Six days a week for nine long months, Turkish road transport workers picketed outside three UPS transfer centres in Istanbul and İzmir, demanding the right to organise their workplaces. As more union members were dismissed from their jobs, the picket lines grew, holding firm even when riot police aggressively tried to break them up.
When UPS finally agreed to reinstate most of the fired workers, and eventually signed a collective bargaining agreement in late 2011, it was a shot in the arm for Turkey’s beleaguered labour unions.
“A lot of other unions visited us to find out how we did it,” says Kenan Özturk, the president of the All Transport Workers’ Union (TÜMTİS), which followed its success with UPS by signing an even stronger bargaining agreement with DHL.
But as political strife roils Turkey following a failed coup attempt last summer and ahead of a controversial referendum this Sunday 16 April, the union that provided a model for labour organising in tough times is enmeshed in a decade-long legal case that threatens to further erode the rights of all unions in the country.
Early in March this year, a high court in Ankara upheld convictions against 14 TÜMTİS leaders, who now face between one and six-and-a-half years in prison on charges including “founding an organisation for the purpose of committing crime.”
The charges date back to 2007, when the men were detained in dawn raids following a complaint by the logistics company Horoz Kargo, where TÜMTİS had been engaged in an organising drive since 2005.
“There are no injuries, no deaths, no weapons involved in the case against our members; their ‘crime’ was to found an organisation to pressure an employer and increase the membership and income of a union,” says Özturk. “Those are the fundamental duties of a union.”
International labour organisations, whose solidarity helped TÜMTİS win its victories against UPS and DHL, have lent their support to help fight the convictions.
“TÜMTİS, along with other Turkish unions, has repeatedly faced challenges from often hostile local employers who have been emboldened by a government-sponsored culture of disregarding union rights,” says Noel Coard, head of inland transport for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
“Bad though the situation has been in the last decade, it has undoubtedly worsened as the government redoubled its repression, using the [15 July 2016] coup attempt as an excuse.”
Since taking power in Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has maintained many of the anti-union laws, regulations and practices put into place in the early 1980s, a period that saw severe restrictions on unionisation and strike actions. The AKP has meanwhile co-opted some of labour’s traditional appeal to the working class with moves to make the Turkish welfare regime more egalitarian. Significantly, it has also bolstered pro-government union confederations, which have seen rapid growth at the expense of independent unions like TÜMTİS.
“Pro-government and pro-employer unions get state support for their organising activities, which allows them to recruit members easily,” says Dr. Aziz Çelik, an associate professor in Kocaeli University’s Labour Economics and Industrial Relations Department. “They also obtain certificates from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security more quickly and easily compared to other unions.”
The umbrella group for many of these unions, the Righteous Workers Unions Confederation (Hak-İş) was founded by a precursor party to the AKP and maintains close ties with the ruling party. As a result, Çelik explains, Hak-İş has seen its share of total union membership rise from 11 per cent in 2002 to 32 per cent today. The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), which includes TÜMTİS, has lost ground, falling from representing 71.5 per cent of all union members to 57 per cent.
“Precarious and flexible employment practices such as sub-contracting and fixed-time employment contracts that started in the 1980s also became more deeply entrenched in the 2000s,” says Çelik. The AKP has accelerated this trend by hiring subcontractor firms to provide public services, resulting in “a dramatic decline in trade union density and collective bargaining agreement coverage,” Çelik adds.
TÜMTİS’s achievements in this difficult climate have been attributable in part to its adaptability. The union, which was founded in 1949 to represent drivers of city buses and trams in Istanbul, had already reinvented itself once after a government regulation enacted in 1974 redefined the land transport sector to exclude municipal bus services. Faced with the loss of almost half of its membership, the union shifted its focus to organising small-scale delivery firms.
As those companies came under competitive pressure from large corporations, TÜMTİS made its strategic decision to try and organise UPS workers, a campaign to which the Turkish union convinced ITF leadership to lend unprecedented support.
Hoping to capitalise on the momentum of its wins at UPS and subsequently at DHL, TÜMTİS took on Aras Kargo, the second-largest delivery firm in Turkey. Over the course of a year, the union recruited nearly 2,000 members, qualifying it for recognition by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. At a company with multiple branches, this requires a union to organise 40 per cent plus one of the workers in each location – all 81 provinces of Turkey, in the case of Aras Kargo.
“Even after you go through all that, the legislation gives the employer the right to object within six working days of the union applying to the ministry, a right that most employers utilise, especially those in the private sector,” TÜMTİS president Özturk tells Equal Times.
“The companies know they will lose, but use this measure to gain time. A case can last three or four years, and at the end of it, you may find that you won the case, but have no members left in that workplace.”
The union is expecting a verdict in the Aras Kargo case on 9 May. Meanwhile, it is struggling to hold onto past gains amidst union-busting practices like those TÜMTİS says are being employed by the municipality of Gaziantep in south-eastern Turkey. Last summer, TÜMTİS officials say, the municipality transferred 160 workers belonging to Öz-Taşıma-İş, an affiliate of the pro-government Hak-İş, into its urban transport company, taking over what had been a TÜMTİS-organised workplace.
Meanwhile, the on-going state of emergency in Turkey has made most strike actions, press statements, and other demonstrations impossible. And hanging over it all are the convictions of the 14 TÜMTİS leaders in Ankara, a court decision that Professor Çelik of Kocaeli University says “threatens all trade unions in Turkey.” TÜMTİS has asked for a retrial.
“The only reason for their arrest, the only reason for their punishment, is because of their union activities,” says Özturk. “All the lawyers we’ve talked to were shocked at the decision. If there is any independent judiciary in this country, they say, our friends should be released immediately.”