Trade Unions are evaporating! -Can Safak

January 28th, 2006

The military coup on September 12th, 1980 and the subsequent oppressive regime, made such a strong impact on the trade union movement that, with main arteries cut, movement could not start all over again from where it left off when the new era started with the 1982 Constitution and the 1983 Labor Union Laws. It could not reach its previous dynamism or the organizational level.

One of the best measurements of the development of the trade union movement is the unionization rate.
Unfortunately, currently we don’t have healthy statistics to show the trend of unionization rate in Turkey. We can get some ideas from the statistics published by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIK), the Ministry of Labor or the Social Security Institute. Apart from these institutions, the Confederation of Turkish Employers’ Unions regularly publishes statistics limited to their own organization and collective bargaining field. These and some other employers’ organizations’ statistics are the main source for some researchers. Unfortunately, trade unions and confederations have not collected their membership statistics. This alone, may give us an indication about the activism level in trade unions.

Official figures

According to the statistics published by the Ministry of Labor on January 1984, total number of workers was 2,317,016. Number of unionized workers was 1,247,744. The unionization rate was 53.85%. Since 1984, in the Ministry of Labor’s statistics, published every 6 months, both the number of workers and the number of unionized workers have been increasing. In the 1990’s unionization rate reached 70%. In spite of the decline recorded afterwards, the general trend has been increasing. January 2006 statistics disclosed that total number of workers is 5,088,515, number of unionized workers is 2,987,431 and unionization rate is 58.70%.

Therefore, according to the Ministry of Labor, there are roughly about 3 million workers in the country.

On the other hand, Ministry of Labor also publishes the number of signed collective bargaining agreements and the number of workers covered by these agreements. According to these statistics, in 1985, the number of workers in the public sector was 647,582, and, in the private sector, it was 272,228. Therefore, a total of 919,810 workers benefited from collective bargaining agreements. If we think about the periodic 2-year renewal of the union contracts, we need to add 1986 totals to this. These numbers are, number of workers who worked in public sector 348,626, in private sector 358,604 totaling 707,230. According to these calculations in the 1985- , a total of 1,627,040 benefited from collective bargaining agreements. However, this number dramatically declined to 954,429 in the 2003-2004 period. This means, during these years, 672,611 workers had been excluded from collective agreements. The rate is 41.33%. In other words number of workers excluded from the collective bargaining agreements decreased more than 40% since the 1985-86 period. That is, according to the Ministry of Labor’s data, out of 2,806,927 union workers, only 954,429 are included in collective bargaining agreements in the 2003-2004 period. We can also say that, there are 1,852,498 workers who cannot benefit from collective bargaining agreements in our country. If we round the numbers, 2 million out of 3 million union workers are excluded from collective bargaining agreements. While the primary – for us the only – reason for workers to join unions is to benefit from the collective bargaining, how is it possible that almost 2 million workers do not concern themselves with collective bargaining agreements?

Are the workers in Turkey joining the unions for cultural, social or political reasons instead of a wage increase or better working conditions?

If not, then, are the workers being excluded from collective bargaining agreements because of employer pressure?

If so, why this huge conflict is not getting enough attention in the society? Where are these 2 million unionized workers?


In reality, Ministry of Labor’s data is totally imaginary. The imaginary country in Ministry’s statistics does not exist in reality. The number of unionized workers is exaggerated because of the political reasons tied to the international pressure created by International Labor Organization (ILO) and European Union (EU) models and criteria. Because, contrary to these models and criteria, according to the Article 2822, in order for trade unions to be able to conduct a collective bargaining, they need a permission from the Ministry of Labor. The first condition to obtain this permission requires 10% or above union membership among the workers of that sector. It is well known that, if the real membership totals were disclosed, number of unions, which can qualify for this 10% barrier, would be less then the number of fingers on a hand.

The number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements more or less reflects the number of unionized workers. Actually, the number of unionized workers is not more than 1 million in our country. However, according to the 2004 statistics by Social Security Institute, total number of workers covered is 6,181,251. (SSK 2003 Labor Report, page 14). In other words, there are roughly 6 million registered workers in our country. If we also take into account the casual workers, it can easily be estimated that unionization rate in Turkey is not more than 10%. Unionized workers are only a small percentage of working population.

Collective Bargaining Era Collapsed!

Union movements while failing to bring not even 10% of the working class together under its roof also have failed to provide unity among its members. There are 3 trade union confederations acting independently and 2- 3 different trade unions in many sectors. Even though the Labor Confederations can join forces with civil society organizations on collective platforms, collective bargaining has been falling apart at the sector level. Workers with divided forces confront strong employers’ unions.

