On the Way to Unionization? : Sustainability of a Non-Union Worker Organisation in Turkey

Safak Tartanoglu

This paper explores the organisational dynamics of the ‘Association of Call Centre Workers’ and to discover the effectiveness and sustainability of it as a new actor in representing the interests of call centre workers in Turkey. The decline in the power of trade unions has particularly resulted in some considerable gaps in mobilizing the workers for collective actions, representing their interests and the expression of their voices. Moving from the importance of comparing and analysing the informal and formal worker organisation dynamics in the case of a new trade union for call centre workers, the emphasis of the research is on the ability of both association and trade union to develop a form of resistance and representation for the previously unrepresented. The main purpose of the study is to analyse the possible relations between them and the sustainability of the Association in these circumstances.

  1. Introduction

Recent studies about industrial relations and labour process issues have made assumptions about the weakening of organized labour, insignificance of collective action and disappearance of conflict in contemporary workplaces. However, social and economic relations between capital and labour are still a form of ‘structured antagonism’ (Edwards 1990), and it is inevitable that modern workplaces are still a contested terrain in which managers and workers continually renegotiate the terms of employment based on the power resources of the two sides. In this context, worker perceptions of working conditions develop worker desire for a collective voice and representation to enhance their bargaining power vis-a-vis the employer (Bryson and Freeman, 2013: 1-2).

The traditional actors for worker voice and representation are trade unions and collective bargaining. Unions have the established channels for representation whereas collective bargaining is a constructive process aimed at promoting interests and resolving conflict (Tapia and Turner, 2013: 603). However, in recent decades there have been numerous changes which affect the traditional actors and institutions in industrial relations. Union efficacy and inclusive collective bargaining system has been declining as a result of neo-liberal economic policies and changes like deregulation, flexibity, individualization in working life. In addition to such external challenges, there are internal factors like lack of employee trust in unions which affects member commitment. These circumstances have been converting the unions into a consultative force in many countries (Tapia, 2013: 667).

Union decline refers to many changes which effect the unions both quantitative and qualitative. While unions are dealing with difficulties about membership, effectiveness, bargaining power and political influence (Findlay and Warhurst, 2011: 115) in many advanced economies, they have some other fundamental problems in developing countries. Changing structure of production regimes, raising importance of service-producing industries, increase in subcontracting, high unemployment rates, negative attitude of employer against unions, legal and also political restrictions are some determinants of union decline. It is a fact that unionisation rates decline all over the world andalthough the majority of employees aren’t covered by collective bargaining in advanced economies (Tapia, 2013: 667),the decline of unionisation rates are not as acute as in developing countries.

As traditional trade unions mobilize the interests of labour power and negotiate terms of work within the labour process (Ackers et al. , 1996: 1), the decline in the power of trade unions has particularly led to some considerable gaps in representing the interests of workers and the expression of voice.Contemporary trade unionism is challenged not only in representing the interests of workers (Jenkins, 2013: 623) but also in mobilizing them for acting collectively. If there are no such traditional channels, workers may require a more active mobilization to represent their interests (Tapia and Turner, 2013:603).

The first answer to the question of how the representation gap mentioned above might be filled is the revitalization of the unions. The main focus of revitalization debates in advanced economies is about the diffucult adaptation of unions to the changes in society and economy, also the idea of existing unions can not meetthe interests of changing workforce. The second identifies a role for new and alternative actors for worker representation. (Heery et al., 2004: 1-3).

It can be said that unions have some problems to organize new workers. While some studies support the idea that there is still a possibility for unions to be reborn and represent this new workforce, others have a pessimisticview. Studies about union revitalization emphasize not only membership numbers but also economic and political dimensions which unions have to improve in according to keep their representative role for the interests of workers (Findlay and Warhurst,2011; quoted, Behrens et al. 2004, Heery, 2009: 327). Some other studies also discuss the ‘social movement unionism’ for renewal of labour movement (Waterman, 2008). It is also possible to observe some different examplesto the strategies for the empowerment of the unions and to widen their representation potential in developing countries. For example in Turkey, some unions move together under the name of ‘Trade Union Unity Platform’ to be more effective for the new workforce and for a strong unionism by overcoming the fragmentation among labour organizations (

There is also another outlook which is supported from a different pathway like focusing on a ‘hybrid’ approach (Tapia, 2013: 668). This approach is based on the idea of combining trade union activities with new actors and actions. Some scholars are supporting the idea of collaborative network of these two organisational forms to make the labour movement more effective (Heckscher and Carre, 2006: 617).

