Combative trade union action needed to prevent a disaster
On 1 June the Polish president signed a law increased the retirement age to 67 years for both men and women. This “reform”, which lifts the retirement age from its previous age of 65 for men and 60 for women, is an initiative of Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the neoliberal Civic Platform (PO). From the beginning it met with no social support – in the polls 80% of the population was against the “reform”, which sentences them to longer drudgery. Raising the retirement age will be particularly painful for workers performing the toughest and worst-paid jobs. Already, according to a European Commission report, 40% of Polish men die before retirement (life expectancy is 71 years for men and 78 for women). The vicious nature of this law also applies to women, who would work seven years longer (and in some sectors, such as the railway, 12 years longer than in 2009).
The restoration of capitalism placed the additional burden on women of unpaid domestic labour due to deficiencies in the care infrastructure – now this burden will increase further. This attack on the gains of workers occurs at a time when a growing number of workers are experiencing deteriorating working conditions and an increase in the number of “trash” contracts.
The government proposed workers a “compromise” under which they will be able to retire at 62 (for women) or 65 (for men) – but the pension will be 50% of the current pension and will never reach the full value! This is when the average Polish pension is about 300 euro and the lowest pensions are about 190 euro per month.
The excuse given for this brutal attack on pension rights is the “demographic strategy” and a lack of resources in the social insurance system. In fact, capitalist governments are not doing anything to reduce structural unemployment, due to which about two million unemployed continually fail to pay social insurance contributions. But caring about demography is simply a propaganda fairy tale. The real reason behind the neo-liberal attacks on pensions in Poland and other countries is the naked logic of satisfying “the markets” and their continued efforts to socialize the losses caused by the crisis of capitalism and the increasing competition among workers.
In response to the draft pension reform, the Solidarity union leader Piotr Duda began a campaign in March against raising the retirement age. Duda, president of Solidarity since 2010, won his position thanks to his militancy during his leadership of the Silesia region and a promise to end the union’s political clientelism (trading the union’s political support for certain concessions); from now on Solidarity’s success was to be based on increasing its own power at the negotiating table. Within a few weeks Solidarity collected two million signatures demanding a referendum, in which the question would be “Are you in favor of raising the retirement age?”
On 30 March the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament) voted on the proposal for a referendum, while several thousand members of Solidarity protested outside parliament. The proposal referendum was rejected by the votes of the coalition government (the neo-liberal PO and the Polish People’s Party [PSL] – the party of professional opportunists, who have sat in four governments since 1989). During the discussion the Prime Minister called the President of Solidarity, Piotr Duda, a little squirt. A new party, the Palikot Movement (RP), also voted against the referendum.
RP is the result of the split created by Janusz Palikot a former MP of Civic Platform (PO), who is a businessman and supporter of the free market. In opposition to the right-wing conservatism in PO, Palikot began to group around him popular figures of the left (such as well-known LGBT activists and feminists) under the slogan of anti-clericalism and deregulation of the economy. After his Palikot’s election success in autumn 2011, RP began to preach an amalgam of slogans, drawing on the one hand individuals from the radical left, and on the other hand politicians from the now liberal but formerly Stalinist party, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as well as a well-known rich MP from PO, an “expert” on economic deregulation. Despite the anti-war and pro-social slogans, and even slogans demanding state-built factories and the abolition of unemployment, the first serious test of the class struggle has shown the true nature of RP. Members of RP voted against the referendum and voted to raise the retirement age – only 3 of the 43 MPs objected to the government. In public debates, Palikot has joined the ranks of the anti-union propagandists.
In opposition to the government’s plans were the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the formally social-democratic Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The leaders of these parties took part in the pretense of trade union protests. However, in reality when in power in 2005-2007 the PiS government reduced taxes for the wealthiest, and the finance minister was a declared supporter of neo-liberalism. Law and Justice also defends the parasitic open pension funds, which are a form of involuntary tribute to finance capital paid by each employee. The leader of the Democratic Left Alliance, former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, became famous for wasting the record level of support for the SLD government between 2001-2004 by pursuing neo-liberal policies of privatization and imperialist foreign policy in Iraq. In fact, the economic plans which the SLD government had on its agenda but failed to introduce included raising the retirement age.
