned.
The military ruled Turkey but was anxious to turn the government back to civilians; civilians they could control. The man who fit that role was Suleyman Gundogdu Demirel (who died in 2015). Like several other Turkish leaders of his generation, Mr. Demirel was trained as an engineer. He was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship, a program that brought emerging leaders to the United States for several months of traveling, seminars and classes. He spent years representing the American engineering and machine-tool firm Morrison Knudsen. In 1965, he was elected prime minister with the support of the army; at 40, he was the country’s youngest. Turkey in the 1960s was ravaged by political gang fighting and killings. The military stepped in again.
After civilian rule was re-established in the late 1970s, Mr. Demirel served three times as head of the governments. It was during this period that Turkey fell into an economic crisis. Inept handling of foreign debts, compounded by the effects of increasing global oil prices, led to triple-digit inflation, a sharp rise in unemployment and a crash in industrial production. It took a decade for Turkey to make the structural changes — under the leadership of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, a former Demirel protégé — that laid the basis for its current prosperity.[i] There were subsequently several more periods of Demirel’s leadership, when the military allowed, and he was President for two terms but was kicked out when he tried to change term limits for a third term.
His last years in office were marked by the emergence of Kurdish nationalism, which developed into civil war. He endorsed the military’s scorched-earth tactics, which included torture of detainees, the assassination of suspected militants and an absolute rejection of Kurdish demands.
During the 1960s violence and instability plagued Turkey. An economic recession sparked a wave of social unrest marked by street demonstrations, labour strikes and political assassinations. Left-wing workers' and students' movements were formed, countered on the right by Islamist and militant nationalist groups. The left carried out bombing attacks, robberies and kidnappings; from the end of 1968, and increasingly during 1969 and 1970, left-wing violence was matched and surpassed by far-right violence, notably from the Grey Wolves.
On the political front, Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel's centre-right Justice Party government, re-elected in 1969, also experienced trouble. Various factions within his party defected to form splinter groups of their own, gradually reducing his parliamentary majority and bringing the legislative process to a halt. By January 1971, Turkey appeared to be in a state of chaos. The universities had ceased to function. Students emulating Latin American urban guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped US servicemen, also attacking American targets. The homes of university professors critical of the government were bombed by neo-fascist militants. Factories were on strike and more workdays were lost between 1 January and 12 March 1971 than during any prior year. The Islamist movement had become more aggressive and its party, the National Order Party, openly rejected Atatürk and Kemalism, infuriating the armed forces. Demirel's government, weakened by defections, seemed paralyzed, powerless to try to curb the campus and street violence and unable to pass any serious legislation.
The 1971 military coup was a little different. It was known as the "coup by memorandum", which the military delivered to the government in lieu of sending out tanks, as it had done previously. In a series of military-controlled civil governments the fight against right and left extremism was attempted but with little success. The military put Professor Nihat Erim in power but ruled the country through their control of the National Assembly (the Parliament).[ii]
In October 1973, Bulent Ecevit, who had won control of the Republican People's Party from İnönü, won an upset victory, but the factional fights in Turkey didn’t abate. The economy deteriorated, the Grey Wolves escalated and intensified political terrorism as the 1970s progressed, and left-wing groups, too, carried out acts aimed at causing chaos and demoralization. In 1975 Demirel replaced Ecevit but nothing changed. Finally, in 1980, the military made another coup.
On 2 September 1980 the army intervened again when the Chief of the General Staff General Kenan Evren took over direct control of Turkey. For the next three years the Turkish Armed Forces ruled the country through the National Security Council, before democracy was restored. This National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, MGK), headed by Evren declared a coup d'état on the national television channel. The MGK then extended martial law throughout the country, abolished the Parliament and the government, suspended the Constitution and banned all political parties and trade unions. They invoked the Kemalist tradition of state secularism and in the unity of the nation, which had already justified the precedent coups, and presented themselves as opposed to communism, fascism, separatism and religious sectarianism.[iii]
A reform of the economy was undertaken by Turgut Özal, who succeeded with a neo-liberal policy guided by the IMF. The foreign exchange rate was allowed to float freely. Foreign investment was encouraged. The national establishments were encouraged to involve joint enterprises with foreign establishments. There was an improvement in the Turkish economy.
