New nationwide trade union centre established

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2002 has seen the creation of a new nationwide trade union organisation in Poland, alongside the two main existing centres, NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ. The Trade Unions Forum (FZZ) has its roots in a number of organisations which split from OPZZ, and now has 36 affiliates. The new body's membership exceeds 300,000, the threshold for representation on the national Tripartite Commission, and it is thus seeking a Commission seat alongside NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ.

A new national trade union centre, the Trade Unions Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ), was established in Poland in 2002. Below we examine the origins, development and policies of the new organisation.

The OPZZ roots of FZZ

FZZ traces its history to the original All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) and has now come to pose a challenge to it. OPZZ was created by the communist authorities in 1984 immediately after the end of the martial law period (which was imposed on 13 December 1981) (PL0208105F). OPZZ was established in the void left after the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarnosc (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) was suspended and then officially liquidated. Following its experiences with the free-willed NSZZ Solidarność, the communist authorities feared a recurrence of the workers' unity witnessed before the 1981 crackdown. Accordingly, it built new trade unions on a model which was aimed at impeding integrated activity. This model was based on thorough-going autonomy for the various levels of union organisation and on voluntary membership. The individual workplace units ('cells') had legal personality and the right to leave the federal structure, and the federations were free to leave OPZZ. From its inception, OPZZ had a strong sectoral structure, with the territorial structure playing a secondary role only (this essentially continues today). In other words, OPZZ, a thoroughly government-sponsored entity, was built on principles antithetical to those of NSZZ Solidarność.

As early as the second half of the 1980s, centrifugal tendencies begin to manifest themselves within the OPZZ structure. Some federations began to depart from the organisation, although some subsequently returned. Following the political changes of 1989, these tendencies grew pronouncedly stronger. Firstly, NSZZ Solidarność emerged from underground as a newly legalised organisation which, despite many predictions, did not seek to absorb OPZZ members. NSZZ Solidarność extended its support to the new government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and endorsed the market reforms proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Leszek Balcerowicz. These moves precipitated the departure of some activists strongly attached to the concepts propagated by NSZZ Solidarność in the 1980s – such as workers' self-government and social rather than private ownership of large enterprises. Some of them went on to form new smaller union centres, Solidarność ’80 and August ’80 (Sierpień ’80).

The organisations within OPZZ, meanwhile, had to adapt to the new circumstances presented by the market economy and the competition from NSZZ Solidarność. In doing so, they made good use of the opportunities offered by the voluntary structure of OPZZ. There were instances where a workplace OPZZ union would quit its federation and proceed to join the relevant OPZZ territorial structure (thus ceasing to be subordinated to its original federation and becoming a member of the district OPZZ council). In other cases, an entire federation would leave OPZZ, but some of its large workplace organisations would stay behind and join the district structure. OPZZ’s territorial structures grew somewhat stronger, with workplace organisations feeling the need for contacts with district authorities joining the district councils. While there is no dependable data on how many OPZZ members ended up outside the union centre as a result of this manoeuvring, reasonable estimates begin at 200,000.

An analysis carried out in late 2001 by the Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, CBOS) a leading public polling organisation, indicated that NSZZ Solidarność membership encompassed 2.6% of Poland’s adult population and that of OPZZ 2.8%. Union members of all other organisations accounted for 2.8% of adult Poles; of these, a mere 0.3% belonged to organisations active at national level (Solidarność ’80, Sierpień ’80, Kadra, Kontra etc), with the others belonging to organisations which had seceded from OPZZ or were present on a local scale only. A significant share of this latter category was made up of assorted unions active in the healthcare sector, particularly among nurses.