The trade union leaders, Duda of Solidarity and Guz from OPZZ, verbally objected to raising the retirement age and promised to “fight until the law is abolished” and even talked about a general strike. In reality, however, there was no plan of how to lead a struggle that could stop the government.
There were a series of protests: women from OPZZ and FZZ (one of the three largest federations) working in schools, hospitals and supermarkets organized a 500-strong protest on March 22. This was followed by a protest of Solidarity on 30 March which was attended by several thousand workers and smaller delegations from other federations. During the first week of May hundreds of Solidarity activists picketed in shifts outside the Prime Minister’s Office, setting up their own “tent city”. The culmination of this protest was May 11, the day that the lower house of Parliament voted on the bill to raise the retirement age.
The symbolic gesture of refusing to admit the union representatives into the parliament building (when the public have a right to stay in the public gallery in the voting hall) sparked anger among the protesting workers outside. When MPs were voting to raise the retirement age, the workers outside formed a human chain (also using metal chains) to “arrest” the deputies in the parliament building. Pickets organised by miners and shipyard workers blocked the gates, preventing MPs from leaving the building for a few hours while police, who are angry because their pension rights are also under attack, stood by and did nothing. This led to desperate and unsuccessful attempts at storming the pickets by members of Civic Platform and Palikot Movement (such pathetic actions by the MPs indicated their lack of contact with reality).
At the end of the protest the anti-union campaign in the media intensified – even figures from the “left” accused workers of terrorizing, imprisoning and beating MPs. Former President Lech Walesa said that force should be applied against the workers. There was a multitude of calls from supposedly democratic politicians and publicists demanding police repression and restrictions on the right to protest as well as hurling vulgar insults at the union.
There then followed a number of local union pickets (e.g. in Katowice and Lublin) and OPZZ and Solidarity protests outside the presidential palace. When the President signed the bill, there were just a few hundred miners, steelworkers and builders protesting.
The union leadership failed to prepare a plan that could lead the struggle to victory. If anyone had doubts about the intentions of the government, they should have disappeared on 30 March. Then it became absolutely clear that “dialogue” with the government is fiction and that it did not intend to abandon its plans. Although the Solidarity leaders vowed to fight to the end, they did not take any concrete steps. After 30 March the leadership simply waited almost two weeks before convening. Despite the seriousness of the problem for 15 million workers directly and favourable support from the public (according to opinion polls confidence in Solidarity had increased, with 40% evaluating the union positively, the highest result in 13 years), there was no major mobilization or preparations for a general strike. The largest demonstration consisted of several thousand, while on the demonstration in 2008 against the abolition of special pension rights of employees working under special conditions (about one million workers) there were 30,000-50,000 protesters. The union leaders wasted a whole series of opportunities to call for a general strike (the vote in the Sejm, the Senate, the signing of the act by the President). The lack of effective campaigning by the unions could bring disastrous consequences for the labour movement. The defeat in the battle for retirement rights could lead to a further disintegration and demoralization of workers’ organizations in Poland.
Socialist Alternative, CWI Poland, proclaimed the need for a resolute struggle of the labour movement with the announcement of a date for a 24-hour general strike. The main page of our newspaper was devoted to pensions and the general strike for the last two issues, of which about 200 copies were sold during various protests against the pension “reform”. We argued that the general strike is a powerful unused weapon of the working class. Only by using this weapon could the broad sections of youth and non-unionised workers be drawn into the struggle and the government be stopped.
Although the union leaders say the struggle continues, every day workers’ faith in victory falters and the need to immediately call a 24-hour general strike is greater than ever. Our demand was often taken up with enthusiasm, but the union leadership does not have the will to work towards its implementation. It is therefore necessary to create rank-and-file networks as an alternative to the union bureaucracy, which would be capable of placing pressure on the leaders and mobilizing independently of their will.
Pension reform is a test that the unions are failing so far. Encouraged by their success, the ruling class will make further attacks in the autumn: on pensions for miners and farmers (who operate in different social security systems) and further attacks on education and health care. In the great struggles that the working class is facing, combative organizations of the workers are necessary, with a militant plan of action and a socialist programme to fight the false solutions of capitalism and nationalism.