First general strike in 30 years
A general strike protesting at the Polish government’s labour policies was supported by around 85,000 workers in the Silesia region in March 2013. All three of the country’s nationally representative trade union confederations and two radical unions were involved with the aim of drawing attention to problems with social dialogue. The unions also oppose plans to make working time even more flexible and to allow the number of ‘junk’ employment contracts to increase.
Since 2011, the poor quality of social dialogue in Poland has led to clashes between the liberal government of the Civic Platform (PO) and major trade unions on a number of subjects. They have disagreed on proposed reforms to the retirement age, the minimum wage, atypical employment and working time (PL1202029I). Social dialogue began to deteriorate as the global financial crisis began to have a profound effect on the Polish economy in 2011 and 2012.
One of the consequences of deficiencies in social dialogue has been the radicalisation of mainstream trade union confederations. By the end of 2012, the Interunion Strike and Protest Committee (MKPS) had been formed in the Silesia region. It brought together three main trade unions in Poland, including the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność), the Trade Unions Forum (FZZ), the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), and radical unions that are traditionally strong in Silesia, such as the Free Trade Union August 80 (WZZ Sierpień 80) and Trade Union Kontra (Kontra).
Trade union demands
At the start of November 2012, MKPS in Silesia began to organise strike ballots in 600 companies employing 300,000 workers. In accordance with Article 22 of the Act on Resolving Collective Disputes, the ballot officially concerned support for the pay demands being made by administrative employees of the law courts who have no right to strike. However, while the strike ballots were taking place, MKPS formulated broader demands, including:
- the creation of a system of tax and financial incentives for companies in economic difficulties, to maintain jobs as a part of new anti-crisis legislation;
- acceptance by parliament of legislative proposals drawn up by unions to limit any further increase in so-called ‘junk’ employment contracts (PL1111019I);
- creating a system of compensation for companies negatively affected by the introduction of the EU climate and energy package;
- liquidating the National Health Fund (NFZ), responsible for state financing of healthcare, and recreating health insurance institutions at the regional level;
- limiting the closure of primary and secondary schools for economic reasons;
- maintaining early (‘bridge’) retirement regulations for all employees working in specialist jobs regardless of the period of their employment.
The specialist jobs referred to in the last demand include extraction jobs in the mining sector, some direct production jobs in metallurgy, and jobs considered hazardous to health in the chemical sectors. Poland currently has a register of these jobs. Also on the early retirement list are jobs ‘of a special character’ which include pilots and medical rescuers. There are details of these in Attachment 2 of the Act on Early Retirement (in Polish) of December 2008.
There was strong support for the strike from the 146,800 workers who took part in the ballot, with 95% voting in favour.
In February 2013, five tripartite working teams were established within the Silesian Voivodship Social Dialogue Commission to negotiate trade union demands. However, the working teams did not reach an agreement.
Following the final meeting of the teams on 14 March 2013, the Polish government claimed that social partners had reached agreement on the majority of trade union proposals for anti-crisis legislation. The unions, however, suggested that only partial consensus was reached on plans for the liquidation of the NFZ.
Course of the strike
The general strike in Silesia went ahead between 06.00 and 10.00 on 26 March 2013. According to an official press release (in Polish) by NSZZ Solidarność, 85,000 workers from 4,000 companies joined the strike. Strikers came from the education, mining, railway, metallurgy and energy sectors.
The strike was accompanied by demonstrations in front of government buildings across the country. Protests were organised in Białystok, Bydgoszcz, Bielsko-Biała, Gdańsk, Kielce, Kraków, Olsztyn, Opole, Poznań, Rzeszów, Szczecin, Warszawa, and Zielona Góra.
Reaction to the strike
Trade union leaders said the strike was successful and emphasised their willingness to return to negotiations. Piotr Duda, President of NSZZ Solidarność, demanded in a newspaper interview (in Polish) that the government come up with an agenda for talks by 17 April 2013.
Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk of PO, said at a press conference (in Polish) that ‘it would be wrong to ignore any strike’, but he rejected trade union claims that the government had undermined social dialogue.
The Employers of Poland (Pracodawcy RP) meanwhile said in a newspaper article (in Polish) that the current legislation on strikes needed to be changed. Employers want to be allowed to challenge the legality of strikes, such as the one in Silesia, in the courts.
The industrial action in Silesia was the first general strike in Poland in 30 years. Although the coverage of the strike was not as broad as expected, it provided a good indicator of the Polish trade unions’ ability to mobilise its members and suggests that trade union warnings of further escalation of protests in 2013 cannot be ignored.
Adam Mrozowicki, Institute of Public Affairs, University of Wrocław