Hundreds of angry nurses camp outside Polish PM’s office for over a week
Since spring this year, Polish workers have moved onto the offensive, marking an end to years of retreats and attacks on the working class. The highlight of this wave of strikes and protests is the health workers strikes, spearheaded by the nurses.
Over last week a "White Village" of tents has sprung up outside the Prime Minister’s offices. A week ago earlier there were no more than a handful of tents and 30 protesters. Now there are hundreds of tents and the village is buzzing with life night and day. The number is growing all the time as more and more health workers support the protest and send delegates to the camp. In addition, workers from other sectors of the economy are supporting the nurses, and steel workers and miners from the union Sierpien 80 (August 80) have sent a rotating delegation to camp outside with the nurses and protect the "White Village".
On 19 June 20,000 health workers took part in a "White March" in Warsaw. They demanded a 30% wage rise across the board for all medical staff and increased spending on the health service to 6% of GDP. The 30% rise that they won last year was only a one-off rise for one year, paid as an extra payment and not part of their basic salary, so this year when the extra payment ends they face a 30% fall in wages. Tellingly, one of the slogans on the demo was "We want to work here, not emigrate".
At the end of the demo four representatives of the nurses’ unions occupied the Prime Minister’s Offices, after the Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, refused to meet them. The rest of the demonstrators were pushed onto the pavement by the police and one nurse was rushed to hospital with a heart attack. Spontaneously, protesters declared they would stay camped outside until Kaczynski met their four representatives who occupied his offices demanding to speak with him. Kaczynski’s response was to threaten them with prosecution.
Prime Minister Kaczynski’s response to the nurses’ protest has revealed the real nature of his "populist" Law and Justice government and also its weakness. On the 8th morning of the protest he declared that he would not talk with criminals and was considering when to use force to remove them. When asked what he thought about the hunger strike started by a group of protesters, Kaczynski replied, "Going without supper is not a hunger strike. At the moment they haven’t eaten supper and that has never harmed anyone."
Boguslaw Zietek, leader of the miners and steel workers’ union, August 80, summed up Kaczynski’s attitude with these words: "Unfulfilled promises, lies and insinuations about the political character of workers’ protests, threats and the use of force, this is all that Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government has to offer protesting social groups."
However, Kaczynski’s bully boy tactics soon collapsed, and by the afternoon he agreed to talk with the nurses representatives. The first round of talks achieved nothing except Kaczynski’s admission that nurses "should" receive more money. Finally he politely asked the nurses to end the protest outside his office as it is seriously disrupting the smooth running of his office and twice in one day he had to explain to foreign guests what all the racket was about! Back in the White Village, far from ending their hunger strike, more nurses and doctors have joined. When asked why, they told journalists "We don’t trust Kaczynski!"
Kaczynski’s response to these protests has poured oil on the fire. However, the looming threat of solidarity action and the fact that far from winding down, after 8 days the protest was growing in strength with more and more support from the working class, is what has forced Kaczynski to back down and start talking.
The people of Warsaw have shown enormous support, bringing food, drink, blankets, sleeping bags and tents for the nurses. A recent opinion poll showed 72% in favour of the nurses and only 11% supporting the government on this issue.
The first to give active support to the nurses were the miners of the trade union August 80 with which the Polish CWI has been working closely. From the first day, a delegation of 10 miners and CWI members has been camping with the nurses, providing stewarding for the protests. August 80’s example of class solidarity was soon followed by support from teachers, steelworkers, rail workers, and bus and tram drivers.
Then on 23 June, 500 miners, steel workers, bus and tram drivers, and nurses demonstrated in Warsaw on a demo organised by the Polish Labour Party, a party set up by August 80. The demo led all the way to the "White Village" camp, and was an enormous boost for the nurses’ morale. At the camp there was a carnival atmosphere, with miners and nurses swapping hats, which was a graphic symbol of working class solidarity.
New friendships and contacts across the unions are being established and old animosities between activists from different unions are being broken down. Everyone who visits the camp can immediately feel a buzz and an overwhelming feeling of good will and solidarity. Above all, the camp shows the enormous potential for working class improvisation and organisation in the course of struggle. As the protest continues, nurses who have left their families for over a week are becoming even more determined not to leave until they win their pay rise.
Each day, as the camp grows bigger, there are improvements and new initiatives. Food is distributed free to protesters and there is a daily protest bulletin printed and distributed in the "White Village". Numerous generators provide electricity for the camp, and each tent has its own number so that all protesters have an address. Whenever there is an important news broadcast, nurses crowd around the televisions, thirsting for news of latest developments in the negotiations with the government, then discuss the issues with colleagues. During the day, for thirty minutes every hour everyone stands in a long line alongside the road and makes as much noise as possible, rattling plastic bottles filled with coins, blowing trumpets, or banging on drums. Passing cars hoot their horns in support.
At the beginning of the protest, August 80 stated publicly that the workers’ movement organised in the various trade unions should prepare to organise a general strike. Group for a Workers Party, the Polish CWI has taken this demand further. Whilst calling on the trade unions to organise a general strike, we call on workers to set up Nurses Support Groups in their workplaces and prepare for a stoppage in support of the nurses as well as organising demos in solidarity with the nurses. In this way workers can put pressure on their leaders from below. Already the strength of feeling is such that Forum of Trade Unions (the third largest union federation with 500,000 members) has set up a National Protest Strike Committee and declared to support the nurses to the bitter end. OPZZ (the biggest trade union federation) has also declared its support for the nurses’ cause. However, only pressure from below will push them into organising action.
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Law and Justice (PiS) and the Kaczynski twins
Law and Justice (PiS), the party of the Kaczynski twins, who are both Prime Minister and President, was elected one and a half years ago thanks to their anti-liberal propaganda during the elections and their attacks on Civic Platform (PO), the main liberal party in Poland.
However, whilst PiS won a large part of the traditionally left electorate, in reality this is a populist right-wing party. Immediately they formed a coalition government with the catholic nationalist League for Polish Families (LPR) and the right-wing populist peasant party Self-Defence (SO). Despite the Kaczynski twins’ anti-liberal rhetoric, they appointed two arch-liberal politicians as Minister of Finance and Minister of Health.
The Kaczynski twins’ election in November 2005 coincided with strong growth in the economy. Whilst this growth was due to the present boom in the world economy and not thanks to the policies of the government, nevertheless, Kaczynski was able to present it as his success. This growth is also the reason why a further round of neo-liberal attacks has been so far postponed and explains the continued high standing of PiS in opinion polls.
However, the other side of the coin is that workers no longer see any reason why their wages should stay in the same low level. A few years ago workers moved into action only when their factories were threatened with closure. Today this is no longer the case. More and more often offensive demands are being put forward: an increase in wages or employment, or a change in working conditions to the benefit of workers.
One of the reasons for this increased confidence among the working class is the recent high growth in the Polish economy. Last year GDP grew by about 7%. The situation of many enterprises is currently better than it has been for many years. In addition, millions of Poles have left Poland in recent years, seeking work in other EU countries and leading to shortages of specialists in many fields. This trend has hit the health service particularly badly.