EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Problems facing the trade union movement analysed

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Poland's once powerful trade unions now organise only 18% of the workforce, one of the lowest unionisation rates in central and eastern Europe. The reasons for the weakness of Poland's trade union movement have been examined at a seminar held in May 2003 and in a book based on the discussions at the seminar. This article summarises the main arguments and findings.

In May 2003, a seminar on the situation of Polish trade unions and their relations with European trade union organisations was organised by the Warsaw School of Economics and the Polish office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung). Based on the work of the seminar, a book entitled Conflicting pluralism of Polish trade unions (Konfliktowy pluralizm polskich związków zawodowych) is being prepared for publication by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The book will present the latest data on trade union density in Poland and analyse why the Polish trade union movement – once among the strongest in Europe - has become less influential than its counterparts in many other central and eastern European countries. Below, we summarise some of the book's main findings and arguments

The problems facing Polish trade unions

Polish trade unions have recently faced a relatively serious crisis in terms of their membership levels (PL0208105F). The forthcoming book asks why in Poland – a country with strong trade union traditions – after 14 years of political and economic transformation, the level of unionisation has fallen below that in virtually all other countries of central and eastern Europe (TN0207104F). It is reported that trade union membership as a proportion of all wage earners currently stands at around: two-thirds in the Ukraine and Russia; half in Serbia; two-fifths in Bulgaria (BG0307204F), Croatia, Romania (RO0307101F) and Slovakia (SK0208102F); a third in the Czech Republic and Hungary (HU0206102N); and under a fifth in Poland (18% according to data collected towards the end of 2002).

In order to answer the above question, the book examines three groups of factors, as follows.

Global trends

The first group of factors might apply to most countries. It is widely argued that current trends of 'globalisation' and 'post-Fordism' exert a destructive effect on trade unions across the world. According to the most extreme versions of this viewpoint, 'post-Fordism' transforms trade unions into outdated institutions. The term 'post-Fordism' is generally used to refer to developments such as: the organisational and technological changes that have taken place in industry; the influence of current international competition; changes in the labour market; the emergence of new forms of personnel management; the replacement of public property by private property; an increasing number of small companies (in particular in the services sector); and the perceived spread of a new, individualistic ideology. It is argued that the 'traditional' working class working in large factories is gradually disappearing, whereas the number of workers employed on fixed-term or part-time contracts is increasing, with employees no longer permanently attached to one workplace. All these factors are seen as tending to reduce trade union membership and influence.

Trends common to former state socialist countries

The second group of factors relate to a specific 'identity crisis' affecting the majority of trade unions in the former authoritarian socialist countries of central and eastern Europe. These unions have participated actively in the creation of the new political system in these countries, and this is regarded as having resulted as a conflict of loyalties: on the one hand, the unions have sought to retain their role as a 'defender' of the working class; while on the other, they have become the 'co-authors' of democracy and of capitalist and market-based relations. This situation, it is argued, has considerably impaired the identification of workers with trade unions.

Specific Polish trends

The third group of factors is specific to Poland and is regarded as the key source of explanations for the low level of unionisation in Poland. The book identifies a specific concurrence of the following three phenomena which have occurred since 1989.

  • Since the beginning of Poland's transformation process, two influential and ideologically divided trade union organisations with a roughly equal number of members have emerged - the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy, NSZZ Solidarność) and the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ). Against certain expectations, the revived NSZZ Solidarność (after being banned during the 1980s) has failed to dominate OPZZ and attract its members.
  • Both main trade union organisations were for a long time directly entangled in politics. They did not act as trade union pressure groups on politicians but themselves constituted an integral part of competing political parties or, in the case of NSZZ Solidarność, were transformed into political parties. NSZZ Solidarność has been seen as representing the right wing of the political scene and OPZZ the left wing. Whether or not these perceived orientations are correct, what matters is that they have been clearly distinguished by workers and that they have confirmed and reinforced political divisions among workers.
  • Current legal regulations have led to the institutionalisation of divided and competing trade union organisations and their confinement to specific companies, where their leaders hold a regular post and the unions have their base and 'clientele'. During the period immediately preceding the political transformation, the OPZZ leadership, anticipating forthcoming trade union pluralism and the return of NSZZ Solidarność, raised the idea that each company should have only one trade union, reflecting practice in the USA, with the majority of the workforce deciding which trade union should enjoy the 'monopoly'. This idea would have allowed for some pluralism within companies, as a general trade union could co-exist with an occupational trade union(s), eg for engineers and technicians. However, this proposal was rejected and the legal regulations that were introduced in the 1980s provided for trade union pluralism and 'voluntarism'.

On the latter point, the legal regulations providing for union pluralism and voluntarism were conducive to the creation of new trade unions. In consequence, a number of new unions emerged, originating from both NSZZ Solidarność - August ’80 (Sierpień ’80), Solidarity ’80 (Solidarność ’80) and many others - and OPZZ - with certain unions leaving the confederation (PL0212109F). Moreover, a number of independent trade unions were created which were registered only in a single company. Frequently, company managements discreetly attempted to create their own 'yellow' trade unions whose main objective was to prevent the other unions from conducting a united policy. Although these practices have been discouraged to a certain extent by recent changes to the legislation on union representation, they have still managed to undermine the prestige of the trade union movement.