However, the political repression remained strong. The coup rounded up members of both the left and right for trial with military tribunals. Within a very short time, there were 250,000 to 650,000 people detained. Among the detainees, 230,000 were tried, 14,000 were stripped of citizenship, and 50 were executed. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, and thousands are still missing. A total of 1,683,000 people was blacklisted. Among the prosecuted were Ecevit, Demirel, Türkeş, and Erbakan, who were incarcerated and suspended from politics.
This coup by Evren placed Turkey under martial law. There were several efforts to return the country to civilian rule after 1983 but the excesses which abounded after every liberalisation led to the imposition of states of emergency over many regions of Turkey. It wasn’t until the economic shocks which affected Turkish growth in the new millennium that this unrest led to the victory of the Justice and Development party (AKP) of Istanbul’s Mayor Recip Tayit Erdogan in the 2002 election. Erdogan promised reform but actually pressed forward with the Islamisation of Turkey.
The AKP government oversaw an explosive increase in the budget allocated to the Religious Affairs Directorate and in the number of personnel, which increased from 70,000 in 2002 to over 120,000 in 2014. For example, from 2010 to 2014 about 40,000 people were recruited as Quran teachers, imams, preachers and muezzins. In 2003 there were 3,000 Quran courses, but at the beginning of the school year in 2014 there were 24,757. There are now 85,000 mosques compared to 75,000 in 2003, and there are plans to build mosques at more than 80 universities; by law prayer rooms (“mescit”) are required in shopping malls, cinemas, theatres and other public places. Religious high schools (imam-hatip schools) play a major role in the AKP's plans to transform Turkish society. In 2002 they had 65,000 students, but now there are about 1 million. Originally planned to train imams, their numbers far outstrip this need and instead they are intended to provide the cadres for “the new Turkey.” From 2010 to 2014, there has been a 73 percent increase in the number of imam-hatip schools, and in the same period almost 1,500 general high schools have been closed and around 40,000 students have been placed in religious high schools against their will.[iv]
In April 2007, the Turkish military reiterated that they were “the absolute defenders of secularism.” The AKP retaliated with a series of show trials designed to crush military and secular opposition. Around 40,000 police officers and 4,000 judges and prosecutors were reassigned and 4,000 preparatory schools (“dershane”), many of which were managed by the Gülen movement and prepared students for university and civil service exams, were closed. When the military resisted Erdogan he arrested the military leadership. On 22 February 2010 more than 40 officers were arrested and formally charged with attempting to overthrow the government with respect to the “Sledgehammer” (‘Bolyuz’) plot. The accused included four admirals, a general and two colonels, some of them retired, including former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force (three days later, the former commanders of the navy and air force were released).
It wasn’t only the military which was repressed by the AKP. More than 400 other people – including journalists, academics, politicians, trades unionists and soldiers faced trial on charges of involvement in a conspiracy by an alleged gang of secular nationalists called "Ergenekon." Begun in 2007, the Ergenekon proceeding ended in 2013 with the former head of the Turkish military, General Ilker Basbug, ordered to serve life in prison. Basbug, who had served as Chief of General Staff under Erdogan, was arrested in 2012, accused of heading the Ergenekon plot against the AKP leader. Similar punishments were decreed for 18 more of the of Basbug's former subordinates or colleagues additionally received life terms. Hursit Tolon, former First Army commander, was sentenced to life in prison on the same charge as Basbug. Former General Staff Second Chief, General Hasan Igsiz, was also consigned to a life sentence. Retired General Nusret Tasdeler and Retired Colonel Fuat Selvi were similarly sentenced to life in prison. Former Gendarmerie Forces (National Police) Commander Sener Eruygur received an "aggravated life sentence" – a punishment reserved for terrorism cases, in solitary confinement, with limited exercise time and contact with other prisoners or by telephone with family, and no opportunity for parole. Retired general Veli Kucuk saw a double-aggravated life sentence imposed on him, plus 99 years and a month.
