POLAND: Union Protests in Warsaw, September 11-14
09/15/2013 by ZSP
Over these 4 days, the three largest mainstream unions organized protests in Warsaw as a reaction to changes in the Labour Law and the Act on Trade Unions which, among other things, allow employers to put up to 78-hour weekly schedules for months at a time. The Multi-Branch Union of ZSP in Warsaw (formerly Education and IT) took part in some protests and organized some alternative events.
It first must be pointed out that these actions were held instead of strikes, despite the fact that the largest union in Poland (Solidarity) held a strike referendum and most workers were in favour. So while we support workers’ protests, we were very critical of the fact that a strike was not called and one of our main goals was to try to ask why and agitate in favour of more resolute action.
On September 11, workers from various branches protested in front of 6 Ministries and then marched to the Parliament, where a tent city was established. We have some education workers in Warsaw, but the main education workers unions did not protest, despite the fact that hundreds of schools have been closed and thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. So we were faced with the choice of making a small protest at that Ministry or supporting another protest. We decided to go to the health care workers’ protest since we have health care workers in ZSP and friends in that branch. At the protest we handed out leaflets and newspapers supporting the struggle of health care workers but also mentioning the situation of some workers who are not usually defended by the mainstream unions. The newspapers told about outsourcing in hospitals and also about our campaign with Impel workers. (Impel is a company which, among other things, offers cleaning services to hospitals.) In leaflets we also spoke about the situation in the Ministry of Health, where the protest was taking place. Although such ministries should avoid unlawful working conditions, it turns out that 88 people are hired on trash contracts there and countless others are hired through outside firms. We mentioned workers from Impuls, a firm which we are fighting against, which worked in at least one building of the Ministry and which has rates like 8o euro cents per hour and owes some workers months of back pay.
On September 13 some of us took off work to protest. We decided to set up a tent in front of the Parliament and invite different people there to talk and protest the anti-social policies of the government and the situation of the working class. We invited a group of excluded caretakers, tenants, repressed unionists and Impel workers.
The excluded caretakers are people who don’t work or only have part-time work due to the fact that they care for a handicapped adult in their homes. In the past, these people were given some very small amount of money as a social benefit in order to care for their disabled family members, but the government recently took away this benefit. This leaves them in a horrific situation, since most working people cannot afford to pay for private care in their homes and these people do not want to send their relatives to live in homes. They also cost a lot of money, but the state would co-finance such care if a family was not able to pay – only that solution costs a lot more than the money the families were receiving in the first place. We think that the caretakers should be considered as workers as receive money for this, noting that even if they were paid the equivalent of a minium wage salary, it would be cheaper than putting people in homes paid by the state and it would be a much better solution for all involved.
Various tenants came to support the protest, including people who live in privatized housing, who fought with eviction and one who, unfortunately, was evicted and who shortly afterwards met personal tragedy.
There were many talks and discussions with passersby and supporters from the public and with the people from the mainstream unions. Unfortunately, the weather was very bad, with rain on and off during the day and by five o’clock, when we would expect more Varsovians to show up after work, it was raining quite badly. However we gave out many papers and had many discussions throughout the day.
We also held press conferences in front of the tent. Various journalists and TV stations spoke with the people there. One comrade from ZSP gave a good interview for TV calling for struggle instead of more „dialogue” with the bosses and the government.
On Saturday, September 14, the mainstream unions held a mass protest. Over 100,000 workers took part. Before the main demonstration started, we held our own protest. Some tenants and members of the Anarchist Federation also took part. We spoke about the growing social problems caused by the policies of the government and capitalism and about the need for a strike and stronger social movements. Since some religious people were gathered next to us and started to do something, we didn’t stay long and we marched down the main street in Warsaw chanting „general strike”. After that, we visited all the other protests, stopping at different blocks and unions, making some speeches and handing out papers. We asked members of the unions why they weren’t on strike yet, especially to Solidarity, which already held a referendum. Different groups of workers came to us and took photos with our strike banner and expressed their support for this type of action.
We also were joined by a comrade from SolFed visiting Warsaw.
Critical Assessment of the Protests
Any report of the workers’ actions in Poland would not be completely true from our side if we did not also add some critical observations of what happened. The first criticism we had has already been mentioned: that the main unions decided to hold days of protest instead of a strike and that the main protest was held on a Saturday, so that most people didn’t even take off work. For months prior to the protests, the unions were speaking of a strike, but then the government threatened to amend the Act on Trade Unions in such a way that these unions would lose subsidized professional jobs. It is our opinion that the union leadership decided to tone down the form of protest in order to maintain their cadres of subsidized professional unionists. In general we see these subsidies as something the state and the bosses maintain to keep unions dependent on them and under control.