The Union Labour Forum

A key figure in the establishment of FZZ , and one of its founders, is Wiesław Siewierski, the chair of the small Heating Technicians' Trade Union (Związek Zawodowy Ciepłowników) (the information set out below is taken from a document entitled Trade unions: new challenges – old structure currently being prepared for the Polish representative office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation). With 19 years in this position, Mr Siewierski is currently one of the longest-serving chairs of a union organisation. His union, with some 20,000 members in approximately 260 workplace units, represents employees of the municipal utilities charged with relaying heat from generator plants to residential facilities and to other end-users. Mr Siewierski was among the original founders of the OPZZ organisation in 1984 and, during the first years of its operation, played an important role in the creation and management of its territorial structures. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, he decided to take his union out of OPZZ and to seek an independent path. By his own account, this move was animated first and foremost by the presence within his sector of a strong underground NSZZ Solidarność grouping which made life difficult for the government-approved union. The Heating Technician Trade Union’s decision to part ways with OPZZ was also an attempt to shake off the label of 'communist crony' and to increase the organisation’s prestige in the community. Furthermore, the union was a comparatively small one in terms of headcount, with the result that the interests of its constituency were not taken very seriously by the OPZZ authorities, though they were not ignored altogether.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Heating Technician Trade Union, along with several other unions which had split from OPZZ as well as Solidarność ’80, was invited to cooperate with the Labour Union (Unia Pracy, UP), a left-wing political party which was willing to support the trade unions in their activity, furnish them with specialised assistance etc. The main impetus for these overtures was provided by a leading UP figure, since deceased, who had previously served in a central capacity within the OPZZ organisation. UP thus created a new affiliate, the Union Labour Forum (Zwiazkowe Forum Pracy). This Forum, bringing together some 20 union organisations, organised meetings, formulated positions and published declarations.

A key plank of the Forum's platform related to the division of former union assets, which were distributed in mid-2001 between NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ, to the complete exclusion of all other union organisations. These two bodies received from the government, by way of compensation, amounts of money which turned out to be quite considerable (approximately PLN 69 million, or USD 15 million, each). The Union Labour Forum responded to this with a strongly worded communiqué in which it stated that 'we find it surprising that OPZZ and NSZZ Solidarność, though unable to achieve any modicum of understanding on issues which are of supreme importance to employees, eg unemployment, privatisation or the creation of new jobs, are 'close to a definitive division of assets'... A sadly ironic note is added to the entire affair by the fact that the expense of this operation, running into the millions, will be shouldered by the State Treasury, meaning all of us – the taxpayers.' The members of the Union Labour Forum expressed the desire to take up a proportional share of the reclaimed assets and vowed that they would 'pursue their claims before the courts'.

Two months later, in June 2001, another meeting of the Union Labour Forum was held, at which participants took a determined stance against the participation of trade unions in parliament (with the chair of one union proposing the slogan 'union activists out from government and parliament !'). It was at this point that 'serious cooperation' among all the assembled unions was suggested, although this theme was not yet taken so far as to speak of establishing a separate union centre.

A breakthrough came with the adoption by parliament in 2001 of a new legislative Act regarding the Tripartite Commission (Komisja Trójstronna) which brings together representatives of employers' organisations, trade unions and the government (PL0210106F). While the Tripartite Commission is an advisory and consultative body, the procedures put in place by the Act require that all legislative drafts produced by the government, the national budget included, must be submitted for its consideration. Involvement in the Commission provides an opportunity for voicing opinions about proposed legislation as well as, at least occasionally, actually influencing its provisions (where the government finds comments voiced within the Commission well founded, it has been known to take account of them in subsequent revisions of legislative drafts). Commission members also enjoy access to information. The Act regarding the Tripartite Commission recognised two trade union centres, NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ, as employee representatives and instituted a 300,000-member threshold which must be crossed by other union organisations seeking that status. Given that, according to its leadership's estimates, the headcount of the Union Labour Forum was in excess of this minimum, the decision was reached to establish a new union centre and to apply for its inclusion in the Tripartite Commission.

