Operation of tripartite sector teams examined

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Special 'tripartite sector teams', made up of representatives of the social partners and government, have been created in Poland since the 1990s to deal with the problems of selected industries (such as coal mining, metalworking and power generation) facing restructuring, privatisation and reorganisation. The teams are responsible for drawing up guidelines on restructuring within these sectors, including 'social packages' for employees. This article examines the operation of the tripartite sector teams up until the end of 2002.

One of the mechanisms for sector-level social dialogue in Poland is a number of 'tripartite sector teams' (Trójstronne Zespoły Branżowe), linked to the national Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych) (PL0210106F). These teams were established at various points during the 1990s, and at present, there are seven such bodies affiliated with the Ministry of the Economy, Labour, and Social Policy (Ministerstwo Gospodarki, Pracy I Polityki Społecznej, MGPiPS), dealing with:

  • the social security of coal miners;
  • the social terms of restructuring in the metalworking sector;
  • the power provision sector;
  • social and economic issues and restructuring of coal mining and sulphur processing;
  • the social and economic terms for the restructuring of defence industry facilities;
  • light industry; and
  • seafaring and sea fishing.

The teams focus on the issues faced by specific 'problem' industries related to their restructuring, continuing privatisation (PL0209103F) and reorganisation. The working definition of 'problem' sectors includes those branches of the economy which, under the centrally planned economy operating in Poland from 1945 to 1989, benefited from privileged treatment, enjoying the support of the central authorities and receiving special interest on their part. Under the new realities of the market economy, some of these industries (such as coal mining and metalworking) have declined, necessitating major cut-backs in their production capacities, in the form of reduced output and smaller workforces. Other problem sectors (such as power generation), meanwhile, have good prospects for the future and should continue to develop, which is not to say that they do not require thorough restructuring in the short term. A very important part of the work of the tripartite sector teams is dealing with situations where social conflict flares up within a sector, taking the form of general protest actions staged by the trade unions, or actions taken by protest committees at specific workplaces.

The tripartite sector teams include representatives of the social partners - ie trade unions and employers operating in the sector concerned - and government representatives appointed by the relevant ministries. The teams' sessions and the projects they run may also involve, by invitation, representatives of chambers of commerce and vocational training bodies, as well as local administration officials.


While the restructuring of specific sectors remains the responsibility of the appropriate ministers, the tripartite sector teams are affiliated with the Ministry of Labour, which is responsible, among other issues, for maintaining social dialogue and for the social security of both employed and redundant workers.

The teams were created without a specific legal basis, through a decision issued by the Minister of Labour as a result of negotiations with the social partners. Until 2002, most of the teams operated in accordance with their own rules of procedure and schedules. Despite this diversity, most of the teams set up presidiums, and most had the possibility of convening sub-teams and small working groups in order to formulate positions with respect to specific problems or questions which would then be aired during plenary sessions.

At the beginning of 2002, the Ministry of Labour launched an effort to transform the tripartite sector teams into dedicated problem-solving teams within the national Tripartite Commission, operating on the basis of statutory powers. This initiative met with strong resistance on the part of the trade unions. For example, at a session of the tripartite team for the social terms of restructuring the metalworking sector held in February 2002, the chair of the national metalworking section of the Independent and Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) explained that his union's opposition to the reform stemmed from a fear of losing the team’s autonomy. As one of the union activists put it, 'we were the only team which had its own programme accepted by all the parties, it was on these principles that we functioned until today ... we recently suspended talks within the tripartite team on account of attempts by the Minister of Labour to introduce its own concept for dialogue ... he tried to squeeze us into the framework of the Tripartite Commission, which was impossible from the legal point of view.' However, it would appear that the real reason behind the unions’ reluctance related to the possibility of expanding the teams' participants. If the teams were subordinated to the Tripartite Commission, they would automatically include representatives of the craft sector and of private employers, who – in the words of the union activist already quoted - 'know about as much about metal smelting as a chicken about pepper'.

In the end, following a series of meetings between the Minister of Labour and representatives of the social partners represented in the tripartite teams, it was decided that the teams would continue to operate alongside, rather than within, the Tripartite Commission and remain the principal forum for sectoral dialogue in Poland. The teams, however, were subjected to a homogeneous organisational regime and asked to work under a standardised set of rules.

