Signs of trade union cooperation in regional social dialogue

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Regional social dialogue commissions were created by law in Poland in 2001, involving representatives of regional trade union and employers' organisations, regional government and the national government. These bodies have been widely perceived as an opportunity for injecting new life into social dialogue and for enfranchising the social partners at regional level. This article examines developments in the regional commissions up to early 2004. Evidence suggests that the commissions have contributed to greater cooperation among the main trade union organisations at regional level, especially over issues such as the problems of sectors undergoing restructuring.

There are 16 regional social dialogue commissions (Wojewódzkich Komisji Dialogu Społecznego, WKDSs) in Poland, one for each voivodship, or administrative region, into which the country is divided (PL0307105F). They are based on legislation enacted in 2001.

The central government representative to each WKDS is the regional governor (voivod), who is also the chair of the commission. The regional government is represented by the its senior official, the marshal. Employees are represented by leaders of the regional and sectoral structures of the three nationwide union centres (PL0208105F) - the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność), the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) and the Trade Union Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ) (PL0212109F). These three centres are also represented on the national-level Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych) (PL0210106F). Employers are represented on each WKDS by regional representatives of their four nationwide organisations (PL0209104F) - the Confederation of Polish Employers (Konfederacja Pracodawców Polskich, KPP), the Polish Confederation of Private Employers (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych, PKPP), the Employers' Union of the Business Centre Club (BCC ZP) and the Association of Polish Crafts (Związek Rzemiosła Polskiego, ZRP). These are the four employers' organisations represented nationally on the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs.

The bodies of the regional social dialogue commissions are their plenary session, presidium, working teams and commission office (run by the national government, represented by the regional governor). The commission’s ambit includes all issues of relevance to the region that have social and economic connotations; this wide-ranging remit means that, in practice, a WKDS is free to debate almost any issue of significance to the region. However, according to commentators, the fact that a WKDS chooses to address a given issue in its deliberations does not mean that an expedient, long-lasting solution can be found; arguably, the practical role of the regional commission often lies in generating publicity for regional problems and in attracting the attention of those institutions competent to make binding decisions on the subject in question.

Impact of change on 'historic' trade unions

According to observers, the fact that a debate within a WKDS is closely observed by the public can translate into either positive or negative consequences for that debate’s progress and for the consolidation of trade union efforts at the regional level. One negative effect of such attention is a temptation to exploit the debate for short-term public relations gains and to dominate it - in a 'race to take the floor', as one social partner representative from the WKDS for Lower Silesia has phrased it. A positive effect of heightened public attention, meanwhile, is the greater willingness to cooperate that it may potentially inspire. This 'conciliatory effect' assumes particular importance in the context of relations between the 'historic' trade union centres: NSZZ Solidarność, which in general terms traces its lineage to the anti-communist opposition and tends to lean towards the right; and OPZZ, descended from the communist state-approved unions of the 1980s, with sympathies which tend to be more to the left. At national level, these two centres continue to compete with one another, but it appears that for purposes of regional dialogue their representatives have been displaying readiness to put aside their political differences and to join forces in resolving specific problems.

Commentators interpret this phenomenon in terms of a grassroots effort within the trade unions to react to significant changes that have occurred in the social and political environment since the mid-1990s. The essence of these perceived changes can be summarised as:

  • a progressive decline of unionisation;
  • a blurring of historic political divisions that has enabled forms of coalition between 'post-Solidarność' and 'post-communist' unions and political parties;
  • an increasing socio-economic polarisation of the electorate, with some voters leaning towards the 'new' populism of the Self Defence (Samoobrona Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, Samoobrona RP) party and its associated organisation, the Self Defence Union of Farmers (Związkek Zawodowy Rolników Samoobrona, ZZR Samoobrona) (PL0407104F); and
  • a certain disillusionment among the general public as regards the vituperative style of politics practiced by many leading actors, with an increased wish for a more consensus-driven public discourse.