Kucuk and retired colonel Arif Dogan were accused of creating and directing a terrorist effort to subvert the current authorities. Dogan was purportedly the mentor of a Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit, as a covert, seditious organization, the existence of which has been questioned by such Turkish media as the daily Hurriyet [Freedom]. In the Ergenekon affair, he was sentenced to 47 years in jail. Other former Erdogan supporters jailed for life in the Ergenekon trial include Kemal Kerincsiz, a fanatical nationalist attorney. Kerencsiz had persecuted the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who edited Agos [The Furrow], a weekly Armenian-language newspaper with sections in Turkish and English. Dink, whom Kerincsiz claimed "insulted Turkishness" – currently redefined as "denigration of the Turkish nation," and a serious offense – was murdered early in 2007 while awaiting indictment. The law that criminalizes "insulting Turkishness" was introduced under Erdogan and pursued with zeal by Kerens. Among the political and media victims of Ergenekon "justice," Mustafa Balbay, a writer for the daily Cumhuriyet [The Republic] and a parliamentary deputy of the long-established secularist Republican People's Party [CHP], was also sentenced to life in jail, as was his co-defendant, Tuncay Ozkan, another secularist journalist.[iv]
An array of 33 indictments was consolidated under the Ergenekon rubric in 2011. The list of defendants is as varied as it is long; the single aspect uniting them, however, is association with secular politics. In May 2014, the AKP went after the police force which Erdogan said was full of “Gulenists”, followers of his former ally Gulen (now living in the US). It purged hundreds of Gulenists from the police, army and the civil service. The main reason for Erdogan’s recital of subversion by Gulen was that it masked the massive and widespread corruption by Erdogan and his sons.
Erdogan was losing support in Turkey with all his foreign policy tergiversations and the recurrence of corruption charges over his family’s involvement in marketing Daesh oil was threatening in the national assembly. The main reason for the split between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen was over the 2013 corruption charges against the AKP. The 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey refers to a criminal investigation that involved several key AKP members of the Turkish government. All of the 52-people detained on 17 December 2013 were connected in various ways with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prosecutors accused 14 people – including Suleyman Aslan, the director of state-owned Halkbank, Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, and several family members of cabinet ministers – of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering and gold smuggling. The Turks exported some US$13 billion of gold to Iran directly, or through the UAE between March 2012 and July 2013. In return, the Turks received Iranian natural gas and oil. The transaction was carried out through Turkish state-owned bank, Halkbank in January 2013 despite US sanctions against Iran. Numerous AKP officials were found guilty and the police confiscated some US$17.5 million as money used in bribery during the investigation.
This was not the end. A second round of corruption processes began again in December 2013.This time the perpetrators included Erdogan’s two sons – Bilak and Burak. They were linked to prominent Al-Qaida Saudis (Sheikh Yasser Al Qadi and Osama Khotoub). Erdogan retaliated by firing Chief Prosecutor Mummery Kakas. The next day, when a leak of the name of those charged of corruption reached the newspapers, Erdogan fired 350 police officers, including the chiefs of the units dealing with financial crimes, smuggling and organised crime. Gulen said that his party, Hemet, could not tolerate such a policy and he had a falling out with Erdogan. This led to him fleeing the country and for Erdogan’s obsession with Gulen as the arch villain. These corruption scandals are why Erdogan has dismissed and detained the many judges and lawyers after the recent coup attempt. The oil smuggling business was exposed by the Russian press which included photos and documents of the corruption.
This rigid control of the Turkish political scene continued unabated until the 2013 mass demonstrations and sit-ins triggered by protests against the rebuilding plans for the Maksim Gezi Park. This soon expanded to a protest about the whole AKP domination of the political scene. Spurred on by social media 3.5 million of Turkey's 80 million people are estimated to have taken an active part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across Turkey connected with the original Gezi Park protest. 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured, many critically.[v]
The protests and the demonstrations of the Taksim Park opposition marked the beginning of Erdogan’s unchallenged control of the political process in Turkey. In the 2015 election the AKP lost its outright majority in the Parliament. This erosion of the AKP dominance was based on the realisation that the repressive social and industrial policies of the Turkish Government had left the country in a deteriorating state.
