Poland:: Strikes continue against rocketing food and fuel costs

Government and bosses try to crush the workers’ movement

A wave of strikes and protests has been sweeping through Poland for months, above all due to the galloping price of food and energy. In July there were demonstrations of several thousands of workers in a number of towns and more groups of workers are preparing to strike. However, as we can expect, the government and bosses are not taking this lying down. Changes to the labour code have been announced for September, which make strikes practically impossible. At the same time striking workers are victimised and face the use of force even now.

Shipyard workers protest

At the beginning of July demonstrations of shipyard workers rocked Gdynia and Szczecin. The European Commission demanded the immediate privatisation of the three biggest shipyards – employing tens of thousands of workers – or the return of the public aid which they allegedly received, which would mean their immediate bankruptcy. The trade unions claim that most of the “public aid” never reached the shipyards and that their poor financial situation is a result of the swindles of the private companies which ‘cooperate’ with the shipyards. On 16 July 3,000 workers demonstrated in Gdynia and 6,000 in Szczecin. They were also supported by workers from other factories.

The shipyard workers are considered to belong to one of the most militant and best organised sections of the working class, alongside the miners. Unfortunately, the main unions in the shipyard – in particular Solidarnosc – agree to the privatisation of the industry. The decision of the European Commission has been postponed till 12 September, and there will probably be a sharpening of the situation then. Currently protest committees are operating in all three plants.

At the same time the miners have accused the mines management of failing to keep to the agreement which was signed after last December’s strike – the biggest since 1994 – which guaranteed a wage rise. As a vote in one of the mines showed, over 90% of miners are in favour of a strike. It is possible that in September all the miners’ unions will organise a march on Warsaw.

On 25 July over 10,000 power workers marched on the streets of Warsaw against rising prices for electricity and against ‘wild’ privatisation. However – as in the case of other demonstrations – no members of the government wanted to talk to the demonstrators. In this situation, power workers have announced plans for a strike in the power sector. Railway workers and pilots have also announced warning strikes. On 29 August Solidarnosc plans to organise a demonstration in Warsaw demanding a rise in the minimum wage and against the attacks on the labour code and the right to early retirement. This could be the largest trade union demonstration for many years.

“Martial law” in the factory

At the same time there have also been warning strikes in a few large factories. At the beginning of June the Free Trade Union “August 80” organised a warning strike in the FagorMastercook factory in Wroclaw. In the weeks that followed, over 20 workers were thrown out of work. However, on 18 July a picket was planned in defence of those who were sacked. A day earlier a steel gate, which each worker had to pass through, was installed in front of the factory. Workers passing through the gate were subjected to a humiliating search. This made them late for work and so they were reprimanded by management. Over 400 private security guards were employed in and around the factory, observing workers all day long. The next day the security guards were armed with rifles which fire rubber bullets. Older workers recalled the days of martial law in Poland at the beginning of the ‘80s.

However, the workers refused to be intimidated and over 500 took part in the picket. The protest was also supported by a group of miners from Silesia. FagorMastercook is part of the cooperative Mondragon Corporation ‘Cooperativa’ – one of the largest in the world. A strike is planned in September after the factory has had its technical break.

It is not only the workers of this factory who want to protest. In September the 4,500 workforce of the Michelin tyre factory in Olsztyn is also supposed to be organising a strike. At the same time the local poultry enterprise and the town’s public transport workers are also threatening to strike. In fact, public transport workers are planning protests in a number of towns in Poland. Workers in the Krosno Glassworks, employing 3,600 workers, are also in favour of taking strike action.

The struggle sharpens

This is not an isolated case. In recent months dozens of trade unionists from both August 80 and Solidarnosc have faced repression after organising strikes in their workplaces. In many cases the bosses threaten them that if they organise a strike they will be removed from the factory by force. There were two such attempts this year and in both cases they were unsuccessful.

As wider layers of the working class enter the struggle, confidence will grow. For years, workers from the small but well-unionised public sector were at the forefront of the strikes (in mining 90% are unionised, in the railways approximately 70%, whilst in the whole of Poland the figure is 12%).

Strikes in private firms were unheard of. This situation started to change at the beginning of the year. Over the last few years a few hundred jobs have been created in factories located in so-called Special Economic Zones. There were no trade unions in these zones and workers were forced to work 12 hours a day in shocking conditions, often causing fatigue and accidents. As the case of FagorMastercook shows, these working class centres are now reaching boiling point.

In this situation the Civic Platform and Polish Peasants Party government is preparing drastic attacks on the labour law in September. They want to make it easier to dismiss trade union activists and make it more difficult to organise a strike. (The law on strikes is already one of the most repressive in Europe, which is why workers often limit themselves to organising warning strikes lasting just a few hours). As a result of these attacks it will be easier to organise a lockout. It is not clear what the reply of the main trade unions – Solidarnosc and OPZZ – will be, but there is a danger that their leaders will go for a compromise with the employers (as they usually do) and will accept some of the proposed changes.

Workers have already shown their dissatisfaction with the opportunism of the union federations. More and more often wildcat strikes break out, organised against the wishes of the union leaders, without taking into consideration the law on strikes. This was the case in the Zeran car factory. During a one-day strike the workers won a 360 zloty (110 euro) pay rise whilst the trade union leaders…persuaded them to go back to work! The leaders of Solidarnosc and OPZZ are increasingly asked by their members why they don’t participate in actions organised by the smaller unions. In some regions the workers are beginning to cooperate with each other regardless of union divisions.

During recent demonstrations and protests, members of the Group for a Workers’ Party (CWI Poland) called for a general strike which would link the demands of the various groups of workers. This is not an abstract demand. As recent opinion polls conducted among workers show, an overwhelming majority is in favour of taking strike action and is only waiting for the signal from the trade union leaders.

We are also explaining to workers that neither private nor state enterprises will satisfy the needs of workers as long as capitalism exists. We are showing them the need for control of the economy by the workers themselves.

Soon there will be another round of price rises and attacks on workers’ rights. This will undoubtedly be a time of mass protests. However, the isolation and divisions in the workers’ movement can prove to be a curse. The coming months will show whether workers will manage to unite and create authentic, fighting organisations.

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