Tripartite Commission negotiates employment and development issues

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In February 2003, the Minister of Labour proposed a draft 'pact for labour and development' to trade unions and employers' organisations represented on Poland's Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs, with the aim of coming up with a comprehensive solution to address many of the problems currently facing the country. Opposition to the idea of such a pact from the NSZZ Solidarność trade union initially prevented progress on the proposal but - following agreement to drop the term 'pact'- negotiations began in May on the issues raised in the draft.

In February 2003, the Minister of Labour proposed a draft 'pact for labour and development' (Paktu dla pracy i rozwoju) to representatives of trade unions and employers at a session of the national Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych) (PL0210106F). The aim was to play a decisive role in resolving the social and economic problems faced by all parties represented on the Tripartite Commission, focusing especially on the following issues:

  • greater freedom for economic activity;
  • overhaul of public finances;
  • reducing tax burdens so as to stimulate consumer and investment demand;
  • pursuing privatisation (PL0209103F) in such a way as to shape a modern economy while taking account of the legitimate interests of the employees of privatised entities;
  • the scale, scope, and means of government assistance for businesses;
  • opening public services and utilities up to the market;
  • mechanisms for determining pay in the public sector, the utilities sector and the private business sector; and
  • labour law, including the role of collective bargaining and of the regulations concerning fixed-term and open-ended contracts.

These issues were to be addressed by various working groups within the Tripartite Commission. These groups could also formulate their own lists of issues which, following their approval by the Commission’s presidium, would also become the object of negotiations.

In embarking on these negotiations, the organisations represented on the Tripartite Commission and the government were acting on the premise that it is only through dialogue that the complex problems affecting Poland's society and economy can be addressed. The situation, it was hoped, could be improved by way of creating new jobs, stimulating entrepreneurship and encouraging economic growth. However, despite these shared goals, the negotiations were fraught with difficulty from their outset.

Initial problems

As soon as the proposal for a pact was presented, the leaders of the two main trade union organisations - the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnoposkie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) and the Independent and Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) - four employers' organisations and the government proceeded to draw up joint programme and guidelines and signed a preliminary agreement concerning the start of negotiations.

However, only a few days later, on 19 February, the national commission of NSZZ Solidarność rejected the government's proposal, and Janusz Śniadek, the union’s chair, was criticised for taking such a decision without consultation with NSZZ Solidarność's governing bodies. In his defence, Mr Śniadek argued that mere signature of the preliminary agreement was not tantamount to the commencement of discussions. The national commission, for its part, concluded that the draft pact for labour and development was a mere 'propaganda gimmick', and an attempt at luring NSZZ Solidarność into seeming negotiations so as to silence protests before the upcoming referendum on Poland’s accession to the European Union (which was held in June 2003 and resulted in a 'yes' vote). The representatives of NSZZ Solidarność unions in those industries which have been awaiting negotiations over their problems with the government for some months appeared to be the most opposed to the pact; they took the view that the Tripartite Commission was already competent to hold negotiations on the problems plaguing various areas of the economy, without the need for the new initiative. During a press conference held after the meeting of the NSZZ Solidarność national commission, Mr Śniadek stated that the left-wing coalition government lacks a coherent concept for extricating the country from its economic crisis: 'A proposal for negotiating a pact makes sense if the social partners trust each other. We have a whole list of sector-specific problems which have been awaiting resolution for months and the government has no intention of dealing with them. We still want to talk about solutions for the threatened sectors with appropriate persons, but without the political trappings of the grandiosely named pact for labour and development.'

Contrary to earlier expectations, no resolution concerning the start of negotiations on the pact was adopted during the plenary session of the Tripartite Commission held on 20 February. For some time, it appeared that the government's initiative might not be taken up by the social partners, despite their preliminary acceptance. No pact seemed in prospect, only an uneasy stalemate. A suggestion arose that the matter might be progressed through negotiations outside the Tripartite Commission framework, to which NSZZ Solidarność would not be invited, but OPZZ was unwilling to pursue talks in such an incomplete group. At this point, Marek Goliszewski, a representative of the Business Centre Club (BCC) employers’ organisation (PL0209104F), suggested that the label 'pact for labour and development' should be abandoned and that the important issues raised within its context should be discussed without reference to such a pact - thus, it was hoped, avoiding the negative connotations arising for some participants. This idea proved to be the solution to the impasse.

Dialogue resumes

NSZZ Solidarność was happy to go along with the proposed solution. Its chair stated to journalists that it was prepared to enter dialogue now it had been 'decided to work from the foundations upwards rather than starting with the roof'. He added that: 'no matter what the scale of the problems, if the situation requires it, then we must talk. Solidarność articulates its demands also in the form of protest actions and demonstrations, but these must be followed by the stage of agreements and talks. We believe that, as a result, at least some of our demands are granted, to good effect.'

Sitting on 13 May 2003, the Tripartite Commission thus decided to embark on negotiations concerning an agreement with regard to various issues, including those raised earlier in the proposed pact. The Minister of Labour was very satisfied with this development, expressing his confidence that, if the social partners endorse specific legislative proposals, these will also receive the approval of parliament. A similar opinion was expressed by the employers. As a representative of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych, PKPP) stated, 'what we have to propose and to negotiate goes beyond the government formula. These are issues with regard to which there has still not been serious discussion between the employers and the trade unions.'

The negotiations currently being pursued within the Tripartite Commission are based on a special procedure, initiated at the request of the employers, laid down in Article 2 of the legislative Act establishing the Commission. This provision enables each party to introduce onto the Commission’s agenda issues of 'material social or economic significance' where that party deems the resolution of these issues necessary for maintaining peace in society. It was clear from the outset that the list of issues to be negotiated was not a closed one. Taking advantage of the opportunity which presented itself, the representatives of employers, trade unions and the government wasted no time in extending the list of issues to be discussed. Thus, OPZZ called for the Commission to discuss social assistance for unemployed people and the Guaranteed Employee Benefits Fund (Fundusz Gwarantowanych Swiadczen Pracowniczych) (PL0212103N), which covers the wage arrears due to the employees of bankrupt businesses (OPZZ wants to restore the Fund to the control of the social partners following its overhaul). The Trade Unions Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ) (PL0212109F) demanded a discussion of issues relating to the social insurance system. Despite the addition of new issues, it was the declared goal of the Tripartite Commission to conclude negotiations by the end of the second quarter of 2003.

Commentary

Many commentators believe that the resumption of negotiations testifies to the fact that the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs is, at long last, becoming an important body. In a situation where other such institutions are experiencing a decline in their prestige and perceived importance, the Commission is making gains – largely thanks to the fact that the parties involved are demonstrating discipline and restraint in limiting their own claims, overcoming obstacles towards agreement.

Some parties have accused the social partners of wasting the three months between the proposal of the original draft of the 'Pact' in February and the start of talks in May 2003. The employers reject such accusations, pointing out that the intermission in talks has provided each social partner with the time to draw up its positions, so that 'we have something to bring to the table'. Paradoxically enough, however, positions which have been staked out in detail may, in practice, prove to be an impediment to effective negotiations, with the trust placed by each partner in its own ideas potentially stiffening them in their opposition to those of others. (Rafał Towalski, Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH] and Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP])

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