On the eve of the election, the government's Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) found that 22.4 percent of Turkish households fell below the official poverty line of $1,626 a month for a family of four. While national income has, indeed, risen over the past decade, much of it has gone to the wealthy and well connected. When the AKP came to power in 2002, the top 1 percent accounted for 39 percent of the nation's wealth. Today that figure is 54 percent. In the meantime, credit card debt has increased 25-fold, from 222 million liras in 2002 to 5.8 billion liras today. In 2001, Turkey was in a serious economic crisis, with the unemployment rate at 10.8 percent. Today 11.3 percent are out of work, and that figure is much higher among young people and women. TUIK estimates that over 3 million Turks are jobless, but at least another 2.5 million have given up looking for jobs. The total size of the Turkish workforce is 28 million. Women have been particularly hard hit. Over 227,000 women were laid off in 2015. [vi]The political parties, even in opposition, are relatively powerless to confront the AKP because the mobilising arm of the working people, the trade unions, have been frozen out of power by the AKP.
Throughout the struggle for democracy in Tukey organised labour played an important role.
The Background to Turkish Unionism
Turkish workers have seen their unions virtually dismantled under the AKP government, and many have lost their collective bargaining rights. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, unionized workers have fallen from 57.5 percent of the workforce in 2003 to 9.68 percent in 2015. And, of those unionized workers, only 4.5 percent have collective bargaining agreements. Add to this police repression, the widespread use of the subcontracting system, and a threshold of 3 percent to organize a new union, and there are few barriers to stop employers from squeezing their workforce.
Trade unions have had a history of repression in Turkey. There are six national trade union centres in Turkey; but only four of them are part of the European Trades Union Confederation ETUC (based in Brussels). The oldest and largest is the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ)
- The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ, founded 1952, 1.75m members)
- Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK, founded 1967, 327,000 members)
- Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (HAK-İŞ, founded 1976, 340,000 members)
- Confederation of Public Workers' Unions (KESK, founded 1995, 300,000 members)
These four are member of the ETUC. In addition, there are two other confederations without recognised international ties:
- The Confederation of Public Servants Trade Union (Memur Sen) an AKP construct and
- The Confederation of Public Employees (Kamu-Sen), tied to the MHP party,
Turk-Is was founded in 1952 as part of the Menderes liberalisation of the Turkish economy and was closely allied to the centrist political parties throughout its history. It was the only union confederation to survive the 1980 Evren military coup. TÜRK-İŞ claims a membership of 1.75 million, and is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation, and the European Trade Union Confederation. It is also a member of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD.
DISK was founded by Kemal Türkler, Riza Kuas, İbrahim Güzelce, Kemal Nebioğlu and Mehmet Alpdündar representing Turkify Maden-İş, Asikis, Basin-I, turkey Gida-is and Tark Maden-İş; unions which were until that time affiliated to Türk-İş, except Gida-İş which was independent. DİSK was born at a time when relatively broader rights and freedoms had been recognized by the Constitution of 1961. The trade union acts of 1964 accepted the right of the workers to collective bargaining and strike, and revolutionary and socialist movements gained momentum in the political arena. In fact, with the exception of Mehmet Alpdündar, the founders of DİSK were also among the founders of the socialist Workers Party of Turkey (TİP) in 1961.
DISK began to attract other Turk-Is unions to its side. In 1970 the Turkish politicians of the Justice Party (AP) and the Republican People's Party (CHP) submitted to the parliament a draft law that would endanger the existence of any other confederation than Türk-İş. On June 15 and 16, 1970 the workers employed at enterprises organized by DİSK stopped work and started to march. This action ended with the declaration of martial law in Istanbul in the evening of June 16. DİSK leaders and a large number of workers were arrested and tried at military courts.
DİSK leaders were again arrested after the military intervention on 12 March 1971. On 22 July 1980, the founder of DİSK and chairman of turkey Maddens, Kemal Turkler was killed in front of his house in Meter, Istanbul. The public prosecutor indicted several right-wing militants but they always escaped trial and sentencing. With the Evren coup DISK was banned.
