Industrial Relations in Turkey

Social Dialogue matters

Wikileaks on Turkish Unions

Turkish Unions & Wikileaks: “warn, arrest and punish any member of KESK”

The leaked diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in November 2010, present a unique opportunity to get an insight on the diplomatic communications of the US embassies and consulates on the subject of the Turkish labour unions. These cables first give us an idea of how the Turkish labour movement is perceived by the US diplomats, but second, also provide us with some new information on the state oppression of Turkish unionism and the other issues in the Turkish industrial relations.

What Turkish labour movement?

A first interesting observation we can make based on the leaked cables is the probably limited knowledge of some diplomats on the main actors in the Turkish industrial relations. As we know, both based on membership and on the participation in social dialogue institutions, Turkey counts six major union confederations, three in the private sector (Türk-Is, Hak-Is and DISK) and three in the public sector (Kamu-Sen, Memur-Sen and KESK), nevertheless, in various cables, the diplomats refer to the ‘three’ main union confederations, thereby ignoring the existence of Kamu-Sen, Memur-Sen and Hak-Is.

US preconceptions; Turkish unions: conservative and on the demise?

Various US diplomatic cables review the state of the Turkish union movement in the context of the EU accession, after a major strike or in relation to upcoming US diplomatic initiatives. These cables give us an insight on how the Turkish labour movement and the major confederations are perceived by the US diplomats. A first cable from March 2003 titled ‘Turkish Labor: Maintaining The Status Quo’ (link), describes Turkey’s labour movement as mainly interested in the preservation of existing benefits. Reason for this ‘lack of dynamism’ are existing legislation and government policy which is not encouraging union activism. Having only discussed the role of Hak-Is and Turk-Is, the diplomat makes the following comment: “Like much of Turkey, the labor organizations are in a “wait and see” mode. Rather than embarking on new programs, labor organizations as a rule seldom demonstrate a knack for innovative approaches to developing problems. This, together with the habitual tendency toward deference of labor and other “NGOs” to the State authorities, indicates that the labor “movement” in Turkey lacks the dynamism to advance “workers'” interests”.

A 2010 cable titled: “Tekel Strike: Last Gasp For Labor Movement?”(link) discussed the TEKEL case and its implications for the labour movement and the AKP government. According to this cable, the TEKEL workers gained public support, the AKP government was under pressure not to be perceived as an anti-labour party. Nevertheless, Erdogan reacted with nothing less than an ultimatum towards to the strikers to disperse by March 1 and the promise to ‘meet’ with the Union leaders. Nothing in the cable nevertheless points to the fact that this might be the ‘last gasp’ of the labor movement. Similarly, a cable reporting on the successful public sector strike of November 25, 2009 was titled ‘Mixed reviews on November 25 strike’ (link), yet the content of the cable stated clearly that the strike was a success and that the labour movement is probably going to win their fight for the right to strike and collective bargaining in the public sector.

We can conclude that Turkey’s labour movement is generally perceived as a rather conservative, passive and on the demise. Nevertheless, whether these perceptions fit the reality is less clear as the suggestive titles of the various cables are frequently at odds with the content of the cable itself.

Turkey’s unfavorable union climate and the state oppression of KESK

In multiple cables, Turkey is presented as a country in which organizing labour is not an easy activity. Next to legislative obstacles, the Turkish state and government resort to what Hak-Is calls ‘low level harassment’ such as inducing sound or video malfunctioning at rallies. Another cable reporting from Antalya from 2010 further states that workers and trade union organizers frequently face threats from public and private sector employers not to join or found unions. Further, the massive size of the informal labour market is given as yet another reason for why labour union activism is very low in some sectors.

A particularly interesting cable regarding trade union intimidation and blackmailing from the side of the government is a cable from January 2010 titled “Labour union headcount postponed” (link). As the AKP government postponed the publication of the official figures on trade union membership, some speculate this should be seen as a blackmailing of the unions. The official trade union membership figures are crucial for the various labour organizations as they determine which labour unions have the right to engage in collective bargaining in the various Turkish industries. Postponing the publication of these figures would be considered as a blackmail in order to push the unions to accept other legislative initiatives that need their approval to be passed. Moreover, the postponement of these figures is favorable for the powerful unions for which the old (inflated) figures still hold. However, this puts an extra pressure on the smaller but militant DISK confederation which is more fiercely opposed to some of the AKP’s legislative initiatives than Turk-Is and Hak-Is.

The public sector labour confederation KESK is especially targeted by these state and governmental strategies to weaken the labour movement. As such, two cables are revealing the far-going state oppression KESK is facing. First, a secret communication of 2002 (link) on Turkey’s emergency regions is revealing about the organized character of the oppression of KESK. This cable reports the content of a ‘secret correspondence’ between an OHAL governor and several other governors. Here, the OHAL governor orders to ‘warn, arrest and punish any member of KESK (…) who take part in work stoppages or slowdowns’. This note confirms the state repression of KESK militants and representatives as no other unions were mentioned in the note. KESK is therefore clearly targeted by parts of the state administration. Second, a cable December 2004 (link) on the ‘Egitim-Sen’ closure case illustrates how this KESK affiliates faced a trial for including a plea for  ‘education in the mother tongue’ as one of their aims in their statutes. In the end, the union was not closed by the judge.

The leaked diplomatic cables thus confirm what various ITUC trade union rights reports already stated: The Turkish state and government actively interfere with unionization attempts. Especially the leftist KESK and DISK union confederations seem to be targeted by governmental and state interference, yet also the pious Hak-Is union seems to face some harassment from statist actors.

An asset or a loss? Hak-Is, Memur-Sen and the AKP government

As Hak-Is and Memur-Sen are considered as ‘pious’, ‘conservative’ and ‘pro-government’ union confederations, their relation with the government on the one side and the other labour union confederations on the other is sometimes difficult. On the one hand, these confederations are proud on their close relations with the government, even so that the Hak-Is president identified himself as a ‘confidante’ of Erdogan. Yet, on the other hand, this closeness also led to the withdrawal of the initial support of Hak-Is and Memur-Sen from the February 4, 2010 strike.

Detailed information:

For the complete list of cables and a small explanation about their content, we refer to the following pages:

  • Wikileaks on Turk-Is: link
  • Wikileaks on Hak-Is: link
  • Wikileaks on DISK: link
  • Wikileaks on Kamu-Sen: link
  • Wikileaks on Memur-Sen: link
  • Wikileaks on KESK: link

Publication Date: 12 august 2012


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