We have to be critical also of the way the protests were organized. A „strike committee” was formed including only the unions in the Tri-Partite Commission. Other unions were not invited at this stage, or even at all. For example, the fourth largest union, August 80, was excluded, although it initially assumed that it would be a co-organizer of the protests. Not to mention all the much smaller unions which exist in Poland. It seemed as if the three largest unions were playing a game of politics and influence. Two of the three largest unions are traditionally alligned to political parties and now it seems that the leader of Solidarity is building his own power and following, perhaps politically manoeuvring as well.
Solidarity invited 2 far-right associations to support it and fascists from NOP also marched in its columns. We do not say that Solidarity invited NOP, but it is possible that some people in the Solidarity leadership are cooperating with fascists. Solidarity in general seemed to be very panicked about „provocations” against it and one member of ZSP was contacted by the police and city a few times and was told about the fears of solidarity and was warned about right-wing people who we might clash with. The warnings were a little vague but became clear on September 14. We visited a left block and then wanted to walk to the Solidarity demo which was about 100 meters away, only to find a cordon of fascists who wanted to beat us up. Solidarity had their own, very large peacekeeping team, with specially-marked vests, and the city also could provide „anti-conflict police”, but at exactly this place, nearest to the left block, there were no Solidarity peacekeepers, only fascists. If Solidarity was really protecting their march from „outside provocations”, somebody would have done something about the group of fascists. Given all the circumstances, it looks rather like somebody in the Solidarity hierarchy agreed that the fascists would stay there to keep the leftists away.
We also saw that the leader of Solidarity chased a member of ZSP at the union camp the first day. Other unionists intervened and he backed off.
The actions of the Solidarity leadership however contrasted with the actions of the rank and file members of the union. The fascists did not prevent us from visiting the Solidarity demo where we had many positive interactions.
We realized that, besides criticizing the non-action of the main unions, in the future we’ve got to make stronger criticism of Solidarity’s building of coalitions with the far-right. (Although the right-wing politics of Solidarity have a long tradition.)
We also had a lot of criticism of things that were said by some unionists at the tent city and also by „social organizations” during the open microphone. For example, the unions actually signed some things which were the precusors to the current amendments a few years ago in something called the „Anti-Crisis Act”. We were extremely critical of this at the time and warned that if you give an inch, they will take a mile – meaning that the employers’ lobby and the neoliberals were testing the resolve of the unions at that point. We predicted that if they signed this Act, which was meant to be temporary, only during the „crisis”, that the government would try to make „emergency measures” permanent in the future. We were right. During the speeches, one of the union leaders said that people criticized them for having signed the Anti-Crisis Act, but it was a good thing they did – because they see that it doesn’t work well for workers.
Another very interesting speech from one unionist claimed that the root of the economic problems in Poland is the social security system. Since the social security payments are high, he claimed, employers are in a bad situation. Unfortunately, it is exactly this kind of muddled thinking that has given the Polish working class such poor union representation. The unions have traditionally accepted thinking like this, tending to support solutions which are „good for business”, with the idea that only if business prospers will workers have good jobs. It just hasn’t occured to most of these right-wing unionists that business can prosper by giving workers shit jobs and that cutting the employers’ contributions into social security and other ideas don’t translate into more money for employees. As long as workers are massively represented in government commissions by people thinking this way, more and more concessions will be made to business concerns.
There was also quite a lot of nationalist ideas present. On the part of the social organizations that supported the protest, we also saw a lot of right-wing support and crazy ideas. Instead of speaking about the problems of the working class, many people spoke about issues such as single-mandate constituencies and other nonsense that has no real meaning.
Looking at all of this, we could see that we face enormous challenges at getting over so many decades of right-wing brainwashing and the current domination of these ideas in the society.
We also saw that, despite the very tough measures taken against workers in the last two years, there is less response from society. We remember that some years ago, workers protests were more militant. Despite the relatively good turnour, the protests were way too calm for us and we ourselves did not have much chance to do anything. Even a few years ago, when a much smaller protest was held, we were able to draw twice as many people to our protest and to find some angry groups of workers who wanted to radicalize the protests. This time the workers protests were rather weak and tempered and so were our own.
Realizing that we are experiencing a very difficult time and that there is no radical mood, we also need to think more about what we can do in the future. Right now, the mass workers’ unions do not fight enough, there are not enough workers in a defiant mood to go against the instructions of their leaders. And all more radical organizations are down to a few hundred members around the country. Given the situation, we have to really fight against the current to build up our organizations. In the meanwhile, we did all that we could in order to reach as many people on the street and rank and file members of the main unions as possible and try to plant some critical ideas and spread the call for more militant action.