The 1980 military intervention severely restricted trade union activities. Following the 1980 coup, the military government prohibited collective bargaining (this lasted until May 1984). After September 12, 1980, the National Security Council suspended the activities of DİSK and its affiliated unions. Their assets were confiscated and put under trustee administration. Fifty-two DİSK leaders were arrested and put on trial with the demand of death penalty on the grounds that they had attempted to demolish the constitutional regime. By the time the military court delivered its verdict in 1986, the DISK trial had 1,477 defendants. The DISK trial was one of many mass trials that progressed ponderously through the military courts, presided over by high-ranking officers of the Turkish armed forces.
The trial at Istanbul Military Court 2 ended on 24 December 1986. The court sentenced 264 trade unionists and experts to sentences between five years, six months and 15 years, eight months' imprisonment. The military court decided in 1981 to close DİSK and ban its members. This ruling was appealed and in 1991 the Military Court of Cassation overruled this decision and acquitted the union leaders. Thus, DİSK was able to resume its activities after an interval of 12 year. It was reconstituted in 1992. DİSK is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation, and the European Trade Union Confederation.
The Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (HAK-İŞ) was founded October 22, 1976. Hack-Is was founded by the Islamic MSP party of Erbakan. The union defended a sort of corporatism based on the union of employers and employees. While retaining its strong Islamic ties Hack-Is has loosened its ties with the religious political parties of Turkey and evolved towards a secular, pro-capitalism, pro-privatization union. HAK-İŞ is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation, and the European Trade Union Confederation.
The fourth confederation is the Confederation of Public Workers' Unions. (Kami Emailer Lenticular Confederacy – KESK), founded in 1995.It represents mainly public-sector workers and has played an activist role in trying to restore the rights of trade unions in collective bargaining. KESK is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation, and the European Trade Union Confederation.[vii]
The fundamental problem for Turkish unions is the stranglehold of legislation which prohibits the freedoms of unions in the workplace. Key to those freedoms are the impediments of the levels of representation rules. Some 1,040,000 workers are registered in unions. But only about 580,000 of them are entitled to collective labour contracts. The others are denied this right because their unions remain below [legal membership] thresholds. So, many workers with trade union memberships lack the benefit of collective contracts.
Prior to 1980, Turkey’s workers were an important civic power in the country. Trade unions were forces to be reckoned with, organizing highly effective rallies, strikes and resistance movements. Following the 1980 military coup, legal amendments were introduced to curb trade unions, including certain benchmarks for the right to negotiate collective contracts. Three thresholds are currently in place. The unions face the “work sector” threshold; that is a trade union must recruit at least 1% of all the workers in one of eighteen designated sectors before it has the right of representation. Then comes the “workplace” threshold, which requires unions to recruit at least 51% of the workers in any given workplace. Finally, there is the “chain business” threshold, which bars trade unions from collective bargaining unless they recruit at least 40% of workers in nationwide chains such as supermarkets.
Another major impediment for the labour movement comes from the subcontracting system, which has been heavily promoted in recent years. Even state institutions are increasingly outsourcing to subcontractors, who pay lower wages to non-unionized workers. The practice has expanded so much that even parliament, supposed to lead efforts to protect labour rights, has outsourced many of its own needs, such as cleaning and catering. About 600,000 workers are employed today in the subcontracting system.[viii] In many ways this narrowing of the horizons of the trades unions has had a powerful effect on Turkish industry. The absence of a trade union presence in the workplaces has led to a disregard by the employer of maintaining a healthy and safe workplace. A good example is the Soma Mine Disaster of 2014.
On May 13, 2014, an explosion occurred in a coal mine in Soma, a small town in western Turkey. The ensuing fire trapped hundreds of miners underground, eventually causing the death of 301 of them, while injuring 162 others. Almost every rule of mine safety was ignored by the management of the mine. While the miners were pressured to maximize production and while overseers structurally neglected health and safety standards the head of Soma Holding boasted in a 2012 interview that his company had brought down the costs of coal from $130 to $24 per ton. The reduction in production costs was paralleled by a similar reduction in safe working conditions. According to survivors’ accounts included in a Human Rights Watch report “state authorities charged with oversight and inspection were fully aware of the situation but ignored it.” The Soma management was brought to trial in 2015 but the government safety inspectors were excluded from the trial.
