Rail workers strike after ticket subsidy row

A long-running collective dispute led to railway trade unions calling a nationwide strike on 25 January 2013, affecting a third of all trains during the morning rush hour. The main reason for the strike was the withdrawal of reduced-price travel tickets for current and former employees. Unions are also critical of other restructuring strategies introduced by the management. The strike was strongly condemned by both the Polish government and employers.

Background

Restructuring of the Polish railway system has been underway for a number of years (PL0710039Q). In 2001, several business entities were created from the formerly state-owned railway company. These included a commercial company controlled by the public authorities with a holding structure (PKP Group), Regional Railways (PR), owned jointly by management boards at the regional level, and several local railway companies.

Historically there had been frequent labour disputes on the railways. Many were caused by the poor financial state of the Polish railway companies, which were saddled with debts of PLN 4.5 billion (€1.1 billion as at 28 March 2013). There were also problems with railway line traffic management and safety, while the fragmentation of companies in the course of restructuring and the plans for their privatisation also led to clashes between unions, the government and the new companies (PL1108019I).

In August 2012 the companies belonging to the PKP Group announced that from January 2013 they would reduce ticket subsidies for current and former railway employees. Workers had been receiving a 99% reduction in the price of tickets for a trip in any class, paid for by the employers.

Collective dispute on the railways

Trade unions opposed the employers’ proposal, and a collective dispute on the railways began in autumn 2012. It involved six railway workers’ trade unions and the Association of Railway Employers (ZPK). Trade unions involved in the dispute included:

  • the Federation of Trade Unions of the Employees of Polish State Railways (FZZP PKP), the Trade Union of Technical Maintenance Workers (ZZPW), and the National Secretariat of Railway Employees of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity ’80 (KSK NSZZ Solidarnoœæ ’80), affiliated to the Trade Unions Forum (FZZ);
  • the National Section of Railway Employees of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (SKK NSZZ Solidarnoœæ);
  • the Confederation of Railway Trade Unions (KKZZ), and All-Poland Trade Union of the Railway Security Service (OZZ SOK), affiliated to the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ).

The trade unions demanded the retention of the reduced prices for tickets at the agreed level. Alternatively, the unions said they would accept PLN 720 (€172) compensation per employee for the loss of the subsidy.

They also called for the right to reduced tickets to be extended to the employees of regional railways and local railways.

Union rejects employer proposals

Towards the end of December 2012, the employers, ZPK, and five railway companies put forward their own proposals. Among the companies agreeing to the plan were PKP Intercity and some local and regional railways, such as Koleje Mazowieckie (KM), Rapid Urban Railway (SKM), Warszawska Kolej Dojazdowa (WKD) and Regional Railways.

The proposal was that:

  • companies would subsidise tickets at the previous level of 99% for serving employees, but only for second class tickets;
  • companies would subsidise tickets, again in second class, at the level of 80% for retired employees on payment of an annual fee of PLN 140 (€34).

Trade unions rejected this and insisted on their initial demands.

On 25 January 2013, trade unions in four railway companies – PKP Intercity, PKP PLK, PKP Cargo and PKP Energetyka – went on a two-hour strike which affected a third of trains running between 7am and 9am.

Social partner reaction

During and after the strike, trade unions, government officials and employer representatives presented conflicting views on reasons for the strike.

The Chair of the the Confederation of Railway Trade Unions, Leszek Miêtek, argued that the strike was not just the matter of defending reduced price tickets in first class for railway workers and pensioners. He said it reflected trade union opposition to the mismanaged restructuring of the Polish railways, security problems, the poor use of European Union funds, and the duplication of new managerial positions in the PKP Group.

In an official statement (in Polish) released through the Ministry of Transport, PKP Group President Jakub Karnowski said the strike was ‘directed by trade union leaders against the passengers’.

Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the strike was an ‘inhuman move’. Similar statements came from the transport ministry.

Commentary

The strike has not brought any tangible results so far. The mediation process was halted on 30 January 2013 due to the resignation of the representative of the PKP Group. The unions were assured that no legal action would be taken against workers who went on strike. Although the current ticket subsidies remain in place until the end of February 2013, there continues to be a real risk of a general strike in the weeks to come.

Adam Mrozowicki, Institute of Public Affairs and University of Wroclaw

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