PŻM shipping company employees support dismissed director

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In August 2004, the Polish Ministry of the State Treasury dismissed the director of the state-owned PŻM shipping company, Paweł Brzezicki. The decision led to a wave of protests by the PŻM workforce and trade unions, which believe that Mr Brzezicki is responsible for a recent tunraround in the company's performance, and fear that his dismissal may be a prelude to its liquidation or sale and the loss of their jobs.

On 25 August 2004, some 500 employees of the Polish Steamship Company (Polska Żegluga Morska, PŻM) held a demonstration in defence of the company’s director, Paweł Brzezicki, who has been dismissed by the Minister of the State Treasury. The PŻM workforce believes that the continued employment of Mr Brzezicki at the helm of PŻM will guarantee their jobs and the existence of the company itself.

Background

Mr Brzezicki has served as director of the PŻM shipping company for six years, initially appointed as an acting manager for what was intended to be an interim period. He assumed leadership of PŻM at a time when the company was grappling with serious financial problems. Implementation, under his leadership, of a restructuring programme brought about a turnaround of PŻM’s financial situation. PŻM now employs more than 3,000 workers, and its fleet comprises 72 bulk cargo ships, four chemical tankers and two ferries. Most of its assets are held by the Żegluga Polska SA company, and as of late 2003, PŻM itself was the registered owner of only five vessels.

Until 28 May 1999, 100% of the shares in Żegluga Polska SA were held by PŻM. At that time, Mr Brzezicki (then the temporary manager) elected to sell a stake in Żegluga Polska, valued at PLN 457,000, to another subsidiary of PŻM - Polsteam Brokers Sp z oo. Thus, as the Ministry of the State Treasury (Ministerstwo Skarbu Państwa, MSP) subsequently put it, 'Żegluga Polska SA ceased to be obliged to notify the Minister of the State Treasury of intent to effect acts in law with respect to disposal of its fixed assets or making available of such assets for free-of-charge use by other entities where the value of the given act’s object exceeded EUR 50,000.'

The Ministry of the State Treasury concluded that the actions taken by Mr Brzezicki in 1999 were illegal and, as a result, moved to dismiss him from the post of PŻM director on 19 August 2004. The question has been raised as to why the Ministry took such a long time to react to what it states is an unequivocally illegal act. According to statements by the Ministry, it is only now that alleged improprieties surrounding the actions taken by Mr Brzezicki in 1999 have been established in the course of audit proceedings by the Supreme Chamber of Control (Najwyższa Izba Kontroli, NIK).

Mr Brzezicki appealed against the decision of the Minister of the State Treasury, lodging papers with the District Court in Szczecin - Division VIII Commercial (Sąd Okręgowy w Szczecinie), through a private law firm. His appeal rests on the fact that the Ministry of the State Treasury failed to abide, in 1999, by the 30-day deadline within which it must take its position with respect to proposed changes in the ownership structure of a state-owned enterprise. Seeing as no objections to the proposed divestment of the Żegluga Polska stake were received within this 30-day deadline, Mr Brzezicki argues in his appeal, his actions in that respect cannot now be interpreted as illegal. The Ministry counters by maintaining that, under the present circumstances, the director of PŻM does not have a right of appeal. Counsel for Mr Brzezicki does not acknowledge this argument.

Reactions to dismissal

The dismissal of Mr Brzezicki as director of PŻM caused an uproar among the company’s personnel and trade unions, in the local community, and in local political circles in Szczecin. The protests against the dismissal seem to be based on a conviction that disposing of Mr Brzezicki is a prelude to reducing the profitability of PŻM and to its liquidation or sale. It has been repeated many times in this context that Mr Brzezicki is the reason for PŻM’s successful turnaround in the past few years, and that he more than anybody else is associated with PŻM among foreign business partners and investors. The PŻM workers' council (Rada Pracownicza) (PL0208106F) joined in the general outcry against the dismissal, and it resisted pressure brought to bear by the Ministry of the State Treasury, which had wanted the council to appoint an acting manager until a permanent replacement for Mr Brzezicki can be found. Accordingly, Mr Brzezicki continues to manage the day-to-day operations of PŻM.

The Szczecin municipal council has called on the Ministry of the State Treasury to substantiate in detail its decision to dismiss Mr Brzezicki and to present its plans for PŻM’s future operations. The most radical steps have been taken by the right-wing League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin, LPR) party - its leader, Roman Giertych, has reported the measures taken by the Minister of the State Treasury, Jacek Socha, to the public prosecution service as an alleged violation of pertinent laws.

All the various opponents of the Ministry of the State Treasury decision came together in the joint demonstration on 25 August, which was organised by an ad hoc 'committee for the defence of PŻM' (Komitet Obrony PŻM, KO PŻM). Some 500 people turned out on the streets of Szczecin, among them PŻM workers, union activists, family members, and representatives of some political parties - mostly LPR and Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), another right-leaning group. The demonstrators marched to the office of the regional governor (voivod) of Western Pomerania, with the slogan 'Hands off PŻM' much in evidence on their placards. The regional governor, Jan Sylwestrzak, met the protesters. The chair of the KO PŻM committee, Bogusław Marciniak, gave a speech in which he explained that the event was an expression of concern about the future fate of the company, and that the dismissal of Mr Brzezicki should be viewed as an illegal act and condemned accordingly. The KO PŻM chair also suggested that Mr Brzezicki’s dismissal was animated by a desire to replace him with a person associated with the government.

Before dispersing, the protesters presented Mr Sylwestrzak with a petition in which they call on the Prime Minister to repeal the decision on Mr Brzezicki’s dismissal. The regional governor addressed the protesters, stating that he understood their fears; at the same time, he asked that they bear in mind the possibility that their interpretation of the facts surrounding the case is incorrect.

Commentary

The discontent with which the PŻM workforce met the decision dismissing the company's director is understandable. When Mr Brzezicki took charge at PŻM, the company was in a bad way financially, for example being three months in arrears with respect to wage payments. At present, the company’s standing is much better, and PŻM employees and the wider Szczecin community agree that Paweł Brzezicki is the first person to be thanked for this. The high prices presently prevailing in the international shipping market has also contributed to the recent success of PŻM, but the fact remains that Mr Brzezicki, in the eyes of many, personifies all the positive developments at the company.

With regard to the decision by the Minister of the State Treasury, one can not help but wonder why the move to dismiss Mr Brzezicki has been taken five years after his alleged infraction, at a time when PŻM is posting very respectable results. At this point, it is not possible to make an assessment of this issue; one can only acknowledge as understandable the protesters’ allegations to the effect that Mr Brzezicki’s dismissal should be viewed in terms of a grab for power and await further developments. (Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Wroclaw University [Uniwersytet Wrocławski])

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