'Conflicting pluralism'

The tensions between NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ led to the emergence in the early 1990s of a specific model of Polish trade unionism, with 'conflicting pluralism' as its most conspicuous feature. A key element of this model was the existence within most companies of at least two competing trade unions, neither of which was able to prevail over the other or genuinely represent the workforce as a whole. This instigated a process which further weakened the Polish trade union movement: unions gradually lost the right and opportunity to represent the interests of the whole company workforce, as they had to focus on their own 'clientele'. A similar situation developed at all levels of the trade union movement and in both NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ. Due to circumstances beyond their control, union leaders were forced to shift from attempting to represent the interests of all Polish workers to representing their own membership, as competition with the other trade union (or unions) and the political functions assumed by the unions (in each case limited to one side of the political spectrum) restricted their scope of activities to their own organisation and their own political and ideological orientation. Naturally, there were certain common interests, such as negotiating social benefits and sectoral agreements (eg in metalworking or mining) or making joint contributions to the preparation of labour legislation, though even in these areas certain political divisions could be detected. Sometimes, according to the book, particular trade unions, out of loyalty to their political 'patron', acted against workers’ interests, while some essential social benefits negotiated with the government were often rejected by the trade union whose political party was in opposition at the time.

However, the book stresses that from the beginning of 1990s many trade union leaders were doing their best to promote the workers’ cause. With workers’ well-being in mind, they entered into cooperation with their colleagues from other unions. Nevertheless, it was impossible for these leaders to cooperate on a long-term basis, since they were forced to submit to the interests of their own organisations - or rather to the interests of certain groups within their organisations, such as the 'opinion-makers', influential individuals, other leaders etc. In their everyday work, trade unions were confronted with the necessity to attend to their own clientele. The only area where the spirit of cooperation between various trade union organisations flourished was in negotiating social benefits for those branches of the economy which faced large-scale redundancies.

The quarrelling, or at best mutually indifferent, trade unions were operating in the companies where half of the workers were not union members. The ambience was conducive to a more rapid than expected erosion of union membership. Company-level union organisations were gradually losing their credibility as defenders of the interests of non-union workers. They ceased to be considered by workers as defending the whole company workforce, but rather as solely looking after their own members. This partisanship became especially conspicuous in cases of planned collective redundancies, when each trade union made great efforts to defend its own members, in particular those with a long membership period and many years of contributions. According to the book, these widespread practices discouraged younger workers from joining unions, as they believed that in the event of redundancies, the unions would defend only long-standing members. This approach is well illustrated by comments by a NSZZ Solidarność official from a large and well-known manufacturing company in an interview conducted during 2001 research by the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych). He stated that, along with the OPZZ official at the same company, 'we are doing our best to defend the members of our unions ... I see it in the following way: we act as an insurance company - if someone pays contributions to an insurer, he or she expects something in return, and this is obvious. Otherwise, why join the trade union? It is strange that people no longer see that this is only natural – as with the insurance policy provided in various firms, membership of a trade union is not mandatory (unlike the social security system).'

Attempts to turn the tide

In the second half of the 1990s, Polish trade unions launched a series of initiatives aimed at reversing the downward tendency in the number of union members, and there have been some indications that the fall in membership has been successfully prevented (though these data should be treated with care, as other factors may be of importance, in particular changes in the privatisation process over the past two years - PL0209103F).

At central level, the initiatives to revitalise trade unions have taken two basic forms. First, in 2001, the unions renounced their active participation in politics and declared that they would confine themselves to strictly trade union activities, focusing on the defence of workers’ interests. Second, because of this renunciation of direct participation in politics, the unions have devoted their efforts to systematic work in the national Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych), which contributed to the introduction of new legislation seeking to revitalise the Commission in 2001 (PL0210106F).

At the level of individual unions, many have begun to recruit new members. NSZZ Solidarność has established a 'member recruitment unit', which helps to form union organisations in supermarkets and other new companies set up by foreign multinationals (in particular in the food industry) (PL0212105F). Despite certain problems, in most cases the unit has managed to establish new trade union organisations – with only the operations of US-based multinationals, which are generally hostile towards institutionalised forms of worker representation, posing difficulties. OPZZ has founded a 'labour confederation', which has similar objectives and has been similarly successful in its recruitment of new members.

At company level, various initiatives have been launched with the prinicipal objective of encouraging cooperation between trade unions. In the second half of the 1990s, trade unions within many companies became convinced of the need to act in cooperation with each other, and thus started to operate in this way. A key factor in the effectiveness of company-level union organisations is unanimity, which is possible if: one trade union dominates the others and comes to represent all workers; a number of unions launch common initiatives and enter into cooperation; or a number of unions merge and create one union. For example, in a large foreign-owned food company 11 trade union organisations have merged, electing a common representation and executive, which has allowed them to represent the whole several thousand-strong workforce.


Although Polish trade unions have long been regarded by some observers as powerful institutions, in reality they are quite feeble and ineffective. This conclusion can be confirmed not only by the data indicating that only about 18% of Polish workers are union members, but also by the unions' lack of means to mobilise workers. In Poland, a specific model of trade unionism has emerged, whose most conspicuous feature – 'conflicting pluralism'– makes it difficult for the unions successfully to represent workers’ interests. The discussion at the seminar in May 2003 and in the forthcoming book is marked by a mood of moderate pessimism. Some participants at the seminar concluded that the main trade union organisations - NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ - are so entangled in the intricacies of history that, in order to cooperate effectively, they should defer to younger generations. However, some of participants were of the opinion that the requirements imposed by accession to the European Union (in May 2004) can lead to closer cooperation between the various trade unions. Union cooperation within the Tripartite Commission and various common initiatives are cited in support of this view. The author of this article concurs with the second view – the challenges connected to EU accession leave room for a considerable amount of optimism about the future of Polish trade unionism. (Juliusz Gardawski, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, IPA] and Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH]).

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