(A German language version of this article appeared in Jungle World.)
Two weeks ago, I found myself standing together with 62 locked out workers in front of a metal factory in Gebze, Turkey, just outside Istanbul. The workers, members of Birlesik Metal-IS (the metal workers union), have been denied access to the factory since July. A line of riot police stood just inside the factory gates, shields at the ready. Other police were situated inside the factory itself, with a large police bus parked just outside.
The company, a Turkish subsidiary of GEA (a transnational company based in Bochum, Germany) claims that the workers held three illegal strikes lasting 15 minutes each. The “strikes” took place during the workers’ tea breaks and lunch. Turkish labour courts and an independent investigator appointed by the company have already ruled that GEA is in the wrong, but they’re refusing to budge.
What makes the dispute interesting is that GEA is considered to be a “responsible” employer — one which is not usually considered to be hostile to unions. In fact, it is one of a number of companies which have signed international framework agreements with the Geneva-based International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF). This is significant because though it is a German company, some 60% of its employees are based in other countries.
The framework agreement, signed in 2003, acknowledged the company’s social responsibility and the basic right of all employees to establish and join unions. It explicitly committed the company to respect ILO Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association) and No. 98 (Right to Collective Bargaining). That agreement was followed by similar framework agreements between the IMF and other German-based multinationals including Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler.
In locking out the 62 workers in Gebze, the management of GEA were clearly in breach of that agreement. They have refused to meet with the union or the IMF.
One of the speakers on the picket line that day, Kirill Buketov of the International Union of Foodworkers, said that GEA’s decision to ignore the framework agreement and attempt to break the union in Turkey was a “declaration of war” on the international trade union movement.
Adnan Serdaroglu, the leader of Birlesik Metal-IS said to the demonstrators “if GEA has enough courage, then let GEA go to Germany and do the same to German workers — dismiss the German workers because they are unionised.”
At the request of the IMF, LabourStart subsequently launched an online campaign demanding that the employer meet with the union, reinstate the sacked workers, and reach an agreement. The campaign is running in a dozen languages, including Arabic and Hebrew — and German [http://tinyurl.com/clvdo38].
The IMF is currently pressing both IG Metall and the DGB to play a more active role, and to mobilise their own members to support the locked-out Turkish workers. So far, very little support has been shown by German workers and their unions for the locked-out workers at GEA.
This is a very familiar story.
Just two months earlier, another global union federation — UNI Global Union — asked LabourStart to launch an online campaign targeting another German employer, Deutsche Telekom.
That campaign protested Deutsche Telekom’s refusal to allow employees at its US subsidiary, T-Mobile USA, to join a union.
According to the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the employer used threats and scare tactics to block efforts to organise. In a campaign the union describes as “brutal”, its says that “management distributes memos and manuals that instruct managers on how to stop organising efforts and orders its security guards to harass workers interested in organising. Job advertisements for human resource managerial positions stress union avoidance. Upper level management refuses to even talk to counterparts at CWA.”
UNI says it has sought to engage Deutsche Telekom through an international framework agreement that would set the rules for global behaviour by the company. “While such an agreement was close to fruition under former Deutsche Telekom management”, says the union, the “current management has refused to sign any document that impedes its campaign of union avoidance.”
UNI might well learn a lesson from the experience of the International Metalworkers Federation: the signing of a framework agreement is no guarantee that workers rights will be respected.
Some other global union federations have put a freeze on signing such agreements, as the experience with employers like GEA shows that they are no substitute for union power on the ground.
Meanwhile, working through UNI and LabourStart, the CWA teamed up with Ver.di in a campaign to flood the email inbox of Deutsche Telekom CEO Rene Obermann with messages demanding that the company “enter into an agreement to end all interference and respect the right of the workers to decide for themselves about whether or not to join the union.”
Over 10,000 people sent email messages to Obermann, who had one of his subordinates write a long response to each one, defending the company. UNI issued an equally long and detailed rebuttal. At the moment, there is a stalemate.
The two struggles, at T-Mobile USA and GEA in Turkey have a lot in common. The employers are German companies that are unionised at home and that have had dialogue — and in one case, an agreement — with global union federations to respect workers’ rights abroad.
They are not like Wal-Mart, a company that notoriously does not allow unions in any of its stores and that will even close down a store to block unionisation.
Deutsche Telekom and GEA are typically “enlightened” post-1945 German companies, apparently keen to cooperate with unions in a social partnership that benefits everyone.
Except that when they can, they behave just like Wal-Mart.
To put it bluntly, when forced to deal with powerful unions like IG Metall and Ver.di, these employers carefully cultivate a warm and fuzzy image of social partnership.
But when dealing with much weaker unions in the USA or Turkey, they behave like thugs — bullying and threatening, sacking workers and blocking union organising campaigns.
But they are vulnerable, as the response of Deutsche Telekom to the email campaign has shown. They don’t want the bad publicity and the possible loss of sales revenue that might result. If the online campaigns were to grow even larger, particularly with the support of thousands of German trade unionists and other activists, it might be enough to get them to back down.
And of course email campaigns are not the only weapons unions have.
IG Metall and Ver.di, which have so successfully defended the rights of their own members at home in Germany, can perhaps put a little bit of pressure on the two companies as a gesture of solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Turkey and the USA.
What are they waiting for?