Unrest at Polish National Railways

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During 2003 and the early months of 2004, there has been considerable industrial relations tension at Polish National Railways (PKP). On several occasions, disputes about the restructuring of regional rail services have brought trade unions close to calling a sector-wide general strike. In May 2004, it seems unlikely that the full subsidies promised for regional services will be paid out, entailing the closure of some services and setting off a fresh wave of union protests.

In summer 2003, the trade unions active within the Polish rail transport system came close to calling a sector-wide general strike. The closure of several hundred loss-making local services announced by Polish National Railways (Polskie Koleje Państwowe, PKP) was opposed by the unions (PL0308105F). Negotiations commenced within a tripartite team convened in July 2003 - bringing together representatives of the unions, PKP’s directors and the government - and a compromise was reached whereby the local services would receive financial support from the regional (voivodship) authorities, thus enabling a reduction in the number of services to be struck from the railway schedules. This agreement did much to ease tensions, but the effect proved short-lived. Since then, the industrial relations situation in the railway sector has occasionally flared up before settling down again, amounting to a constant, low-intensity conflict.

In October 2003, the prospect of a sector-wide general strike again reared its head. The rail unions accused the government of not making sufficient allowance for the promised subsidies in the annual budget, and of not keeping up its end of the July deal in terms of limiting the service reductions and subsidising those lines which remain in operation. In a referendum carried out among railway workers, the majority voted in favour of a strike, which was to commence on 13 October 2003 (PL0311102N). However, the strike was again averted at the 11th hour. The government affirmed its earlier declarations concerning the scale and means of subsidising the railways, with a total of PLN 1,138 million earmarked for PKP (of which PLN 538 million was to be contributed towards regional services by regional governments from their tax revenues).

In December 2003, the government unveiled a plan for comprehensive restructuring of PKP by 2006. Its premises included dividing PKP Regional Transport (Polskie koleje Państwowe Przewozy Regionalne) into 16 regional entities, devolution of responsibility for the organisation and financing of regional services to regiona; governments, and progressive repayment of the sector’s debts.

December also saw the implementation of a new PKP timetable, slimmed down by 518 local services which were deemed unprofitable. Union activists again protested, this time by staging hunger strikes at PKP’s national headquarters and subsequently at a number of other locations. Again, the demands were that regional rail transport should receive larger subsidies and that the eliminated services should be reinstated. Some protesters voiced the fear that the regional authorities would be loath to release all the pledged funds to the railways. The government eventually promised to restore more than half of the cancelled services (288, to be exact). The sector-wide strike, which could conceivably have paralysed the entire country during the holiday period, was not called.

In the course of the state budget debate in parliament in early 2004, the idea was aired that an additional subsidy for PKP (on top of the PLN 538 million already mentioned above) should be reduced to PLN 192 million from the PLN 550 million originally proposed. Some members of parliament were inclined to view the support already promised by the government in 2003 as perfectly sufficient, and the majority in the Senate concurred with this position. The railway unions again mooted a strike. The lower house (Sejm) eventually rejected these economising ideas and the full subsidy for PKP was incorporated into the budget act, with the annotation that it should be used for infrastructure investments. There arose unexpected problems with the actual disbursement of the subsidy, however, in that the pertinent legislation does not specify exactly where the funds should be channelled.

In early April 2004, PKP Regional Transport reached an arrangement with its creditors concerning the restructuring of its enormous debt (approaching PLN 2 billion). PKP believes that the subsidies actually paid out by the government are likely to fall short of the PLN 538 million promised, with estimates in the range of PLN 220 million to PPN 270 million. By April, only two regions (the voivodships of Mazowsze and of Silesia) had executed contracts for the financing of regional rail transport until the end of 2004, with another two (Pomerania, Warmia and Mazury) contracting for shorter terms. As a result, it is inevitable that some local services in the remaining regions are to be struck from the railway timetables as of May (there is talk of 250 local lines being eliminated by the end of 2004). Predictably enough, the unions are considering a resumption of their protests.

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