Working class finds itself between the class struggle and the union bureaucracy
The following article first appeared earlier this year in the Italian publication ‘Guerre y Pace’, which produced a special issue on trade unions internationally. As the pro-market government in Poland, led by Donald Tusk, prepares to ‘celebrate’ the 20th anniversary of the end of the country’s “communist regime” (i.e. Stalinist regime), the article below looks at the role of Solidarity in the 1980s, the collapse of former Stalinist regime and re-introduction of brutal capitalism and the work of the ‘August 80’ union today.
The article is jointly authored by Ewa Groszewska, from August 80, Committee for the Aid and Defence of Victimised Workers, and a member of the Polish Labour Party, and by Paul Newbery, who as well as also being a member of the same organisations is also a member of the Committee for Workers International (CWI) in Poland.
On 20th anniversary of collapse of Stalinism in Poland…
Any analysis of the situation of working people in Poland should begin by looking at the intentions of Solidarity in the 1980’s and also the character of the transformation of Polish society and economy at the end of the decade. In the period of so-called “real socialism”, the Polish economy had a strong industrial profile. The economic landscape of Poland was dominated by large-scale industry and manufacturing, with enterprises employing large workforces. In that period the Polish working class was able to communicate its experiences and moods within the workplace. Thanks to the integration of workers in the factories, shipyards and mines, it was possible to organise a strike in August 1980, which resulted in the birth of the Independent Self-governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’. The 21 demands formulated by striking shipyard workers became the manifesto of workers, who were demanding democratisation of relations in their workplace and a real influence on political and social decisions in the Polish People’s Republic. (The name of the trade union which we represent, “August 80”, refers to this document and this protest).
Activists of the illegal opposition, who originated from layers of the intelligentsia, often expressed their approval of market reforms. However, in the first period of Solidarity, before Martial Law, such demands were not prominent in the union. After Martial Law was imposed in December 1981, the ideals of the first Solidarity began to crumble. The demands of the striking workers of 1980 were annihilated and the demands for self-government and emancipation were replaced with the “enigmatic” demands to abolish “communist” power.
In 1989 the new “post-communist” Solidarity-backed government came to power and undertook a transformation of the system which consisted in freeing prices and subjecting them to market mechanisms, as well as changing the structure of property relations in Poland. This was accompanied by the wholesale liquidation of state enterprises through their privatisation or bankruptcy. As a result, the productive and industrial infrastructure in Poland was destroyed. At the same time, existing workforces were decimated and the resulting unemployment subjected workers to “shock therapy”. This caused a significant weakening of the potential ability to organise social protests.
The Free Trade Union August 80 (Sierpien 80) was formed at this time as a result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Solidarity leaders. August 80 consistently attempts to build workers’ resistance based on the strategy of class struggle. We reach workers through the weekly paper: “Union Courier” (Kurier Zwiazkowy), which is distributed free of charge by our members in various workplaces throughout the country. Our activities are not limited only to work-related issues. From the beginning of the attack on Iraq we co-organised anti-war demonstrations against the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against the pacification in the Gaza Strip. Our trade unionists have also supported feminist demonstrations.
In contrast, the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”, which is officially the continuation of the “first Solidarity” from 1980, appeals to the idea of social solidarity and the social teachings of the church, which often results in a conciliatory attitude with regards to the violation of workers’ rights and the bad financial situation of employees. Solidarity also has connections with the conservative party, “Law and Justice”, which formed the government in the previous term of parliament. On the other hand, the All-Poland Agreement of Trade Unions (OPZZ) is a bureaucratised union federation connected with the neo-liberal Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).
August 80 “troublemakers”
Although the media tries to present August 80 as “troublemakers”, many workers who are dissatisfied with the activities of the other unions contact us with the intention of setting up branches of August 80 in their workplaces. Protest activities are either largely ignored by the media or presented as irresponsible, too demanding, and resulting from an inability to understand the laws of economics. The most cynical attitude is that of politicians and journalists who affirm and glorify the strikes from the period of so-called communism, but now believe that such workers’ protests are unauthorised, egoistic and adventurism. Up to now, public opinion has expressed disapproval of all forms of union activities. This is now beginning to change as a result of the violation of workers’ rights.
