FROM 1946 TO 1996

The first workers organizations comparable to trade unions appeared in Turkey after 1908 during the Second Constitutional Period, under such names as mutual benefit funds, associations or leagues. These were scattered organizations established, in general, at state-owned enterprises. The strike action in 1909 was immediately followed by a ban on organization at public enterprises. Between 1920 and 1925 professional organizations such as the associations of typesetters, carpenters and tailors, proliferated, usually with socialists taking the initiative. In 1924 and 1925 various attempts were made, both in Istanbul and on a national level, to gather the associations of workers under umbrella organizations. However, soon after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the promulgation in 1925 of the repressive „establishment of public order" laws on the pretext of Kurdish uprisings in the eastern regions closed the door to practically all political organizations, as well as trade unions. The ban on unionization continued throughout the single-party regime of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) until 1946. The Associations Act that was enacted in 1938 and was modelled on the Italian laws of the Mussolini period prohibited definitely all organizations on a class basis.

After the end of the Second World War, there was a transition to a multi-party system as a result of both internal and external pressures, and the relatively more liberal atmosphere of that time led to the lifting of the ban on class-based organizations on June 10, 1946. Soon afterwards two socialist parties (the Socialist Party of Turkey and the Socialist Labour and Peasant Party of Turkey) were founded, to be followed by the establishment of numerous trade unions at the initiative of these parties. These unions are termed as „the unions of 1946" in the history of the Turkish trade union movement.

In view of these developments, the ruling CHP organized the foundation of an umbrella organization called the Association of Workers of Turkey (Türkiye Isciler Dernegi) and local workers associations attached to it, with the objective of keeping the trade union movement under its control. However, the unions connected to the two socialist parties flourished very rapidly and when their membership went up to thousands within a few months, the martial law command closed both the two socialist parties and the trade unions on 16.12.1946. Their leaders were arrested and their publications banned.

These events had demonstrated the inevitability of the establishment of trade unions. Accordingly, the CHP government prepared a trade union act which was promulgated by the parliament as Act number 5108 and became effective as of 20.2.1947. Thus, for the first time in Turkey, workers and employers were granted the right to establish unions, albeit with certain restrictions.

In spite of all its limitations and deficiencies, this Act constituted an important step for the trade union movement. Even the ban on strikes could not prevent the waging of illegal strikes from time to time. A large number of unions were founded after the act came into force, and the already established associations of workers converted themselves into unions. While in 1947 there were 49 unions organizing 33,000 workers, in 1952 the number of unions had spiraled to 246 and their membership to 130,000.

The political climate in the country changed in 1950 with the coming into power of the Democratic Party (DP) and Turkey’s alliance to NATO. The developing trade union movement needed a central organization. Türk-Is was founded in 1952 to answer this need. Türk-Is was born as a confederation that adopted the American type of unionism and rejected mass and class struggle. (See: TURK-IS) It organized primarily in the public sector enterprises and in industrial provinces such as Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Adana, Ankara, Eskisehir and Mersin. By 1954 Türk-Is had a total of 117.487 members organized in 146 trade unions.

Act no. 5108 also provided for the unions of employers. However, these unions were for the most part established after 1960, and starting from 1965 the state-owned enterprises began to become organized in employer unions.

The constitution that was prepared following the military intervention on May 27, 1960 and came into force in 1961 after a referendum recognized, besides the freedom of unionization, the rights of the workers to collective bargaining and strike. However, these constitutional rights were first implemented with the promulgation of Act Number 274 on Trade Unions and Act Number 275 on Collective Bargaining, Strikes and Lockouts on 24.7.1963. These new laws introduced a system of collective bargaining and collective labour contracts and recognized the right of the workers to strike, although with certain limitations, but in return the employers were legally entitled to declare lockouts.

In spite of the restrictions on the right to strike, Act Number 274 granted all working people the right to unionize, extended the freedom to establish trade unions, lowered the minimum age for union membership from 18 to 16, simplified the conditions for affiliation to an umbrella organization, discontinued the requirement of governmental permission for joining international organizations, introduced the check-off system for the deduction of union dues and allowed unions the possibility of exerting an influence in politics without establishing financial or organic relations with political parties.