Establishment of the Trade Unions Forum

Work on the establishment of a new union centre commenced in September 2001 in the course of a Union Labour Forum session in Ustronie. The new centre, the Trade Unions Forum (FZZ), was duly registered in the courts, and its first convention was held in April 2002. At that point, the Forum assembled 17 trade unions, including sizeable organisations such as the Federation of Polish National Railways Unions (Federacja Związków Zawodowych Pracowników Polskich Kolei Państwowych), the Nationwide Nurses’ and Midwives’ Union (Ogólnopolski Związek Zawodowy Pielęgniarek i Położnych) and the Technicians’ and Engineers’ Union (Związek Zawodowy Inżynierów i Techników). The Forum was also joined by three unions representing police officers, one representing anaesthesiologists, and the Kadra union. Although Solidarność ’80, a breakaway splinter group from the original NSZZ Solidarność, is not an official member of the Forum, it maintains close ties to it. In November 2002, the Forum’s chair put the number of associated organisations at 36.

The agenda adopted at the first FZZ convention places much emphasis on the non-partisan nature of the new union centre and on its critical attitude towards the two major union centres: 'we dissociate ourselves from the methods and means employed towards the pursual of their agendas by OPZZ and by NSZZ Solidarność. We take a critical view of the bilateral, opportunistic ties between political parties and union organisations. We exclude the possibility of combining a political career with union posts by the leaders of our organisation.' At the same time, however, FZZ took care to emphasise that it regards other unions as 'natural allies'. In the Forum’s programme, its leaders write that it 'unequivocally expresses itself in favour of expedient accession of Poland to the European Union, although subject to reasonably negotiated principles'. Mention is also made of the need for well-considered 'interventionism' by the state. All considered, the FZZ's programme is a moderate one, with critical comments concerning, for instance, the privatisation process in Poland (PL0209103F) assuming a restrained tone - 'there is still a chance for remedying the mistakes which have been made, and continue to be made, in the privatisation process. Privatisation may not be regarded as the only source of revenue for the state; it should serve the modernisation of the economy and its development'- especially when compared with the public statements made by some other unions, most notably the smaller ones. The Forum also expresses itself in favour of the development of employee-ownership structures.

FZZ’s avowed desire to gain the status of a representative union with representation on the Tripartite Commission has elicited sharp protests on the part of OPZZ. This is understandable enough, given that former OPZZ members account for a substantial part of the Forum’s membership. The leaders of OPZZ fear that inclusion of FZZ might bring about a weakening of the representation of those employee groups which do not identify themselves with NSZZ Solidarność, with alienated unions becoming easy prey for the employers. After FZZ submitted its application for inclusion on the Tripartite Commission, there were claims in some OPZZ circles that the Forum may prove to be a 'Trojan horse' for the government (although, it appears that such fears have since subsided). In spite of the strong opposition of the OPZZ chair to FZZ's representation on the Commission, expressed to both the Minister of Labour and Social Policy and the Prime Minister, the new union centre has proved that it does in fact have more than 300,000 members. The emergence of this new force, however, does not alter the landscape of Poland's trade union movement in any material way, in that all of FZZ's constituent organisations have been active for some years, and all of them have traditional membership bases and well-defined interests.

Commentary

The appearance of a large new union organisation is without doubt the result of the 2001 Act regarding the Tripartite Commission, whereby representation on the Commission is now closed to unions which do not have 300,000 members to prove their credentials (by contrast, the previous Commission included no less than seven union centres, some of them not very large at all). However, such integration among unions outside the two 'powerhouses' of OPZZ and NSZZ Solidarność also testifies to an unwillingness by trade unions to take a direct hand in politics. It is hard to predict the new Forum’s future - whether it will cooperate with other unions, confront them, or perhaps opt for closer cooperation with the employers' organisations, or even with the government. Examining the track records of FZZ’s leaders, however, one is tempted to venture that they will ally themselves with OPZZ – of course, after the emotion surrounding OPZZ’s efforts at blocking the Forum’s membership of the Tripartite Commission have abated. (Juliusz Gardawski, Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP, and Warsaw School of Economy (Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH)

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