Declining trade union density examined

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Over the past 20 years, trade union density in Poland has dropped from 80% of the workforce to 14% in 2002. This sharp decrease in density has been influenced by a number of economic and political factors. As a result, Poland, whose trade unions played a highly important role in 1980s, now has much weaker unions than most other European countries. This feature examines the development of Polish trade unions, the reasons for their decline and the initiatives taken in recent years by unions in an attempt to reverse their falling membership.

Poland currently has one of Europe's lowest levels of trade union density. Below, we examine how unions have developed since the years of communist rule and the factors which have led them to lose members and their appeal to workers, as well as recent effective initiatives taken by unions in an attempt to stem their decline.

The development of trade unions


Prior to 1980, nearly all employees of state enterprises belonged to trade unions. Poland, in a similar way to other countries of the Soviet bloc, had only one trade union centre - the Central Council of Trade Unions (Centralna Rada Zwiazków Zawodowych, CRZZ), which grouped over 20 branch unions. Trade unions constituted a form of state institution which fulfilled selected social needs for workers, such as organised leisure and holidays. Unlike the majority of the Soviet bloc countries, the ideological function of Polish trade unions (as a 'transmission belt between the communist party and the masses') ceased to exist in 1956.


Following the major strikes initiated in the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980, the Polish trade union movement was transformed to a large extent. The government gave its assent to the existence of independent trade unions, which contributed to the establishment of 'Solidarnosc ' (NSZZ 'Solidarnosc'), which at least 7 million workers joined (over 60% of all employees). 'Solidarnosc' in this period, led by Lech Walesa, was more of a social movement standing in opposition to the ruling regime than a trade union. At the same time, CRZZ was replaced by so-called branch unions ('class' unions), remaining loyal to the authorities. Around 1 million people (around 8% of workers) remained in these unions, most of them workers with managerial functions and members of the communist party. During this period, apart from these two centres there also emerged a few 'autonomous trade unions' declaring their political and ideological neutrality and representing several tens of thousands workers.

After the announcement of martial law in Poland in December 1981, all trade unions ceased to exist. In October 1982, the government adopted an act allowing for the creation of new trade unions loyal to the ruling authorities. Unlike the other countries of the Soviet bloc, these trade unions in Poland were of an autonomous character, with federal features. In January 1984, these new trade unions established a new centre, All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Zwiazków Zawodowych, OPZZ), assembling over 100 federations. According to data from Polish Official Statistics (Glówny Urzad Statystyczny, GUS), in 1986 over 5.6 million workers belonged to OPZZ (45.5% of all workers). Apart from OPZZ there was an underground 'Solidarnosc' organisation, whose memberhip level was hard to assess.

1989 onwards

In January 1989, 'Solidarnosc' was legalised and, in February 1989, negotiations with the government began at a 'round table'. In the course of these negotiations, 'Solidarnosc' called for the introduction of a social market economy, socialisation (though not privatisation) of large enterprises, and an extension of workers' 'self-government' rights.

In August 1989, Poland's first non-communist government was established. The new government, recruited from 'Solidarnosc', abandoned its former plans for a liberal programme to create a privatised market economy. It ceased to support the idea of joint management in companies, involving workers' self-government. 'Solidarnosc' adopted a new programme of protecting the government's reform programme (it started to play a role of a 'protective umbrella' for the reforms). The leader of 'Solidarnosc', Lech Walesa, and his close colleagues declared that the reborn 'Solidarnosc' should not increase its membership, as a large union centre assembling industrial workers could hamper the programme of indispensable reforms. This statement shocked many workers and, to a certain extent, discouraged them from joining 'Solidarnosc' during the first stage of economic and political transformation.

Subsequently, the Polish economy experienced the same factors impairing the influence of trade unions as many other European countries - notably a sharp drop in employment in those branches of industry which traditionally had the highest number of trade unionists (mining, metalworking, the machine industry etc). Simultaneously, the number of workers employed in small and medium-sized enterprises and in part-time work began to grow. Data collected by the Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej, CBOS) highlight the decline in union density over the past decade. CBOS has measured the percentage of trade union members among the Polish adult population (based on representative samples of people aged 18 or more), as indicated by the table below.

Trade union members as % of adult population
Year Total 'Solidarnosc' OPZZ Other unions
1991 18% 9% 6% 3%
1994 14% 5% 5% 4%
1999 11% 5% 3% 3%
2002 (July) 6% 2% 2% 2%

Source: CBOS

Currently, there are between 3 million and 3.5 million trade union members in Poland. 'Solidarnosc', whose membership figures are most accurate, states that it has 1.2 million members. The membership of OPZZ is more or less the same. Recently, most of the remaining trade unions has been trying to create a third centre, known as Forum.

Data collected by CBOS towards the end of 2001 analyse the membership and composition of Polish trade unions in a relatively accurate way (Composition of trade unions towards the end of 2001, CBOS, Warsaw, 2002). According to CBOS, in late 2001:

  • 7.9% of the Polish adult population belonged to a trade union, with the figure standing at 14.1% among workers - 15.9% of full-time workers, 6.9% of part-time workers, and 1.3% of those engaged in 'odd jobs';
  • in sectoral terms, the highest level of trade union membership among employees was found in mining (43.8%), transport (27.3%) and education (27.5%), and the lowest in agriculture (3.5%) and building (3.6%);
  • overall, women made up a majority of trade union members (51.7% of the total). Men were in the majority in trade unions in building (87.4% of all members), transport (74.0%), mining (65.5%) and industry (62.4%), while women were in the majority in education (75.2%), administration (64.9%) and trade (57.4%); and
  • trade unions are not popular among young people. In the under-25 age group, only 2.4% of workers belonged to trade unions, and in the 25-29 age group only 6.8%. Among the 50 and above age group, 17.0% were union members.