In the public sector, the collective bargaining has turned into wage bargaining, tied to the “incomes policy” at national level. The “Frame Agreement” signed between Türk-İş (the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions) and the Government primarily determines the “wage increases” in collective bargaining agreements between Türk-İş Unions and the public employers’ unions within the sectors. Public workers have been losing the status of being a major player in collective bargaining and becoming only an audience. They can only watch or read the Türk-İş or Government announcements in the media. In the public sector, it is hard to see a collective bargaining in a plant anymore.

In the private sector, large scale collective bargaining, which had already been distanced from the factories and workers, has collapsed. The common ground in almost all sectors is the divided unionization. Traditional Türk-İş unions became the biggest player in divided group collective bargaining process in most strategic sectors. We observe that after the announcement of the New Labor Law, in almost all of the finalized collective bargaining agreements, employer unions reached their target. The strategic target chosen by the employers’ unions to eliminate the barriers against flexibility through collective bargaining has been reached – even sooner in some sectors – with the release of the new Labor Law article 4857. Starting with the year 2003, the critical items of the collective bargaining agreements, flexible work hours and overtime rules have all been re-structured, with few exceptions, to conform this law. Some secondary items on break times or changing of jobs have also received similar adaptations. On some sectors subcontractor protocols were put in effect. Efforts to include compensation work in some group bargainings were succ
essful. In the 2000-2005 period, the decline of collective bargaining can be observed concretely – measurable – on wage trends. Starting with the 1999-2000 period, level of wages under the organizational scope of TISK (Confederation of Employer Associations), has declined seriously. Real wages covered by collective bargaining declined tremendously with the 2001 economic crisis. Real hourly rate index data by TISK (Confederation of Employer Associations) shows that (1997=100) the real hourly rate is, according to the TUFE (Consumer Price Index), 104.9 in 2000, decreased to 89.0 in 2001, 85.3 in 2002, 85.8 in 2003 and 89.9 in 2004. In the year 2005, the index is calculated to be 92.3. Real wages have not reached the level it was before the crisis.

Another interesting observation is the declining trend on the workers’ strikes. According to the Ministry of Labor’s data, in the year 2000 the number of workers participating in strikes was 18,705. However, this number declined by half to 9,911 in 2001. Number of participation in strikes was 4,618 in 2002, 1,535 in 2003 and, 1,557 in 2004. Unions while declining in quantity have also collapsed in morale.

Independent Trade Unionism

The trade union movement has serious problems on organizing and on their approach to collective bargaining.

In the first years of trade unionism in Turkey, due to the necessity of following the commonly accepted “national style trade unions” model as the “single organization model”, trade unions have not been able to respond to the dynamics of a rapidly changing society. This, one-size-fits-all type of organization has not been discussed in the trade unions and the labor movement captivated itself to this restrictive structure. In this context, the trade union organization must be totally submitted to the trade union movement and its dynamics. The universal principle of “the right of working people to establish any organization they want” (ILO 87/2) must be implemented without any restriction. For this, first of all, especially the 10% barrier must be abolished. Forcing public workers to organize in separate trade unions is against ILO’s article 87 and legislature’s established decisions. At the same time, abolishing all barriers against the public workers’ rights to collective bargaining and striking and eliminating any discrimination against workers for exercising these rights are a must.

On the other hand, the most important restriction on collective bargaining is originating from the Constitution. Constitution bans simultaneous collective bargaining efforts in the same workplace. This prohibition causes distortions in the development of collective bargaining. Türk-İş signs frame agreements at national level without any legal authority. Undoubtedly, development of this type of frame agreements is positive. However, as it is today, they narrow down the scope of the collective bargainings at individual company level and limit what they can cover. Collective bargaining at national level in the public sector is replacing the collective bargaining at individual sectors. This should not be permitted. National collective bargaining should be regulated as a different model and its sides should be determined. It’s range should be expanded to include not only the public sector but also the entire country. Confederations should be able to sit at the table as an authorized side, with the Government. At this capacity, minimum wage and the least standards of working conditions should be specified nationally in all companies. Sector based labor unions in the public sector, should be able to conduct collective bargaining for their entire sector. In the private sector, the group agreements have practically been turned into sector agreements. At this level, acceptable wages and work standards are determined with employer unions at the sector level. Adjustments in details concerning specific issues of workplaces should be determined by sector wide collective bargaining. The collective bargaining model must be restructured based on the principle of “independent collective bargaining” (ILO 98/4) stated in ILO’s 98th article.

However, “one-size-fits-all” type organizing and “one type” collective bargaining siege has not been broken. Not even in thought!

[email protected] / 28/01/2006 / Birgün Newspaper


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