The trade union acts that were passed in 1963 formed a turning point in the history of the Turkish trade union movement. Unionization accelerated after this date (the total number of union members rose from 282,967 in 1960 to 834,680 in 1967, and exceeded 1 million by 1971), the trade union struggle intensified and there was an increase in labour disputes and strikes. Social conflicts were aggravated on account of the socio-economic developments, and the working masses began to become politicized. These changes sharpened the differences of opinion in the workers movement in general and in Türk-Is in particular.

The strike waged by Türk-Is affiliate Kristal-Is union at the Pasabahce Glass Factory in late 1966 brought the friction between the moderate and more radical wings in Türk-Is to a head. While the leadership of the confederation reached an agreement with the employer and decided to end the strike, some unions formed a committee to support the strikers and the strike continued. These unions were temporarily discharged from the confederation for breach of discipline. In response to this punishment, 4 of these unions decided to withdraw from Türk-Is and to form a new confederation. They were joined by an independent union, and the 5 unions established the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK) on 13.2.1967. (See: DISK)

The majority of the trade unionists who founded DISK had also taken part in the foundation of the socialist Workers Party of TURKEY (TIP) in 1961. The leadership of Türk-Is and its affiliates, on the other hand, were usually dominated by the supporters of CHP or the Justice Party (the successor of the conservative Democratic Party that was closed in 1960), according to the make-up of the government. After this split, Türk-Is continued its organization predominantly in the public sector, while DISK organized mainly private sector enterprises.

From the foundation of DISK up until a1980 the competition between the two confederations was the determining feature of the trade union movement in Turkey. In the meantime, however, there were also some independent trade unions.

The right-wing ruling parties were disturbed about the strengthening of DISK, and with the prompting and efforts of Türk-Is leaders Acts Number 274 and 275 were modified. The amendments made in the laws introduced stricter conditions for becoming the authorized union to conduct collective bargaining at an enterprise. On June 15 and 16, 1970 thousands of workers, most of them DISK members, stopped work and went out to the streets in Istanbul to protest the new law. The demonstrations were checked by the declaration of martial law. DISK leaders and a large number of workers were arrested. Nevertheless, the amended law could not be implemented although it had been passed by the parliament. CHP and TIP later made an appeal to the Constitutional Court which overruled the amendments.

The trade union rivalry between Türk-Is and DISK continued also after these events. With respect to the economic rights of workers and the modification of the laws in favour of the labouring people, Türk-Is adopted a moderate approach and sought a dialogue with the government, while DISK maintained its more radical attitude. Whereas politically Türk-Is declared itself to be non-partisan, DISK supported left-wing parties, and most often CHP, in the elections. Türk-Is had 700,000 members in 1976, while the membership of DISK reached 270,000 at the end of 1974.

Another military intervention took place in Turkey on 12.3.1971. Martial law was declared in industrial regions, trade union activities became subject to prior permission and strikes were banned. This ban lasted until the end of 1972.

The conclusion of this semi-military regime with the general elections in autumn 1973 restored its former vitality to the trade union movement. In the meantime, after the Nationalist Front government, a coalition of right-wing parties, came to power in 1975, a new confederation called Hak-Is that pursued a policy close to that of the Nationalist Salvation Party (MSP -the predecessor of the Welfare Party of today) was founded in 1976. (See: HAK-IS) During this period the radical right-wing MISK, the Confederation of Nationalist Trade Unions, also gathered strength, but mostly as a political organization rather than in the trade union arena. (See: MISK)

Between 1975 and 1980 it was DISK who assumed the decisive role in the labour and union movement in Turkey. The confederation waged a dynamic struggle defined as „class and mass unionism" and grew rapidly. The military coup of September 12, 1980 put an end to this development.

The military coup suspended the activities of first and foremost DISK, as well as the other confederations excluding Türk-Is, and the majority of independent unions. These unions were put under trusteeship and their assets were confiscated. DISK and MISK leaders were put on trial at military courts, the DISK leaders with the demand of death penalty. The National Security Council established by the perpetrators of the coup invalidated the constitution of 1961 and the laws that were enacted according to the stipulations of this constitution and regulated labour relations. Until the promulgation of new laws the Supreme Council of Arbitration was designated as the authority that had the last word in collective negotiations.

