Poland : Miners’ strikes shake the country

Biggest workers’ struggle for many years

Poland’s coal mining sector was shaken by 2 major strike actions in less than a month. Two out of the three biggest mining companies, representing a workforce of around 80 000 out of 100 000 working in underground coal mines, have been hit by strikes. A dynamic strike in Kompania Węglowa lasted for 10 days (7-17 january), and the strike in Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa, a major European coke producer, is ongoing. Black coal accounts for over 50% of energy produced in Poland. The sector itself is mostly based in the Upper Silesia region. Miners constitute a mass, concentrated section of workers with a strategic position in the economy’s functioning, which could give the lead to the struggles of the rest of working class.

On 28 of January, an unlimitated strike started in Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa (JSW), a company that employs about 26 000 miners in 4 mines. The coal extraction completely stopped. The spark that lit the fire was the disciplinary firing of 9 union members from the Budryk mine due to their earlier solidarity protest with the miners’ strikes in Kompania Weglowa. This attack on trade union rights was launched during the strike ballot, with the purpose of intimidating the staff, but it only increased their determination. As a result, over 98% of miners voted for the strike, and even decided to bring it forward.

In early January, the board of JSW spoke of a collective agreement, wich would allow them to freeze the miners’ pensions and to cut part of their conditions. The miners demanded the withdrawal of this plan and the reversal of the dismissal of the trade unionists. They also demanded the dismissal of the board of JSW, the same conditions for the workers in all the the mines (the workers of some mines currently have lower salaries) as well as the liquidation of the subsidiary company JSW Szkolenie i Górnictwo (which is in practice a temporary employment agency) and the direct employment of all workers by JSW with no intermediary.

Union members comment that the mood is combative, the miners raise their demands for an escalation of protests and occupation of workplaces. The board of JSW first described the strike as illegal and threatened more dismissals. However, already on Friday 30 January, under the pressure of the determination of miners, they started to retreat and promised to reverse the decision to dismiss trade unionists.

JSW is 55% owned by the state, and the rest is in the hands of private shareholders. After this partial privatisation, the income of the President of the company increased by 400 %.

Strike in Kompania Węglowa – a rotten compromise

This is already the second longest miners’ protest this year. On 7 January, Polish prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz, announced a plan of ‘reform’ of Kompania Węglowa, a mining company that employs about 50 000 people, the biggest in Poland. The plan advocated the liquidation of 4 mines, the sale of one to another company and the creation of a new company for the 9 others. That meant the sacking of about 5 000 workers and the transfer of 6,000 more to other mines. The new company would have to work ‘on the market principles’, that is, with the withdrawal of much of the salary subsidies, the introduction of a 6-day working week and other attacks on workers’ rights.

On the same day in the Brzeszcze mine, one of those to be liquidated, a rally was held where the workers decided to launch a protest. Over a hundred miners did not return to the surface, and were joined by more afterwards. The strike spread on the next day to all the 14 mines of Kompania Węglowa, and more than 2,000 miners took part in the underground protests.

Protests were held on the surface as well. The coal processing workers and administative employees (mainly women) started to occupy their workplaces. Women working in the mining industry played an exceptionally active role in the organization of support rallies and blockading of roads. From 8 January, rallies and road blocades in towns where the mines are threatened were held almost every day. In Brzeszcze (a town of only around 11,000 inhabitants) up to 3,000 attended the protests. In other mining towns 10,000 demonstrated. The inhabitants of the region realized that the closing of mines means massive unemployment and impoverishment. This strike showed a solidarity among miners, other mining workers and local society which had not been seen for years.

Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (CWI in Poland) calls on everyone to support the miners’ strike. Together with other left and feminist organisations and the trade union, Inicjatywa Pracownicza, we joined the solidarity pickets on 14 Januray in Warsaw. We have also produced leaflets which were distributed in work places in different Polish cities with the following demands:

• No to the government’s plan of ‘reforms’ in the mining sector

• Preparation of a regional general strike and building of support for a general strike in the whole country

• Nationalisation of the mines, and the system of coal and energy distribution under workers control

• Audit of the debt of mines, and the profits of energy companies. For democratic control over energy prices

• Democratic and sustainable economic planning, intensification of research in clean combustion technologies and coal gasification. For a socialist plan of production allowing sustainable strategies to increase renewable energy sources and reduce emissions of CO2, while maintaining the strategic role of national coal

Many workers throughout the country understood the strategic meaning of this battle and showed solidarity with the miners. The unions of chemistry and energy workers and nurses expressed their support for the strike, and the railworkers participated in the demonstation and helped the blockading of tracks on 12 January. Solidarity protests were also held in the mines of other companies. In the polls, 68% supported the miners, and only 15% supported the government. On Tuesday 20 Januray, union representatives of different branches met, to decide on the future of the action. They called for a general strike.

Yet the union bureaucracy feared the development of this movement, which clearly escaped its control. On Saturday 17 January, the leaders of miners’ unions signed an agreement with Ewa Kopacz, after which they triumphally announced the end of the strike. The agreement was presented as a victory for the protestors, yet there is no guarantee at all that the workplaces and conditions of the miners will be maintained.

The agreement predicts the separation of one mine in two and the selling of one of them to another state owned company, which is in preparation for privatization. Four mines will belong to the Spółki Restrukturyzacji Kopalń, after what they can be taken over by investors. The remaining KW mines will be part of a newly-created company, ‘Nowej Kompanii Węglowej’.

Therefore, in practice this agreement means further division of KW and opens the way for privatization of the 4 mines. This is not what the miners have fought for! During the protest, there were statements from different capitalists, who saw the possibility of cheap purchase of mines. Of course, these so-called benefactors would then re-structure those mines in order to make them profitable. For the mine workers, this will bring nothing but sackings and loss of income in the name of the profits of the new private owners. It is possible that the real intention behind the liquidation of the mines from the beginning was to sell them at a reduced price to private companies. In this way, the Kopacz government does what a series of governments have failed to do for years – privatise a large part of the mining sector and present it as a concession to the „too demanding” trade unions.

The agreement opens the way for new attacks on the employment conditions of the workers of the remaining mines, including the introduction of a 6-day working week – the documents state that this will be a „matter for negotiation”. At the same time, the documents provide that „the trade unions will ensure peaceful conditions to accompany the realization of the Plan of Reform of the Kompanii Węglowej and end the miners’ protest”. This shows how much the union bureaucracy has broken from the real role of a trade union – the struggle for workers’ rights.

In a text following the agreement, AS wrote:

„The 10-day protest in Silessia was the biggest struggle of workers and ordinary people for many years. It has shown the strength of the organized working class and the possibility of an immediate mobilization of the people in solidarity with the protesters. Under a more decisive leadership, this protest could have totally reversed the government’s attacks and started a fightback against the effects of 25 years of capitalism. Yet the occasion has been wasted. The signing of the agreements by the unions does not solve any of the miners’ burning problems.

In order to guarantee in the future control over their strike, the strikers must create their own democratic structures, like strike committees at workplace and inter-workplace levels, composed of representatives of workers from all striking pits. All the decisions regarding the strike must be taken through these organs, with the greatest participation possible of all the strikers.”

This can also apply to the ongoing strike in JSW. The sacking of 9 trade unionists in Burdyk was identified by many workers as a breach of the agreement (in which the government promised that there would be no disciplinary consequences against the protesters). In the Kompanii Węglowa mines rallies are now being held in which part of the miners call for the renewal of the strike. Solidarity actions in the mines of other coal companies are announced for Monday 2 February. Workers in many other sectors have also been radicalised by the events of last month. So the strike could soon extend to the whole mining sector and other workplaces in Silesia.

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