NSZZ Solidarność congress adopts new statutes

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In late May 2004, Poland's Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność) held its 17th national congress. The main development was the adoption of new statutes, which notably provide for the creation of new structures at local level to bring together members in companies where it is difficult to establish a workplace union section. There was not complete consensus over the new statutes, and only around two-thirds of delegates voted in favour. The congress also further distanced NSZZ Solidarność from direct involvement in politics.

The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy, NSZZ Solidarność) held its 17th national congress in Spała on 28-29 May 2004. NSZZ Solidarność is one of Poland's two largest trade union confederations (PL0308106F).

The congress presidium and taskforce teams began their work on 27 May. Before the congress opened, the NSZZ Solidarność chair, Janusz Śniadek, listed the topics that delegates would be debating: 'The general situation in Poland, no central government and the parliament in ruin, the healthcare system collapsing, employee rights - including the right to be paid - violated, tampering with the Labour Code, soaring unemployment, unfair competition etc - it’s our duty to talk about these issues and we will certainly do that at the congress. However, the main task of congress delegates will be to debate the draft of new union statutes - which has been in the works for many years - and vote on their adoption.' The need to change the statutes - which were regarded as outdated - was agreed by most NSZZ Solidarność activists, but this did not mean that the debate over the changes proceeded without disagreement. Certain provisions in the statutes, particularly with regard to NSZZ Solidarność's functioning in large conlgomerate companies, had been the issue of disputes within the statutes committee and the national committee even before the congress started. Neither of these bodies adopted the proposed new statutes by consensus.

Course of the congress

As planned, the draft of the new statutes prepared by the statutes committee was the focus of delegates’ attention at the congress. The statutes committee chair, Leszek Jankowski , explained why it had been decided to draw up new statutes: 'The principal objective behind changing the statutes was the need to improve their cohesion and wording, and adapt them to the present situation.' However, not all delegates approved of the proposed text and no general consensus was reached, with the consequence that 219 delegates out of 317 present voted in favour of the new statutes, 80 voted against and 18 abstained. Differences of opinion over the new statutes were significant. Nevertheless, the fact that they were finally adopted after 10 years of debate represented something of an achievement.

Jerzy Langer, a member of the statutes committee, summarised the views of those in favour of the new statutes: 'Their greatest achievement lies in the establishment of territorial union organisations [see below], which provide an alternative for employees of those enterprises where forming a union is difficult. Those organisations that have lost the status of a workplace union section are now able to maintain their legal personality. The standardisation of election rules at various levels is also an important achievement.'

Congress delegates also debated the current domestic political situation. Their main demand was to hold early parliamentary elections. In addition, they issued statements with respect to matters such as the situation in the healthcare system and censured employers for not paying employees and for violating workers’ rights (PL0307106F). Delegates also called on union members to vote in the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament.

Main changes to statutes

The new statutes redefine the notion of an 'inter-enterprise NSZZ Solidarność trade union organisation' According to the new article 19.6: 'the term 'inter-enterprise NSZZ Solidarność trade union organisation' shall also apply to field organisations not based in any particular workplace but set up to group members employed in workplaces located in a given area or belonging to a given branch, without interfering with any other primary NSZZ Solidarność trade union organisation. Moreover, the notion of an 'inter-enterprise organisation' shall also apply to organisations reserved for members who have not signed an employment contract with an employer.' The adoption of this formula creates the opportunity to expand union activities to workers who have not been involved in them before.

Article 48 of the new statutes, which unequivocally prohibits combining a union management position with that of a senator or deputy in the lower house of parliament, is also noteworthy. It seems that this provision constitutes the final step on the path to NSZZ Solidarność ending direct involvement in politics. A major step in this political disengagement process has previously been taken at the 15th congress in September 2002 (PL0210103N).

Many activists stated that NSZZ Solidarność would not engage in politics. However, some commentators pointed to the words of Mr Śniadek, its chair, at the previous congress (PL0311105N): 'Many people have asked me if the union is returning to politics. We must answer that question wisely but it is too early for building any type of political structures.' Given this statement, some observers wonder if NSZZ Solidarność has indeed fully renounced its political aspirations.

Positions adopted

The congress adopted 12 positions on employment, social and political issues. In the first of these positions, delegates denounced the phenomenon of self-employment, stating that the growing number of one-person businesses is not an expression of private initiative but only of employers’ attempt to circumvent labour regulations by forcing employees to register as self-employed. As a result, employers lower their costs while their employees who are forced to become one-person businesses are denied the possibility of pursuing their rights before the labour courts.

In other positions adopted, delegates denounced:

  • withholding employees’ wages;
  • persecuting members for union activism;
  • unfavourable changes in labour regulations;
  • problems accompanying the privatisation process;
  • the 'patient-unfriendly' healthcare system; and
  • the high level of funding of political parties from the public purse.

Delegates also expressed their support for holding early parliamentary elections on the grounds of the 'advancing decay of authority'.

Commentary

The 17th congress of NSZZ Solidarność deserves high marks. The structural modifications (eg inter-enterprise organisations) should be recognized as particularly positive. Delegates also arguably made a rather correct assessment of the Polish political and economic situation, which found its expression in their position statements. However, there are doubts over the union’s attitude to possible involvement in politics. Provisions in the new statutes point to the NSZZ Solidarność’s wish to avoid direct participation in political activities. Delegates at the congress were quite critical of politics, and of politicians in particular. It may be this dislike of politicians that prompted them to adopt a position in favor of limiting the use of public funds to finance political parties.

All in all, the latest NSZZ Solidarność congress has left a positive impression. Still, the question of whether positions adopted at the congress will attract new members into the union - which was the intention of their authors - remains open. (Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Wroclaw University [Uniwersytet Wrocławski])

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