Populist politics are seen as a major problem in some quarters, not least in terms of consolidation of the trade union movement. Under conditions of increasingly aggravated social and economic conflict in Poland (as evidenced, for instance, in the apparently widespread belief that society is divided into the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' and that the latter can never hope to gain entry among the former) and mass disappointment with the work of the 'historic' elites, the two-pronged populist movement of Self Defence, with its union and party currents, has been gaining ground. Observers believe that Self Defence poses a threat, citing in their support analogies between it and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Ruch na rzecz Demokratycznej Słowacji, HZDS) of Vladimir Meciar. During the mid-1990s, HZDS hovered somewhere in the general centre of the Slovak political stage, successfully galvanising poorly educated, disenchanted elements in the cities and in the countryside alike into a relatively potent electoral force.

Under these circumstances, it has been suggested that one possible solution in Poland might be closer cooperation among the 'non-populist' trade union actors - ie those which choose to work within the system rather than questioning its very foundations. The most likely participants would be the member organisations of NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ, and of FZZ. Regional social dialogue commissions could be a platform for such rapprochement and cooperation. At least until now, Self-Defence has not gained direct access to the commissions.

Union coordination within regional commissions

Greater coordination in the activities of unions represented in the WKDSs has been manifesting itself in those regions most affected by pressing social and economic problems. Most of these are related to the restructuring of sectors that had until now been run exclusively by the state. The main examples include:

  • the situation of the shipbuilding industry and maritime sector, addressed by the WKDSs for the regions of Pomerania and Western Pomerania;
  • the sugar industry, to which the WKDS for Lublin has devoted a considerable amount of time;
  • restructuring of the hard coal mining (PL0309101F) and metal processing (PL0310105F) industries, to which much attention has been devoted by the WKDS for Silesia (PL0409101N). These problems have also been addressed in the work of the commissions for Świętokrzyskie and Małopolska; and
  • problems relating to the regional operations of the state national railways (PL0407102N), taken up by the commission for Małopolska (a region where the railway network is relatively dense, with several major hubs).

The regional commissions have also addressed issues of more general import than the problems of specific sectors undergoing restructuring. However, commentators suggest that the fact that such debates are conducted at a general level has basically precluded the achievement of any effective conclusions, with the practical results typically limited to submitting documents for perusal by the competent bodies of the national administration. For example, practically all the WKDSs have deliberated the problem of high unemployment which, being a problem of national proportions (PL0401105F), is arguably first and foremost an issue for work by the national Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs and the government (conceptual and strategic work, respectively). Other questions which, given their wide incidence and scale, are seen to warrant the attention of the central authorities rather than of the WKDSs include endemic problems in the payment of wages to workers (PL0307106F), the public healthcare system (PL0407101N), the difficulties of state-owned railway and road transport operators, and the problems of the agricultural sector (a recurring topic for the regional commissions for Kujawy, Pomerania, Lublin, and Małopolska).

Commentary

The examples cited above suggest that the areas of social dialogue at regional level where potential for coordination among trade union organisations exists include those relating to state-controlled sectors and those that have a clear national element. A disquieting tendency, meanwhile, is the fact that the unions show little inclination to cooperate on issues extending beyond the ambit of the state administration. Another worrying phenomenon, especially in the political context, is that the unions lack sufficient 'mass media potential'. Also worth noting is a conviction - apparently present among the unions as well as among the other social partners - that, whatever the recommendations or appeals made by the regional social dialogue commissions, the state is in no position to act on them. Another issue is the poor development of autonomous bipartite dialogue.

There are exceptions to the general lack of inter-union cooperation, some of them quite notable, such as in the brewing industry, where a 'joint trade union representation body' (Wspólna Reprezentacja Związków Zawodowych Grupy Żywiec) has been set up at the Żywiec Group, owned by the Dutch-based Heineken (PL0212105F). For the most part, however, limited cooperation and poor coordination of efforts remain the norm among the Polish unions of a generally 'pro-system' persuasion; this holds true particularly for the unions active at national level. Considerable hope, meanwhile, is aroused by the increasing willingness to cooperate - and to set aside political differences in the interests of such cooperation - observable among union organisations at the regional level. Given the weaknesses mentioned above, however, the risk remains that this fragile trend towards better cooperation will be reversed, for instance when the Polish electorate again becomes disenchanted with the populist as well as mainstream political parties, which would make for another political opening for the union organisations at national level. (Jacek Sroka, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Wroclaw University [Uniwersytet Wrocławski])

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