Results achieved

Up until the end of 2002, the seven tripartite teams held a total of 245 plenary sessions and drew up a number of guideline documents, including:

  • a 'social package' for mining;
  • a social package for metalworking, known as the 'agreement on social safeguards for the process of iron and steel smelting restructuring';
  • a programme for the restructuring of the iron and steel smelting industry, agreed in 1998 and updated in 2001;
  • an annex to a programme for the restructuring of the defence industry and supporting the technical modernisation of the Polish armed forces (employment restructuring);
  • a programme for the restructuring of the coke industry;
  • a coke industry social package;
  • a draft programme for the implementation of the Minister of the State Treasury's ownership policy with regard to the electricity sector;
  • a strategy for light industry for 2000-5; and
  • a programme for the restructuring of sulphur mining and processing.

No documents of relevance were generated during 2002, with the work of the tripartite sector teams concentrating on monitoring the implementation of existing restructuring programmes and social safeguard packages, as well as analysing trade union proposals concerning the introduction of new social safeguards, expanding eligibility for existing ones, or extending their period of application.

Behaviour of the parties

Recent research has examined how the representatives of the various parties behave within the tripartite sector teams. Experts conclude that trade unions, in their capacity as a social partner, tend to fight for their rights in a determined way. While there are conflicts between individual trade union organisations and structures (especially within the larger teams, such as those dealing with mining or with power generation), it is the trade unions which are most likely to act as a single bloc within the teams, supporting a single position. Observers have also discerned a tendency for the unions to direct their claims and complaints first and foremost towards the government, with the employers themselves taking a clear second place as a target for employee discontent (though this does not hold true for all of the teams). This phenomenon persists in spite of the fact that privatisation processes in some sectors are quite advanced, cutting the ownership stake of the government significantly. A representative of one of the trade unions on the power generation tripartite team offered a positive appraisal of the team’s work, although he stressed the unique nature of work within it: 'in these tripartite teams, you really do solve problems, without political overtures and without litanies of grievances ... in these teams, there is discussion between the unions and the government – the employers look on because they do not have much to say, and also because they are scared.' The same union official believes that 'employers' associations are dependent on the owner ... it is as if they are there in theory, but not there in practice... In Poland, employers' associations are partners in the sense that they sit down at the table and talk ... however, they are always dependent on the government then in power ... it is for this reason that an employer cannot make a decision which would contravene the will of the government.'

Representatives of the employers, meanwhile, are found to be generally eager to cooperate with the unions and the government in the formulation of joint positions, and tend to go about this in a conciliatory fashion. They join the unions in preparing social safeguard packages to be financed predominantly out of the state coffers, and work with the government in drawing up restructuring programmes, especially with regard to employment.

Relatively often, the trade unions and employers 'speak with one voice' within the tripartite teams. Their representatives engage in bilateral talks before official sessions of the teams, drafting their positions on issues pertaining to the sectors concerned, and many such drafts are ultimately presented to the government representatives during the ensuing sessions.

The government - although it is still perceived in some quarters as an employer with which social safeguards for organisations being restructured can be negotiated - acts primarily as a lawmaker and a legislator, presenting white papers to the teams for discussion and approval. In the majority of cases, the government representatives on the team commit themselves during the consultation process to take account of the agreements reached in the work of government bodies and to abide by their provisions. In occasional cases, the government representatives play the role of mediators in disputes among the social partners.


The tripartite sector teams provide a forum for sectoral dialogue and have built up 10 years of experience in post-communist Poland. While they were created and have operated against a backdrop of often sharp conflict in the industries being restructured, the parties involved in the teams have, in many instances, been able to assuage the social tensions.

The operation of teams is justified not only in the context of restructuring programmes. Once the restructuring is completed, or once the sectors in question have been privatised, the importance of the teams will not diminish, although the role of the government will become less and the importance of agreements arrived at by the unions and the employers will increase.

The changes made with regard to the tripartite sector teams’ operations, which are now subsumed within a single formal framework, have improved their efficiency. At the same time, preservation of the teams’ independence – defended most vociferously by the trade unions – has dissipated fears about the impartial, free nature of their decisions and the expediency with which the agreements reached by them are acted upon.

On a more general level, the cohesiveness and uniformity of social dialogue in Poland has been preserved. Sectoral dialogue continues as an institution ruled by its own principles and procedures, one distinct from central dialogue or from dialogue pursued at the regional level (PL0307105F). (Rafał Towalski, Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH] and Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP]).

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