Erosion and decreasing appeal

Detailed research conducted in 1998 (Collapse of the rampart? Trade unions in privatised economy, J Gardawski, B Gaciarz, A Mokrzyszewski and W Panków, IPA & Ebert Foundation, Warsaw, 1999) sheds some light on the factors which have impaired the role of trade unions over recent years.

According to the research, trade unions have been eroded as companies have become increasingly smaller and the economy has undergone the process of privatisation. Examining companies in terms of the number of workers employed and the type of ownership, the research found that all large state and 'commune' enterprises (with over 250 employees) had trade unions present (two unions on average). Trade unions were present in 75% of medium-sized companies (50-250 employees) with this type of ownership, and in 50% of small enterprises (under 50 employees). Among privatised companies which previously belonged to the state, the situation was slightly different. Although all large enterprises of this type still had trade unions, small companies had ceased to have unions present. The situation in new companies set up on the basis of Polish or foreign private capital was the least 'union-friendly'. A very small number of such companies, even the largest, with Polish capital had trade unions present (around 5%). Among companies with foreign capital, the situation was slightly better for trade unions, which operated in one-third of large enterprises - however, in small and medium-sized companies they were non-existent.

Apart from the fact that trade unions have undergone a process of erosion, it is evident that they have also become less appealing to workers. According to the abovementioned research, in state enterprises trade union members differed only to a small degree from their non-union colleagues, as regards age, educational background, position held and earnings. However, in former state enterprises, which had been taken over by private investors, the situation was different: the union members were on average older than their non-union colleagues, only a few of them were members of supervisory boards, and they had lower average pay. This marginalisation of union members was deeper in new companies set up on the basis of private capital. The union members in these enterprises on average had much lower pay than the rest of the workers, did not hold managerial functions, and were found in the lower categories of workers.

Analyses conducted in the period 1998-2001 found that the erosion and diminishing appeal of trade unions was also related to anti-union strategies adopted by Polish private entrepreneurs and the managers of larger foreign companies. Only in a few cases of small and medium-sized modern companies could the lack of trade unions be explained in terms of the introduction of modern forms of human resource management, or of the specific character of those companies and their workers.

It should be also stressed that the prestige of trade unions is relatively low. Research conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre (Osrodek Badania Opinii Publicznej, OBOP) in July 2002 found that the OPZZ trade unions had the trust and confidence of 18% of Polish adults, with the equivalent figure for 'Solidarnosc' standing at 15%. One year earlier, in July 2001, CBOS conducted research analysing the trust placed in trade unions by union members themselves. It found that 49% of OPZZ members thought that their union satisfactorily represented workers' interests at the national level, but 28% claimed that their interests were not represented at all. In the case of members of 'Solidarnosc' the same indicators were much more pessimistic: 39% and 57% respectively. As regards the position in their own companies, only 22% of OPZZ and 13% of 'Solidarnosc' members stated that their unions were effective. According to CBOS research conducted in July 2000, 65% of workers surveyed would like the trade unions to become more effective and exert greater influence on the decisions of the government.

Fighting back

In the second half of the 1990s, two initiatives were launched aimed at increasing the number of union members and promoting the establishment of trade union organisation in private enterprises.

The first initiative is the Union Development Unit created by 'Solidarnosc', which makes an extensive use of the experience of US American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), as well as the support of European trade union centres. In the course of the unit's operation, over the period 1999-2001, trade union organisations were successively established in six foreign-owned supermarket chains (including Geant, Real and Tesco). Unions now operate in over 40 super- and hypermarkets. Moreover, 'Solidarnosc' has managed to create large workers' organisations in a number of modern factories, such as the Opel plant in Gliwice and the Volkswagen plant in Polkowice. All these union organisations have well-educated leaders, which gives unions hope that in future the type of union members in private enterprises will change - ie that higher-status and well-educated workers will join unions. However, this will be possible only if union membership does not diminish an employee's chances of promotion or a pay rise. A key factor in establishing trade unions in companies with foreign capital is contacts between Polish trade union leaders and unions in other European countries and the countries which are the source of the capital.

The second initiative was undertaken by OPZZ, leading to the establishment of the Labour Confederation of OPZZ, which aims to create new trade union organisations. Although this initiative has also succeeded in its ventures (eg it has established trade union organisations in a major foreign-owned bank), the range of its activity has been smaller, due to weaker contacts with foreign trade unions.


A number of intertwining factors have led Polish trade unions to face more extensive erosion than those in other European countries. Paradoxically, the great force and authority of the 'Solidarnosc' trade union, which fought the previous autocratic regime in order to introduce a market economy and restore democracy, has turned out to be a factor which has decreased trade union density among Polish workers. At the same time, it has become evident that not only Polish private employers, but also the majority of managers, have unfavourable views on trade unions. On the other hand, the trade unions themselves have concentrated more on the political aspects of their activity (such as reforming the country, supporting ruling coalitions and participating in parliamentary elections) than on the trade union aspect. They have let their prestige drop, both in the eyes of the workers in general and of their own members.

Over the past few years, trade unions have initiated activities aimed at increasing their membership. However, they have met with with opposition on the part of managers and private employers. Taking into account the importance of foreign investment in Poland, it is crucial for the future of the Polish trade union movement that new union organisations are established in foreign-owned companies. This can be achieved only with effective support on the part of European trade unions - where this support has been present, union organisations have been established in such companies. Moreover, responsible behaviour by union leaders in supermarket chains or motor industry companies can help trade unions get rid of their destructive stereotype and prompt Polish employers to give their assent to the presence of trade unions in their companies. (Juliusz Gardawski, Warsaw School of Economics [Szko?a G?ówna Handlowa, SGH] and Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP])

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