While in office the AKP has restricted worker’s rights to organize and strike, intensified neoliberal employment policies, encouraged the practice of subcontracting and part-time work agreements and allowed for the structural violation of worker rights.
Workers in Turkey were once again reminded of their precarious position when at the end of January 2015 15,000 metal workers planned to go on strike. After failing to reach an agreement with the employer’s union about better wages and the length of collective bargaining periods the workers announced that in 22 factories in ten different cities across the country they would lay down their tools and walk off the job.
However, the next day the strike was “suspended” when the government issued a Cabinet Decree deeming it a “threat to national security”. The suspension of the strike is in fact a strike ban in action. In order to prevent the workers from walking off the job, the government brought back a controversial law – approved in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup – which was designed to curtail the powers of the influential labour unions at the time.
According to the Turkish Law on Trade Unions and Collective Labour Agreements, code 6356, “A lawful strike that has been called or commenced may be suspended by the Council of Ministers for 60 days with a decree if it is prejudicial to public health or national security. The union had to wait the full 60 days. This was only the first hurdle.
The legal and legitimate strike launched by IndustriALL (an industrial trade union federation headquartered in Geneva), affiliate Birlesik Metal-Is then had to go to the High Arbitration Board for a compulsory process because the Turkish legislation does not allow for the union to conduct its strike after the postponement period. The Government deliberately delayed the Board so no decision or resolution was possible. [ix]
Another obstacle Turkish workers face is the widespread existence of so-called “yellow unions” – unions under the direct influence of employers. These yellow unions often undermine the bargaining power of independent unions by signing weak collective agreements that fall short of meeting worker demands and undermine the more stringent demands of the independent unions. The agreement between the metal worker unions Turk Metal and Celik-Iş and the employers’ union MESS –made during the period when Birleşik Metal-I was kept from reaching an agreement with management and had called for a strike – is a case in point which illustrates how yellow unions agree to terms that independent unions do not support.
Turkish labour sees no hope of any improvement under the AKP dominance of the political system. After the 2015 election Turkish unions began to extend co-operation and support behind AKP’s rivals, the HDP. The left-wing HDP-formerly largely a Kurdish-based party-shattered the 10 percent ceiling to serve in the Parliament, taking 13.1 percent of the vote and electing 79 representatives. The HDP's breakthrough came about because the Party allied itself with other left and progressive parties in 2012-much as Syriza did in Greece-and campaigned on an openly left program. Led by the dynamic Selahattin Demirtas, its candidates included many women, as well as gays and lesbians. There was a natural affinity of the HDP with the Turkish labour movement and there seemed a high likelihood of the coalescence of the two in future electoral initiatives. However, the attempted coup pit all that in jeopardy.
As a result of the coup attempt which preceded the referendum Erdogan and the AKP now rule by decree. During all this, representatives of KESK and DISK have been increasingly subject to political persecution. They are sometimes imprisoned, sometimes arrested for a few days for no stated reason and then released. They are often denied visits and access to lawyers. HAK-İŞ and TÜRK-İŞ scarcely suffer from such repression. Meanwhile, the four confederations organised in the ETUC represent a decreasing number of Turkish employees. By contrast, Memur Sen tripled its members to 1 million with the help of the AKP party. Kamu Sen became the second biggest confederation with 400.000 members.
