Poland: Will the tumultuous twins hold on to power?

A revival of the class struggle and sustained political instability send the government into meltdown.

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Will the tumultuous twins hold on to power?

The Polish government has imploded. The ruling Law and Justice Party has decided to end the long drawn out demise of its coalition. Law and Justice, headed by the President Lech Kaczynski, and his identical twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, swept to power two years ago on an ‘anti-communist’, ‘anti-corruption’ platform. They raced ahead of the neo-liberal Civic Platform by making populist promises and declaring that they were in favour of building a ‘social’ Poland and opposing privatisations.

They subsequently formed a coalition with Self-Defence, a populist party with its main base in the countryside headed by Andrej Lepper and the ultra-Catholic, reactionary League of Polish Families. Internationally this coalition hit the headlines when Law and Justice witch-hunted anyone with ties to the former pre-1989 Stalinist regime and the behaviour of the other coalition parties. The League of Polish Families, which has now lost almost all support, attracted ridicule for such acts as seeking an investigation of Teletubbies, a children’s tv programme, because one of the characters ‘might be homosexual’.

This might seem ridiculous were it not for the thousands of schoolchildren who had to suffer the implementation of a right-wing nationalist programme when Roman Giertych, a leading member of the League, was the minister in charge of education.

Economic growth

The Polish economy has been growing over the last two years and is probably the reason why, what was dubbed “the accidental coalition” in the international press, lasted for as long as two years. Average growth per quarter was between 5.5% and 7.4%. This economic growth has allowed the government to postpone the neo-liberal projects it had on the table. The privatisation of the mining industry and the further destruction of the steel industry have halted for the moment due to rising exports to Asia and China in particular. Money from the European Union has helped agribusiness in the countryside and the boom of meat and agricultural exports to the German market has been greater than expected. Commentators predict that a further €67 billion from ‘Brussels’ will flow into Poland. However, this does not mean that the present, or the future, looks rosy for millions of Polish workers and youth. Unemployment has remained stable at 15%, with 25% for the under 25s. In some of the more remote regions of Poland, unemployment stands at 30%.

This high unemployment persists even when a wave of emigration, of especially young people, has created shortages of skilled workers, on the labour market. The Gdansk shipyard cannot find any welders, the Polish government has started a campaign to bring plumbers back to Poland. The campaign, as could have been expected from the government, is centred on nationalist values instead of offering better wages and living conditions to bring people back. The government’s search for immigrant labour in Belarus ended in embarrassment. It appeared that workers in the health sector and construction workers are on higher wages over there than in Poland. Lately there have been initiatives to bring workers in from Korea and China.

This is not only about shortages on the labour market. There is growing disquiet in capitalist circles about the upward pressures on wages and the growing militancy of public sector workers. By importing cheap labour they hope to protect the high profits business makes in Poland and keep wage rises in check. Wages rose in the last 12 months by 12.5%. This figure gives a wrong impression as wages in the public sector and industry have lagged behind and widespread poverty persists. A recent survey shocked the public when it became clear that, for one out of every three children in Poland, lunch served by the school canteen is the only meal in a day.

‘Satanic nurses’?

Although the Law and Justice party stressed its ‘social policies’, to differentiate from the main neo-liberal opposition party Civic Platform, masks fell off when nurses went on a nationwide protest and strike movement in June last year. The aim of the movement was to make a 30% wage rise, agreed last year, permanent and thus avoid a sudden drop of 30% in their wages. 20,000 health workers took part in a ‘White March’ in Warsaw. One of the main slogans was, “We want to work here not emigrate”. When the Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, refused to meet them they set up a tent village outside his offices. The village kept growing until there were hundreds of little white tents. Steel workers, miners and ordinary Warsaw residents came by to express their support and solidarity, bringing donations and gifts such as food and drink to support the struggle. The movement rocked the government and when some of the nurses started a hunger strike the prime minister declared that the strike was inspired by ‘Satans’ and that the nurses were not on hunger strike but “merely skipping lunch”.

Other public sector workers have since joined the little strike wave in Poland. One of the most notable strikes was one by bus drivers in Kielce against the privatisation of the local public transport. The workers went on strike for 17 days defeating attempts by the council to bring in scab labour by occupying the depot. When the council hired a private security firm to drive them off the depot, workers organised and chased the private security guards away. Eventually the council had to count on the quislings of the trade union bureaucracy. The council agreed not to sell the company to private contractors but sold shares to the trade union Solidarnosc and to individual workers instead. This is a partial victory but also a highly risky strategy for the workers themselves. It is not unheard of in Poland that the trade union apparatus takes stakes in companies to either sell them for a profit or take management decisions against the interests of the workers involved. To help close the deal the Solidarnosc leaders called in the help of the local priest who acted as a mediator in the strike.

“History does not put bread on the table”

It is misleading for the international press to call the previous government “accidental”. The political instability in Poland, like in other East European countries, flows from the disastrous social situation created by the reintroduction of capitalism. As a result we have seen a succession of weak governments losing authority and support as they introduce ever more neo-liberal reform. No government has been able to get re-elected as their popularity disappears. The previous Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) government won elections with 40% of support. When it finally gave up and called elections its standing in the polls had dipped under 5%. Eventually they got 11% of the vote in the 2005 elections.

You can understand the sentiment of Karol Guzikiewickz, the local trade union leader at the Gdansk shipyard, when he says: “History does not put bread on the table”. The Gdansk shipyards are hailed as the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union in 1980 and the movement of the workers against Stalinism. This workers’ revolt against the Stalinist bureaucratic and repressive regime began by posing the question of workers’ democracy and real socialism until the elements in it that favoured capitalist restoration gained the upper hand. Capitalist commentators love to drape themselves in the mantle of the courageous workers struggling for democracy. However, they should guard an embarrassed silence. Of the 17,000 workers employed at the shipyard in the 1980s only 3,500 remain. The European Union is demanding the privatisation of the shipyard and the closure of two of the three ‘slipways’, where ships are constructed. The old management headquarters have already been sold off to property developers and there are plans to turn the famous ‘Gate No 2’ and the workshop where Walesa worked into a museum. For workers, recent history – the reintroduction of capitalism – has indeed not put bread on the table.

What after the elections?

Elections are scheduled for 21 October. Law and Justice and the Civic Platform party equal each other in the opinion polls but, no matter who edges ahead on polling day, it is most likely than no-one will be able to form a stable government. On the left it seems unlikely that the Democratic Left Alliance can make a comeback. It has made an alliance with a split, also neo-liberal, from Civic Platform and is in favour of speeding up privatisation. The Polish Labour Party (PPP) has got a base in Silesia and a direct connection to workers through the trade union August ’80. However, its support across the country is limited and it still has to struggle to build its structures and influence to be able to play a national role.

The next leaders of a coalition will have to make decisions like the privatisation of the Gdansk shipyard, supported by both main parties but not carried out because it would be extremely unpopular, and further privatisation of the coal mines. The trade union leaders of OPZZ and Solidarnosc have declared that they agree with privatisation on the condition that another referendum is organised and the workers vote in favour of privatising. In the last referendum on privatising the mining industry 97% of the miners voted against it. A downturn in the world economy would further hit the steel industry and end the period of relatively high growth of GDP. Over the last two years Polish GDP has grown but it was almost of no consequence for the majority of the population. The rising tide in militancy is a sign that Polish workers are eager to fight for their share of wealth created. To effectively struggle they will need to not only move on the trade union front but also engage in politics by building a democratic, fighting workers’ party flying the banner of workers rights, international solidarity and democratic socialism.

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October 2007