In this perspective, the paper explores new developments in the organisation and representation of call centre workers’ interests in Turkey. As in other developing economies, there has been a tendency for such workers to be dismissed by traditional trade unions. For these and other reasons,some call centre workers have been organized under a non-union worker form since 2006 – The Association of Call centre Workers. The Association has developed some novel ways of taking action. However, more recently a change in Turkish Trade Union Law has allowed call centre workers to be unionised. After this change in May 2013, founders of the Association mentioned sought to build a new trade union called “Progressive Communication and Call Centre Workers Union”. Interestingly, they have maintained the existence of a more informal organisation and we will return to these developmetns later in the paper.

This paper starts with the discussion in Section 2 about worker representation gap and how this gap can be filled with different organisational perspectives. Section 3 describes the profile of call centres in Turkey and the collective action potential of workers in the Turkish industrial relations context. Section 4 explains the methodology of the study and the subsequent section outlines the research findings by analysing the case study. Finally section 6 explains thenew trade union and recent developments about representing call centre workers’ interests.

  1. Worker Representation -Mobilization- Gap and New actors in Industrial Relations System

In the studies oflabour movements and collective action, general discussionhave focused on the importance of mobilization theory which is related with how and under what conditions individuals organize collectively to pursue their grievances or interests (Kelly, 1998: 24) and how workers acquire a collective definition of their interests in response to employer-generated injusticeand how this injustice is translated into collective action under certain conditions (Blyton and Jenkins, 2012: 25).

In the context of collective actions, in addition to the formal practices, workers develop a series of informal ways of misbehaving or resisting. Researchers on changing characteristics of resistance mechanisms grasp some of these developments, but do not always connect them to the displacement of traditional ways of conflict expression or interest representation (Kirk, 2010). In this context, there are gaps in the literature connecting the potential bridges between industrial relations and labour process research. Mobilization theory is also important to build the bridge between these two disciplines (Thompson and Newsome, 2004) and to analyze the sustainable resistance practices.

It is not simply dissatisfaction at work which forms unionization, but a sense of injustice, a breach of legal or collective agreement rights, according to mobilization theory. In a workplace where there is no union presence, such grievances must be felt by substantial numbers of workers in order to generate a shared sense of group identity (Kelly, 2006:285). But as Blyton and Jenkins argue, a sense of injustice is not enough in itself to mobilize collective action or take people from ‘the balcony to barricades’ (2012: 32). Employee grievances, antipathy towards management and critical role of workplace leaders (Taylor et al, 2009: 22) are also important for the mobilization.So such a question can be asked here ‘under which conditions the organisations are effective in mobilizing their members’?. The answer to this question might be attracting and shaping their collective interests to mobilize them.

The capacity of mobilization theory should also be focused on to explain the ‘unorganized’ actions of informal organisations instead of trade unions. Yet, if mobilization theory is related with the workers who are transformed into collective actors and in this transformation key elements include a recognition of interests arising from a sense of grievance (Blyton and Jenkins, 2012: 27), collective action would not have to connect with a trade union organisation. In this context, mobilization theory should be able to explain the actions of non-trade union worker organisations. However, the theory, for some scholars, does not account for all the cases of spontaneous, non-organized action. Kelly’s model may be useful for unions organizing but is less useful as a general theory of collective action. There is a need to go back to the contradictions created by structural nature of the capitalist labour process to understand how workers’ collectivism is created and sustained over time (Atzeni, 2009: 6-7). The important point here is that the feeling of injustice which is started individually might evolve into a widespread collective action as a basis of mobilization. But, it is hard to generalize this argument for every situation.

Furthermore, according to Blyton and Jenkins, the strength of the theory is that it provides an analytical framework within which one can assess different scenarios (2013: 19). While unions traditionally mobilise large group of workers, there are particular forms of collective actions directed at a single employer rather than a movement for social change. However, it is worth statingthat not only a sense of injustice is the only important aspect for sustained resistance in an organisation but also their vocabulary of motive and organisational efforts are the other factors in uniting the workers (Blyton and Jenkins, 2012: 29-41).

As an actor of mobilizing the workers, traditional unions are restricted by legal regulationsthat determine its members or their actions.Their strategic orientation prevents them from organizing some of the most exploited groups of workers. Some industries and sectors are abandoned by unions in the case of legal arrangements (Sullivan, 2010: 812). In this perspective, some excluded occupational categories and other groups –immigrants, ethnic minorities and subcontract workers- who don’t have access to the formal industrial relations actors and are outside of the collective bargaining coverage, have potential to mobilize under informal organisations.

Theaforementioned limitations are common models to restrict the unions representing the new worker groups,making it necessary fort hem to focus on new strategies. Scholars argue that unions ‘need a bigger tool kit’ (Findlay and Warhurst, 2011, quoted, Turner, 2004) to renew and restore themselves. These circumstances attracts attentionto the informal organisational forms –new actors in industrial relations system- and their role in worker representation.