The Post-Referendum Political Challenge
The June 7, 2015, general election in Turkey posed the first major challenge to the AKP’s single-party rule, when for the first time in its electoral history, the party did not win enough seats to form a government on its own. The Kurdish left (primarily expressing itself through the People’s Democratic Party -HDP), also played a part in this outcome, as it contested and passed the ten percent threshold, an unprecedented achievement and had recruited to its banner a large number of secular unionists. The HDP’s open opposition to Erdogan’s presidential aspirations was expressed in its campaign motto, “We won’t let you become the president” (seni baskan yaptirmayacagiz), where the Turkish terminology for “president” (baskan) indicated the president of a presidential system. The April 16, 2017, constitutional referendum, proposed a new “partisan presidential system” with almost no separation of powers and without any checks and balances. However, any hope for change was short-lived. Between the two general elections of 2015, the two-year long peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdish forces– including the PKK–was terminated. Turkey once again entered a climate of civil war and violence, affecting primarily the political and electoral conditions. In the November 1, 2015, elections, while the HDP did not fall below the threshold, the AKP won enough seats to restore its single-party rule.[x]
The campaign on the referendum changed a great deal of what was assumed to be the political policies of the national parties. Some of the parties, like the MHP, which were right-wing nationalists began to split between pro and anti-presidentialists. The Kemalist nationalist party, for years a “state party” nationalist party, the CHP, were the leaders against the expansion of the scope of presidential powers but, unexpectedly, were joined in its opposition by the some previously right-wing parties.
The “Yes” and “No” Blocks in the 2017 Referendum[xi]
Party Primary ethnicity, ideology
Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkish, conservative, right-wing
Nationalist Action Party (MHP) Turkish, nationalist, right-wing
Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR) Kurdish, Islamist, right-wing
Grand Unity Party (BBP) Turkish, nationalist, right-wing
Party Primary ethnicity, ideology
Republican People’s Party (CHP) Turkish, Kemalist/secular, left-wing
People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Kurdish, secular/progressive, left-wing
Felicity Party (SP) Turkish, Islamist, right-wing
Democrat Party (DP) Turkish, right-wing
Patriotic Party (VP) Turkish, nationalist
Rights and Equality Party (HEPAR) Turkish, nationalist
Labour Party (EMEP) Turkish-Kurdish, socialist, left-wing
The referendum was eventually held on April 16, 2017, under the existing conditions of the state of emergency. The outcome of the referendum came with a close vote and allegations of electoral fraud by the Supreme Electoral Council (Yuksek Secim Kurulu), the highest authority of elections in Turkey. The “Yes” vote ended up with 51.4 percent of the national vote while the “No” vote remained at 48.6 percent. Once passed, Erdogan stepped up his purges, jailing and oppression of his perceived opposition.
A result of the referendum was the further polarisation of the parties, leading to several hunger strikes and to the “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul, a distance of 480 kilometres (300 miles) on foot led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) in July 2017. He got support from people from different ideological backgrounds, including Kurds, leftists and religious conservatives who are disillusioned by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The HDP leaders are in jail or silenced and the CHP is adopting a more flexible definition of secularism to take into account the views of other supportive parties. Kilicdaroglu and his party are increasingly falling afoul of the government’s coup narrative, and joining the ranks of the nation’s enemies. When Kilicdaroglu led a large anti-government protest march, Erdogan first accused him of “marching for terrorists,” then more directly of being a Gulenist agent. These changes in the CHP have engendered an expanded working relationship with Turkey’s unions.
The Challenge of Turkish Unions
It has never been easy to be a Turkish trade unionist. The years spent under military rule meant operating under a system of military justice. The Turkish unionists were fond of saying “Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.” There is a similarity but also great difference. Under the AKP rule strikes have been effectively banned. The Law on Trade Unions and Collective Labour Agreements sets thresholds for collective bargaining certification. A union that wants to sign a workplace level collective bargaining agreement must organize at least 1 per cent of the entire workforce in that industrial sector. In the meantime, there are also workplace level thresholds of 50 per cent, and for companies with more than one workplace it is 40 per cent.
According to the legislation, employers can easily file a complaint at the local court claiming that the union concerned does not have sufficient majority to be a bargaining partner. It is common practice amongst Turkish employers to get rid of union presence at the workplace, or at least to stall the collective bargaining process. Court cases take years to resolve, preventing unions from functioning freely and efficiently, and also undermining the very nature of fundamental trade union rights, including collective bargaining rights.
In early 20015 the Turkish government banned strikes in 40 companies. In January 2017, a strike planned at Asil Çelik steel mill in Bursa, Turkey, was deemed “prejudicial against national security” and banned at the last minute. Other strikers, more than 2,200 workers in 13 factories owned by ABB, General Electric and Schneider Electric around Turkey received the message that their strikes were banned a couple of hours after they had started.
