Conflicts re-emerge in mining

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In summer 2004, strikes appear to be looming in large parts of the Polish coal-mining industry, with disputes at various companies centred on pay increases and the contents of new collective agreements. Miners are basing demands for higher wages on the sound financial results being posted by the mines in 2004, although how long the current favourable trend in the world's coal markets will last remains an open issue. The need to draw up new collective agreements, meanwhile, arises from the current restructuring process in the sector.

Following several months of relative calm in the conflict-prone coal-mining industry (PL0311102N and PL0309105N), during which the World Bank made available a USD 200 million loan for the financing of restructuring (followed by a EUR 84 million facility extended in July 2004 to help pay for the downsizing of extraction capacities) and implementation of the sector's restructuring programme generally appeared to be progressing satisfactorily (PL0310103F), another wave of employee protests is swelling up in summer 2004. The focal points of unrest are at the mines owned by Kompania Węglowa (KW) (the largest mining operation in Europe), Katowicki Holding Węglowy (KHW), Jastrzębie Coal Company (Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa, JSW) and the Budryk Coal Mine Joint-Stock Company (Kopalnia Węgla Kamiennego Budryk SA, KWK Budryk). The looming protests concentrate on two key issues - a seeming inability to reach consensus over new collective agreements and miners' pay demands.

In 2004, for the first time for many years, the Polish coal-mining industry is operating in profit; as of May, the sector’s aggregate profit stood at PLN 880 million. The sector’s employees now appear to be seeking a share in this success and have thus been pressing for wage increases. The managements of the various mining entities have been quite circumspect in its response to these demands, stating that it is by no means certain that good times in the mining industry will continue for any appreciable length of time. This cautious position is shared by many analysts, who view the high profits presently accruing to Polish mines as resulting from a rise in world commodity prices rather than from any special achievements on the part of Polish mines themselves, which are still burdened by considerable debts accumulated over past years (PL0309101F).

The disagreement over new collective agreements, meanwhile, chiefly concerns the maintenance or abolition of various benefits for mine workers. The employers are seeking a more flexible pay system, with a smaller fixed component and a greater share of variable elements which can be tied to work efficiency. The collective agreements currently in force include a high level of employee benefits, some of which were first put in place before 1989.

It would seem that, for the time being, the conflict has been defused at JSW, which has five coal mines. Towards the end of June 2004, JSW directors and trade unions arrived at an agreement satisfactory to both. The unions had initially sought a pay increase of 10% but, in the end, settled for a rise of 3% from July 2004, plus a bonus of PLN 2,310. The latter is to be paid in both cash and vouchers redeemable for goods at selected supermarkets, and will be disbursed in three tranches; a PLN 760 cash payment plus a PLN 400 voucher in July 2004; PLN 400 cash and a PLN 220 voucher in September; and PLN 300 cash plus a PLN 150 voucher in November. With these additional benefits factored in, the miners’ earnings in 2004 ought to grow by approximately 10%.

Apart from the JSW accord, however, July 2004 saw no resolution of the conflicts at the other mining enterprises. On 1 July, a demonstration was staged outside the headquarters of KW (which has 21 mines), with the demonstrators calling for a 10% wage increase and expressing their discontent with the single collective agreement proposed by the management (which would replace the 16 different agreements presently regulating labour relations at the various mines, a situation that predates the establishment of KW). The demonstration took a violent turn, and the offices of the KW board were vandalised. On 20 July, negotiations opened with the aim of reaching a new collective agreement and of settling the question of the pay rises sought by the 12 trade unions active within KW. In the talks, the unions presented their own draft of a new collective agreement.

The unions active within KHW (which has eight mines) have also taken the position that the new collective agreement proposed by the management is unacceptable, in that it would deprive workers of a number of privileges and entail a significant reduction in pay. In terms of remuneration, the unions are demanding: a 15% rise in pay; an increase in the value of the coupons that miners exchange for meals during their working day (to PLN 12 a day); and a bonus of PLN 600 in cash and the same amount again in vouchers. The unions calculate that, given a failure properly to adjust pay during the 1990s, the KHW holding company now owes each miner approximately PLN 120,000. The KHW board has not publicly questioned the legitimacy of these claims, but the pay dispute has been referred to the courts.

The situation at the independent KWK Budryk mine in Ornontowice remains unclear. On 12 July, seven of the trade unions represented at the mine agreed with management that each miner should receive a PLN 100 cash bonus and PLN 600 in vouchers in August, with the potential value of further vouchers to be distributed by the end of 2004 possibly reaching PLN 1,500 (gross). However the two remaining unions active at Budryk - the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) and the Alliance of Trade Unions 'Kadra' (Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych Kadra, PZZ Kadra) - did not sign up to this agreement, dismissing the terms proposed by the management as unsatisfactory. On 16 July, a referendum on a possible strike was held among the workforce, and 87% of those voting were in favour. Accordingly, the mine went on 'strike stand-by' on 20 July. On 30 July, some protesters forced their way into the offices of the management board and detained two directors for several hours.

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