Poland: 50,000 on largest workers’ demonstration since 1990s

‘Defend the Labour Code – for a one day General Strike!’

Warsaw came to a standstill, for many hours, as over 50,000 workers demonstrated in torrential rain, last Friday.

50,000 workers demonstrated in torrential rain

The demonstration was organised by Solidarity, under the World Social Forum slogan: ‘Decent work, decent life’. It also demanded an increase in the minimum wage and opposed government plans to change the labour code and to abolish the right to early retirement for many workers. All these demands had been raised on a much smaller demonstration held on by ‘August 80’, last June.

Police figures claimed 18,000 were on the demo, but it was clear that there were at least 50,000, as the huge Pilsudski Square was overflowing with people. When the last demonstrators had finally left the square, the front of the march had already reached the Prime Ministers’ Offices, about 4 km away, occupying the whole width of the road!

Marching to the Prime Minister’s Offices

Rising food and energy costs are forcing thousands of workers into struggle for wage rises. Since unemployment has fallen in recent years, there is a new confidence and combativeness among workers. On the other hand, the Civic Platform government is planning a series of neo-liberal ‘reforms’ and attacks on workers’ rights, including the right for bosses to organise a lockout. These are ingredients for a sharpening of the class struggle in Poland. The sheer size of Friday’s demonstration is a reflection of this and shows that the Solidarity leadership had been forced into organising the demo by the mood from below.

Miners, steel workers and shipyard workers were well-represented on the protest, as usual, but there were also many workers from private enterprises and younger workers, particularly women workers in their 20s and 30s, who made up 50% of some of the protest delegations. Judging by the size of the delegations from some factories, production was probably shutdown in many workplaces. Recently, Solidarity recruited many new workers in the private sector. This is a new, fresh layer, which, in many cases, is entering into struggle for the first time.

While there were some neo-fascists on the demonstrations and several workers’ delegations carried banners with nationalist slogans, it would be a mistake to consider Solidarity as one homogenous reactionary mass, as most of the Polish left do.

Contradictory moods

Wola Steelworks’ banner with the slogan

Wola Steelworks’ banner with the slogan "Don’t touch the Labour Code or Poles will touch you" (Polacy = Poles).

However, some of the banners on the protest illustrate the current contradictory moods among Polish workers. A few banner slogans made reference to "working people", however, the official banner of Stalowa Wola Steelworks read: ‘Don’t touch the Labour Code or Poles will touch you’. Replace ‘Poles’ with ‘workers’ and it would be an excellent slogan! Unfortunately, many Solidarity members identify themselves as Poles but not as workers because of the nationalist poison fed to them for years.

During the day’s protest, the Solidarity leadership offered no lead whatsoever. When the demonstrators got to the end of the route there was no rally and no speeches – the delegations were just told to turn around and go home. In the special edition of the Solidarity paper, handed out during the demonstration, the head of the Solidarity’s Gdansk region was quoted stating they are fighting for the quicker privatisation of the three shipyards which are going bankrupt!

Group for a Workers’ Party paper:

Group for a Workers’ Party paper: "Defend the Labour Code – for a one day General Strike"

The ‘Group for a Workers’ Party’ (GPR), the Polish CWI, was the largest of the three left groups participating during the demonstration, and the only left group to stay from beginning to end. We gave out thousands of leaflets calling for a general strike. But it was not enough – the leaflets were taken from us in just 15 minutes! We also sold over 100 copies of our paper, with the headlines: ‘Defend the Labour Code – for a one day General Strike’ on the front page, and ‘Fight together for a decent pension – defend early retirement with a joint struggle of all trade unions’, on the back page. A large proportion of the demonstrators saw our paper. Despite a few aggressive reactions, we were generally well-received, and some workers gave us the thumbs up or shook our hands after reading our slogan for a general strike.

The same day, Jan Guz, leader of the OPZZ trade union federation (which is about the same size as Solidarity) spoke of the need to negotiate a compromise with the government, but he warned that if a compromise solution cannot be reached, the different paths of all the unions will meet up in a general strike.

The union bureaucracy is clearly feeling pressure building up from below. With a number of strikes and demonstrations, planned for September and October, Poland faces a hot autumn.

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September 2008