International corporate management were quick to recognize the opportunity that this crackdown on labour by the Turkish state and began a policy of firing unionists. According to IndustriAll (the international trade union organization) management used the pressure on the unions to repress unionization in their companies. Turkey is one of the world’s largest textile producers. The industry is dominated by small suppliers and is poorly regulated. Most textile workers earn the minimum wage of 1,647 lira (US$ 570) per month, which is far below a living wage in Turkey. Many workers are unregistered, vulnerable to exploitation and not paid even the legal minimum. It is not unusual to find child labour.
Many premium brands – including Hugo Boss, Mulberry, Benetton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Prada - use Turkish suppliers. But premium brands are not above turning a blind eye to labour exploitation if it lowers production costs: workers making clothes for Hugo Boss in Izmir were paid far below a living wage and were sacked for joining the union Teksif. Workers making luxury Mulberry handbags – which retail for up to a thousand dollars – were sacked for joining the union Deriteks.
In June 2017, the workers at the multinational glass firm. Sisecam, went on strike. Rather than abandon the strike, almost 6,000 workers, members of the Kristal-İş glass union, refused to leave the factory at the end of their shifts. This remarkable action comes after the Turkish government banned legitimate strike action in a dispute over wages and other working conditions. Şişecam has increased its profits by 164 per cent, but not made a serious wage offer. The Turkish government issued a decree banning the strike, on the grounds of national security. The union believes the banning comes at the request of the company, which refuses to come to the bargaining table for serious negotiations. Nine Şişecam factories across Turkey are organized by Kristal-İş, and union members are taking the action of not leaving their workplaces in all the nine.
The glass workers are not alone. In mid-June 2017, German radiator and cooling system manufacturer AKG Thermotechnik dismissed union leaders from its plant in Izmir, Turkey. The union workers responded to the dismissal of union leaders by staying in the factory. Management called the police, who evicted the workers. A total of 25 workers have now been dismissed. The workers are maintaining a picket outside the plant. The company won the support of the government who sent in riot police who dispersed the strikers, put several in jail and a few in hospital.[xii]
In the climate of a government crackdown on labour many of the international and national companies have thrown health and safety controls out the window. Turkish unions complain that they have lost many of the rights and gains they made over the years. Turkish unionists are routinely forced because of the impunity offered by the AKP government. The rights to strike and of representation are largely gone. In some cases, the unionists are put in jail alongside their bosses if they, too, have been accused of Gulenism. In the cells, they will meet judges and lawyers in a similar position.
To be a Turkish worker is a hazardous profession under the deteriorating economic and social conditions. To be a Turkish unionist is to be a disaster waiting to happen. They go to their plants and offices to pit their declining strength against the new Turkish Sultan, Erdogan, to try to maintain the standards of working life they are daily losing. They are the heroes of Turkish economic and political life.
[i] Steven Kinzer,”Suleyman Demirel, Seven Times Turkey’s Prime Minister, Dies at 90”, NY Times 16/6/15
[ii] “Turkish Regime Is Ousted By the Military Leaders", The New York Times, 13 March 1971
[iii] Gi Ata. "La Turquie à marche forcée," Le Monde diplomatique, February 1981
[iv] Robert Ellis, “The Rise of the Turkish Reich”, Zaman, 2/2/15
[v] Patrick Coburn, “Turkey’s Protests and Erdogan’s Brutal Crackdown” Independent 7/6/13
[vi] Conn Hallinan, “Turkey’s AKP Doomed By Poverty, Inequality And Its War on Trade Unions”, Foreign Policy in Focus 10/6/15
[vii] Susanne Wixforth, "Turkey: The Wild Man At The Bosporus – Sick Democracy, Persecuted Trade Unions, ETUC 27 July 2017
[viii] Mehmet Cetingulec, “Turkish Trade Unions in Death Throes” Hurriyet May 5, 2014
[ix] IndustriAll, “Metal Strike Still In Place” 5 April 2015
[x] Odul Celep, "Perspectives on Turkey's 2017 Presidential Referendum", MERIA 14/6/17
[xii] Compiled from several IndustriAll newsletters.