“Operating outside the existing legal framework that governs unions, they are able to adopt organizing styles more characteristic of social movement organisations. While unions must calibrate their strategic course to stay within the bounds of law, community based labour organisations are relatively free to engage other forms of collective actions. These organisations are not constrained by the cost-benefit calculations as unions and they are able to organise workers who would otherwise not be reachable” (Sullivan, 2010: 812).

When thinking about non-union representative institutions, one type is created by employers in response to unionism. They mostly tend to promote information-sharing and consultation but not bargaining. These kinds of management-driven forms of participation often concentrated on individuals rather than collective voice (Freeman et al, 2007:5). Another type is standing out against these anti-union managerial strategies. It can be observed for some alternative organisations and ‘new’ actors like community based labour organisations or worker centres which might fill the representation gap. These kinds of non-traditional forms of worker organisations provide workers with a range of opportunities for expressing their “collective voice” as well as for taking collective action (Fine, 2005: 420).

Although emergence of these organisations might be specified as alternative forms of worker representation, there is a need to illustrate the difficult collaboration between them and trade unions. In addition , the power of these organisations depends on their ability to mobilize the workers (Tapia, 2013: 668).

Nevertheless, there is a widespread tendency that excludes these kinds of organizing practices which reflect a union-centric character in mainstream industrial relations studies. Academic research about labour renewal mostly remains union oriented (Sullivan, 2010). “Organizing the unorganized” mostly means a revitalisation attempt of trade unions (Heery and Adler, 2004). This focus is quite problematic because of the strategic value of these organisations and their potential to increase the voice of the workers. When thinking about the labour movement in an historical perspective, trade unions may remain the dominant formal organisational strategy, but in current socioeconomic process there are some new flaws that are more flexible and less institutionally formal both in advanced and developing countries in different forms. Such organisations might remobilize labour (Sullivan, 2010: 797). They are also becoming active in resolving employment problems (Abbott, 1998: 257).

These new actors mentioned above are located outside of the traditional framework. They help workers who lack other means of representation.

“The multitude of organisations span a broad range of organisationalforms ranging from contingent worker organisations, hiring halls, and immigrant workers to underground associations and affinity groups within corporations” (Heckscher ve Carre, 2006: 606).

There are some similarities and differences in organizational forms between different types of new actors in different countries. For example, community unions are community-based organizations which focus on issues about work and wages in their communities. Some of them are new like worker centres, others are existing organizations that adopt new strategies like unions (Fine, 2005a: 154). Workers centres are examples of this type which are community-based mediating institutions that provide support to communities of low-wageworkers and represent their interests. They are found in US and Canada and have members who are mostly recent immigrant workers (Suzuki, 2008: 496).Some of them are based in specific industries, while some worker centres have been organized by ethnic or faith-based organizations. They are place-based organizations instead of worksite-based like unions. They might act like social movement organizations, labour market institutions or a new organizational form which is a combination of these two types (Fine, 2005b: 420-427).Worker centres are mostly nonbureaucratic, grassroots with informal membership structure and small budgets (Fine et al., 2008: 30). They are claimed to share some similar characteristics such as the kind of workers organized, organisational forms and membership structure.They have several missions, including service delivery, advocacy and organizing.

There is another type which can be included into community-based organizations called ‘Industrial Areas Foundations’(IAF) in US. These are also geographic-based organizations that concentrate on bringing social change through the use of public advocacy and collective action. Their organizing model based on empowering workers through campaigns and mobilization (Tapia, 2013; Osterman, 2006). Community organizations are also called as non-bargaining actors which represent select interests of particular workers (Givan, 2007: 830).

The functions of community based labour organizations can be summarised generallyas; raising consciousness, developing leaders, fighting to improve wages and working conditions and building alliances within and across communities. Also, they are expanding labour’s organisational field. Their position outside the formal framework not only gives them greater flexibilityto use militant movement tactics but also stimulateinnovative ways of organizing. (Sullivan, 2010: 814). However, the increasing debates to the emergence of new forms of interest representation direct the attentions to the structures and effectiveness of these new actors in industrial relations.

“Whatever the institution, however, debate over non-union representation returns continually to two essential issues: their relationship to trade unions and their relative effectiveness” (Heery, 2009: 333).

Characteristics and ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ of representation (Hyman, 1997) of the organization depend on the conditions of the labour market or the structure of the industrial relations system of the country which it exists. For example worker centres organize mostly immigrant workers or they have relations with faith-based organizations. This situation is directly related with the country they are in. US or Canada include large populations of immigrants and worker centers in these countries are not only effective to solve the workplace based problems of the workers, but also they access them in the areas which they live and organize them according to improve their social conditions. Consequently different conditions create different solutions for filling the gap which unions left to represent the workers interests.