The destruction of the country’s industrial infrastructure and potential meant that new jobs could be created only thanks to foreign investment. In this way, the path was cleared for Western capital. The “green light” policy for investors is realised by the creation of special economic zones in which investors are exempt from turnover tax and land tax. Moreover, these investments are accompanied by substantial public aid from the Polish state budget. The municipal government has the right to negotiate the level of wages for the employees and is also responsible for overseeing the work conditions. However, the municipal governments never make use of this right and never fulfil their responsibilities. Wages are very low in foreign factories and often nineteenth-century safety conditions prevail.
It is in the plants of foreign investors that many accidents at work occur. Five years ago the press (because the TV no longer does) revealed the case of a fatal accident of an employee in the Indesit plant in Lódz. The case was particularly scandalous since the accident was a consequence of the policy aimed at increasing profits. The machine which 21-year-old Tomasz Jochan was working on had the safety mechanism removed by management in order to speed up production. Moreover, the managers in Lódz were under pressure from the head office of the corporation to improve “productivity”. Despite this tragic accident, neither the State Labour Inspection nor the municipal authorities devote any attention to the problem of inspecting the work conditions at foreign-owned plants. Accidents continue to take place, for example at LG’s plant near Wroclaw.
Flexible forms of employment such as outsourcing are widely used by investors. Work procedures differ significantly from those which are in force in the corporations’ countries of origin. Trade union activity is hampered or even prevented. However, August 80 managed to organise the first strike in a hypermarket in Poland. Employees of the Tesco store in Tychy decided to set up an August 80 branch after they were discouraged by the activities of the existing trade union in the store. A few days later they organised a strike following a wage rise which they were not satisfied with. However, the strike was successful since the hypermarket’s employees gained self-confidence and a feeling of dignity. This category of employees is subject to one of the highest levels of exploitation and humiliation.
Fagor Mastercook struggle
The case of the recent struggle in Fagor Mastercook, a foreign investor active in Wroclaw’s economic zone, illustrates the problems facing trade unionists in Poland. The “mother” company of this corporation is organised as a co-operative in the Basque Country. In Poland it advertises itself as a company which bases its potential and development on the idea of human capital. However, in reality, its human resources strategy is a blunt attempt to control and crush any possible protest or resistance of employees dissatisfied with the level of wages and working conditions. We became aware of this when we organised a picket in Mastercook – a rally calling for a strike of the whole plant if the Mastercook management tried to avoid paying a wage rise. The day before the rally the management hired a private security firm, whose employees, equipped with batons and air pistols, and searched workers in front of the plant. Moreover, members of August 80 were harassed during private talks, with suggestions of a change in their position in the company. Trade unions described this case in leaflets and press releases which reached newspapers and TV, with the result that the chair of the factory commission of August 80 in Fagor Mastercook faces a court case for allegedly defaming the company.
The bitterest and most influential struggle in 2008 was a 46-day strike in Budryk coal mine. Budryk’s miners were fighting for a wage rise which would give them parity with other miners in the Jastrzebski Coal Company, which had recently taken over their mine. During the bitter struggle, 500 miners organised an occupation 1000m underground – the biggest in Polish history. The strike was organised by August 80 and the Kadra. Disgracefully, Solidarity and ZGG, the other two main unions in the mine, played a strike breaking role throughout the strike with one of the leaders of Solidarity (a leading member of ATTAC Poland) calling on the government to use force to smash the strike. Nevertheless, the strike was successful and miners won a 10% wage rise and an equalisation payment. This result was less than they had originally demanded but was widely recognised as a victory, as they would have received nothing if it had not been for the strike.
The Budryk strike was significant as it opened the flood gates for a whole series of offensive struggles over pay. In a number of towns there were demonstrations of a few thousand workers. In the first half of the year, over 200,000 workers took strike action, the biggest number in 14 years. These were often illegal, spontaneous strikes in the private sector, which is a new development. Another factor was the labour shortages resulting from the mass emigration of Poles to the West, in particular to Britain and Ireland, which gave workers a feeling of strength and confidence.
However, Donald Tusk’s neo-liberal government had another series of counter-reforms on its agenda, including social cuts, privatisation of the health service and abolition of early retirement for a large number of workers. To succeed with these counter-reforms, the government needs an acquiescent labour movement. At the same time, the government could see the danger of a working class growing in confidence and beginning to flex its muscles. Therefore a change to the labour code was needed in order to create the necessary conditions to disarm the unions and thus push through its counter-reforms. These plans include the right for employers to organise a lockout, which is also supported by Solidarity’s legendary leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lech Walesa! The changes also included an end to the recording of the number of working hours in smaller firms, the possibility to fire pregnant women and a reduction in the number of people entitled to early retirement.
