Social Dialogue matters
Late May 2015, the Turkish automotive sector around Bursa faced an considerable strike wave. Starting in the Renault factory, the strike movement quickly spread to the whole sector and according to some sources it covered over 20.000 employees. Although the strike demands can be considered as traditional (job security, higher pay, better working conditions), the specificities of the strike activity were quite surprising. The strike was not called in direct protest to the employer, but in protest to the agreement reached between the largest metal working union Türk Metal (Türk-Is) and the sectoral employer federation MESS.
This agreement already faced some criticism in late january as a strike organized by the competing left-wing Birlesik Metal-Is was postponed by the council of ministers and in practice declared illegal (for more details read this). Emre Eren Korkmaz wrote a nice analysis of the strike wave for the German Friedrich Erbert Stiftung (here) focusing on the facts and figures and the historical background of the strike wave and the problems the employees have with their union, Türk Metal.
In this short blogpost, I will try to show that the developments around this strike wave are directly linked to one of the main characteristics (and handicaps) of the Turkish industrial relations on the company level: the threshold for collective bargaining.
In short, a union only gains eligibility to lawfully engage in collective bargaining if it can proof to have more than 50%. While from a distance this regulation just seems to ensure that negotiating unions have sufficient support of the rank-and-file, the consequences of this regulation are considerable, and negative.
First of all, this rule makes is difficult for unions to organize on the company level. They have to convince at least half of all the employees to become member before they can give anything in return for this membership. Moreover, as long as a union does not meet the 50% threshold, the employer can without much trouble block all union efforts to organize the employees. Intimidation and dismissals are a daily reality for those employees who take the risk of joining a union in a not unionized firm.
Second, the competition between unions is fierce in this organization stage cause the first union to get the 50% employee membership is given an almost unattainable position. It can negotiate agreements while their counterparts cannot. So employees have all the interest of joining the dominant rather than the ineffective competing union. For the union leaders, being faced with opposition of the rank-and-file is a not a real risk. There is no alternative for their organization. If the employees don’t support the dominant union, than they will end up with no agreement and no collective voice at all.
Yet the dominant unions are frequently unions which are closer to the management than to the rank-and-file, and this for two reasons. First of all, even if the dominant union sees its position secured by the system, the individual union officials still face the threat of being dismissed or intimidated if they push for heavy demands. Protection of union officials is defunct leading them to take on a cooperative stance towards the management. Second, the unions able to organize 50% of the employees without any guarantee for results are not rarely unions that are supported (or at least tolerated) by the management.
In a nutshell, the collective bargaining regulation in Turkey lead to a lack of healthy inter-union competition, single-union firms with mostly collaborative management oriented unions. While we don’t doubt the good intention of almost all unionists in Turkey, from all confederations, the regulative environment results in some major deficiencies. Deficiencies that are as costly to the unions (in terms of lost legitimacy), the employees (in terms of suboptimal agreements) and to the management (in terms of wildcat strikes as in the metal sector). Time to reconsider the rules in order to enable healthy unionism.