The new labour laws were enacted in July 1983. Act Number 2821 on Trade Unions and Act Number 2822 on Collective Bargaining, Strikes and Lockouts signified a serious backslide in the rights of workers and trade unions. These laws exterminated the cultural and educational role of the unions, and trade unions were redefined solely as organizations with economic and social functions. The foundation of enterprise unions was prohibited and more exacting demands were imposed for the founders of unions. Union leaders were required to have at least 10 years seniority in that branch and not to assume any office in a political party. In order to conduct collective bargaining, in addition to affiliating the majority of the workers at a certain enterprise, the unions were compelled to organize at least 10% of the total workers in that branch. Unions were barred from involvement in politics and commerce, and organizing meetings outside their stated aims was forbidden. Organization on a national level became compulsory and professional unions and federations were prohibited. Unions were forced to adapt themselves to this law within one year, and the law stipulated the closure of the unions who failed to do so. In the new act on collective bargaining, strikes and lockouts, the strikes waged when the employer did not comply with the collective labour contract were banned. The Supreme Council of Arbitration was furnished with the authority to postpone and to ban strikes, as well as broad powers in connections with collective negotiations. Its decisions were to be in the nature of collective labour contracts. Lockout was defined as a right of employers equivalent to the right to strike. In case a strike was postponed by the government and the dispute could not be resolved within this period of postponement which was 60 days, taking the matter to the Supreme Council of Arbitration became mandatory. The decisions of this Council were made unappealable. The payment of wages or fringe benefits to workers after the conclusion of a strike for the duration of the strike was banned. The industrial branches were re-regulated and their number was reduced to 28. Furthermore, the social insurance legislation was amended to increase the financial responsibilities of the workers.

With respect to the confederations the activities of which had been suspended, Hak-Is was allowed to resume its operations in February 1981 and MISK in 1984. DISK, on the other hand, was restored its legal rights only in 1991 with a ruling of the Military Court of Appeals.

Due to such factors as the new laws that were enacted after the military coup and that restrain the development opportunities of DISK and similar unions, the subduement of the leading cadres of DISK by various means and the shifting of the membership basis of to Türk-Is and Hak-Is during this period so as not to remain unorganized, Türk-Is has become the most powerful confederation. However, in the post-1980 period the power and social impact of all unions, including Türk-Is, has declined. While the changing international and national conditions led to a relative radicalization of such Türk-Is affiliates as Petrol-Is and Harb-Is, there has been a noticeable relaxation in the attitudes of DISK and Hak-Is. After 1990 these three confederations have often acted in unison in connection with various issues.

The situation of the trade union movement in Turkey as of mid-1996 can be summed up as follows:

Türk-Is maintains its position as the largest and strongest confederation, but all of its affiliates experience the frustrations of inadequate organization and growth and, perhaps most important of all, the lack of a militant style of unionism.

Hak-Is is showing an expansion, which is also due to the fact that the Welfare Party with which it has close relations is in government.

As the confederation that was most severely punished by the military regime DISK is experiencing very serious problems in organizing. DISK affiliates, apart from Birlesik Metal-Is, Genel-Is and Gida-Is, are fighting for survival.

MISK remains, as always, a labour organization only in name, but a political organization in fact.

Although the new laws do not allow much scope for independent unions, their number is still quite high. This phenomenon can probably be explained by local circumstances, the pursuance of individual interests or, in the case of large independent unions, the reluctance to accept the discipline entailed by membership to a confederation.

As of 1996 the trade union movement that is on the ascendancy is that of civil servants. The unions of public employees display a growth that resembles that of DISK prior to the coup with respect to dynamism and militancy. It may be said, however, that these unions are scattered and over-politicized.

According to the Ministry of Labour data, there are 2,700,000 unionized workers (excluding the unions of public employees) in Turkey as of July 1996. It is known almost certainly, however, that the true number of unionized workers is closer to 1,000,000. The difference in between arises from the tendency of the unions to exaggerate their membership in order to be able to pass the minimum branch and workplace limits and to become authorized to conduct collective bargaining.

As of July 1996 there are 4 labour unions confederations, 3 public employees confederations, 1 employers confederation and dependent or independent from this confederations, 111 labour unions, 59 public employees unions, 52 employers’ unions in Turkey.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | November 1998

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