Labour Code changes
In response to plans to change the labour code, August 80 attempted to instigate joint protests and actions by all the union federations. Talks with Solidarity 80 were held in April 2008. On 23 June, August 80 organised a demonstration in Warsaw in defence of the Labour Code. It also raised demands against plans to privatise the health service. The 4,000-strong demonstration included the following trade unions: Solidarity 80, All-Poland Trade Union Workers’ Initiative (OZZIP), Dabrowsko-Slaski region of Solidarity and representatives of OPZZ. Later, there were attempts to encourage Solidarity and OPZZ to organise a general strike in response to the amendments to the bill on early retirement. However, the representatives of these two largest trade unions preferred to wait for the result of the voting in the Polish parliament, which obviously led to an unfavourable change for employees. The new bill was vetoed by the President, however, the parliament voted to reject the veto thanks to the votes of the neo-liberal “left” party – the Democratic Left alliance (SLD).
At the end of August, Solidarity organised its own demonstration under the World Social Forum slogan: ‘Decent work, decent life’. Demands included an increase in the minimum wage and opposed changes to the labour code and early retirement rights. All these demands had been raised on the much smaller demonstration held by August 80 last June. However, not only did Solidarity refuse to encourage trade unionists from other unions to join the demo, but in some regions actually discouraged them. Nevertheless, the demonstration was a marvellous show of strength with 50,000 workers demonstrating in torrential rain. Besides the traditional heavy battalions of the working class, i.e. miners, steelworkers and shipyard workers, there were also many workers from private enterprises, many young workers for whom this was their first big demonstration, and many women workers. Unfortunately the Solidarity leadership failed to give a lead and show how the movement could continue to go forward, so the energy and anger of the movement was wasted.
In the autumn there were a number of smaller demonstrations on this same issue. A joint OPZZ and Solidarity picket outside the Polish parliament turned into an illegal demo of 5,000 with battles with the police. The leaders lost control and were unable to contain the anger. Significantly, the leader of the train drivers’ union, which had recently joined the ranks of the OPZZ federation, called for a general strike to oppose the government’s plans.
A new militancy
In November, August 80 occupied Prime Minister Tusk’s parliamentary office demanding immediate talks with the Premier on the issue of early retirement rights. The action was above all symbolic, since the office was no longer used on a day-to-day basis by the Premier. However, August 80 gained wide media coverage, which they used to publicize their call for a general strike. Such was the pressure within the ranks of OPZZ that Jan Guz, Chairman of OPZZ, was forced to visit the occupation and not only express his support for the action, but also comment on the question of a general strike. He admitted that this was an issue raised by the rank and file in his union federation but argued that this should be a last resort. Incidentally, Lech Walesa responded to the protest by stating that if he were Donald Tusk he would use force to remove the trade unionists from the office.
When the occupation ended after three days, the leader of August 80, Boguslaw Zietek, called for all the unions to organise a one-day general strike on 8 December. A strike did take place on that day, but since the leaders of the other unions failed to respond, it was unfortunately restricted to miners and railway workers, who blocked the rails for 4 hours.
The developments of 2008 are significant since these struggles started to develop before the economic crisis hit Poland. A new militancy appeared, with new, fresh trade unionists putting pressure on the entrenched union bureaucracy. In all the unions it is possible to find genuine militant trade unionists that truly represent the interests of the rank and file. However, in 2008, August 80 stood out, despite the fact that it is a relatively small union, as an example of what a fighting trade union should represent. August 80 supported all workers in struggle, regardless of their union affiliation, putting the interests of the working class and the class struggle first. The bureaucracy of the other trade unions came under enormous pressure from its rank and file, but so far has succeeded in maintaining its position by organising token protests and releasing some of the pressure from below.
How will the unions react in the face of the growing world economic crisis? Already the main union leaders have indicated that workers will have to make concessions to employers as the crisis develops. On the other hand, August 80 is determined that workers shall not pay for the bosses crisis. Therefore in 2009 the struggle will continue for genuine trade unionism and the defence of workers’ rights, a struggle not only against the neo-liberal government and the bosses, but also against the union bureaucrats.