Poland: National-level tripartite social dialogue back on track
Major tripartite discussions in Poland are on the brink of re-starting, two years after the three main national union confederations walked out of the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs. There were widespread protests, but now a new council has been given legal status after employers and unions negotiated an agreement.
In the summer of 2013, all three national representative trade union organisations – NSZZ ‘Solidarność, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) and Trade Unions Forum (FZZ) – unanimously decided to exit the central tripartite body, the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (TK). This was sparked by the government revising the Labour Code to make working time more flexible. But the exit marked the culmination of unions' growing disillusionment with government plans for budget consolidation and public debt reduction. Unions were concerned about proposals to raise the retirement age and transfer assets from the second pillar to the first pillar of the pensions system. In September 2013, the three confederations led the largest street demonstration in Warsaw since 1989, with more than 100,000 participants.
Attempts to find a way out of stalemate
However, although the unions declared they had no intention of returning to the tripartite forum, they began talks on how to reform Polish tripartism and the possibility of replacing TK with a more powerful institution. In October 2013, the Polish President, Bronisław Komorowski, hosted a meeting at which the unions formally presented their proposal for a new central tripartite body, the Social Dialogue Council (RDS), to the employer organisations. The unions were keen to relaunch tripartism, hoping it would balance relations among the social partners and minimise the risk of government domination. They felt this could be achieved by giving the RDS its own budget, by formally situating the body within the remit of the Marshall of Sejm (the Speaker of Parliament's lower house) and by rotating the presidency of RDS among the three sides, with each representative holding the role for a year. Overall, employer organisations welcomed the union proposals, but were critical of some aspects:
- They disliked the unions' proposal that the conditions for representativeness of employers should be changed (by introducing conditions regarding their capacity for entering into collective agreements, in particular multi-employer ones).
- They expressed concern at the broadening of the definition of ‘employer’ for the purpose of collective disputes, to include central and local government authorities.
- They also criticised the union's proposal for a role for the RDS in employment relations, suggesting that any new proposal on employment relations would have to be approved by the RDS before being sent to parliament.
Talks continued through 2014, but there was no sign of interest from the government. However, in March 2014, a complex amendment to the Act on Employment Promotion and Labour Market Institutions led to new tripartite bodies, known as ‘labour market councils’, starting operations on 1 January 2015, replacing the former ‘employment councils’.
The old Tripartite Commission was still holding meetings without unions present (but with no conclusive results) and other tripartite bodies (particularly sectoral and regional ones) continued to meet repeatedly in 2014 and the first half of 2015.
Social partners reach consensus
In March 2015, at a closed summit, all the social partners finally reached agreement on the draft proposal for forming the RDS. The government formally submitted it as a draft bill to the lower house of Parliament (Sejm) on 17 June 2015, where it was adopted on 25 June. Some 425 MPs voted for the Act on Social Dialogue Council and Other Social Dialogue Bodies, with only three against and one abstention. Parliament’s upper chamber (Senat) approved the Act on 10 July. Its minor revisions were accepted by the Sejm two weeks later, and on 3 August the President signed the act into law.
The law stipulates that the new tripartite bodies must bring about the following changes.
- RDS replaces TK, and Regional Social Dialogue Commissions (WKDS) are replaced by Regional Social Dialogue Councils.
- RDS is responsible for conducting dialogue ‘aimed at facilitating conditions for socio-economic development, as well as increasing competitiveness and social cohesion’.
- RDS is to fulfil the principles of ‘participation and social solidarity in the field of employment relations’. (This is a significant, considering TK’s powers were limited to the ‘maintenance of social peace’.)
- All members of RDS will be nominated by the President of Poland, after being proposed by each social partner (government, trade unions and employers).
- The chair of RDS will rotate among the three parties yearly.
- RDS will be granted a separate budget, and will have a regular administrative unit serving its needs (established by the Centre for Social Partnership).
- RDS enjoys the right to a legislative initiative on all the issues for which it has responsibility and these include ‘socio-economic development, the enhancement of national economic competiveness and social cohesion’.
- RDS will present an annual account of its activities to the Speakers (Marszałek) of the Sejm and Senat.
What future for Polish tripartism?
The new central-level tripartite body has greater powers than the old TK, but has yet to start work. There are high hopes for RDS. It gives social partners the opportunity to strengthen their position, yet it remains to be seen if they will be able to take advantage of their enhanced involvement.