Dispute over pay at Fiat-GM plant

In late January 2007, the NSZZ Solidarność trade union, representing part of the workforce at the Fiat-GM Powertrain plant in southern Poland, entered into a pay dispute with the company’s management. In the following month, tensions escalated further after the company fired four employees, a move which NSZZ Solidarność perceived as an attempt to intimidate employees who wished to join the union. However, the company has strongly denied such a claim.

Background to conflict

Fiat-GM Powertrain, located in the city of Bielsko-Biała in southern Poland, is a joint venture between the two automotive groups – Fiat and General Motors. Today t he company employs nearly 1,400 persons and is mainly involved in the production of engines.

Over the past year, tensions have been rising between management and trade unions at the Fiat-GM Powertrain plant. In early 2006, a conflict arose over the issue of more flexible working time, and the company was criticised for its intention to treat Saturday as a normal working day for the purposes of calculating wages (PL0603039I); in the end, this idea was abandoned.

Tensions at Fiat-GM Powertrain flared up again in October 2006, culminating in the unions picketing at the main gate of the Bielsko-Biała factory. Central to the employees’ demands was the call to increase the minimum monthly gross wage guaranteed at the plant to PLN 1,700 (about €440 as at 26 March 2007). Moreover, employees called for the introduction of concrete rules concerning pay and seniority, and the drawing up of a collective labour agreement. During the protest action in October, Marcin Tyrna, Chair of the regional unit of Podbeskidzie affiliated to the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity, (Niezależny Samorzadny Związek Zawodowy ‘Solidarność’, NSZZ Solidarność), stated that as large industrial operations such as Fiat owe their vast profits, at least partly, to the commitment and hard work of their employees, accordingly, the employees should be afforded the opportunity to partake in these profits.

Employee dismissals

On 5 February 2007, tensions further escalated when NSZZ Solidarność announced its intention to strike, as a result of divergent views on remuneration and in relation to the dismissal of four employees.

NSZZ Solidarność had been calling for pay increases for the youngest employees, who earn the lowest wages in the plant of approximately PLN 1,200 gross (about €310) a month. The union’s position in this regard has proved to be an effective recruitment tool, encouraging many of the younger workers to join the organisation, including 31 new members from 1 February 2007. However, on 2 February, four of the young workers who had just joined NSZZ Solidarność were served with termination notices half an hour before the end of their shift, with no reasons given for their dismissal. The four employees were granted exemption from the obligation to continue working during their period of notice, and their locker keys and passes authorising them to enter the factory were removed. Moreover, NSZZ Solidarność claims that the four dismissed employees had to walk across the entire production floor with their termination notices in hand, interpreting this as an attempt to apply psychological pressure on the rest of the workforce.

However, on 8 February, the four employees in question were reinstated in their jobs, although it remains unclear whether this situation will remain permanent, or if it was only for the duration of their notice period, that is, until the end of February. The head of NSZZ Solidarność at Fiat-GM Powertrain, Wanda Stróżyk, argues that the four employees were fired because they sought to motivate some of their colleagues to also join the union. Ms Stróżyk contends that this caused unease among the plant’s management, as several hundred people at the plant had already joined NSZZ Solidarność since it first put forward its pay demands.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for Fiat-GM Powertrain rejects the allegations that the employees were fired on account of their union activity, maintaining that the employer was not even aware that they were members of NSZZ Solidarność. The spokesman also offered assurances that Fiat-GM Powertrain respects all applicable laws and that the four employees were duly notified of the reasons for their dismissal, although the employer has exercised its legitimate right to keep these reasons confidential.

Commentary

It is difficult to determine which party has the upper hand in the current series of disputes at Fiat-GM Powertrain. NSZZ Solidarność certainly deserves credit for preventing the implementation of measures that might adversely affect employees at Fiat-GM Powertrain. A measure of the employer’s success, on the other hand, will depend on whether or not it will eventually succeed in concluding a collective labour agreement with its workforce; in the face of recurrent pickets and protest action, it is likely that the company’s management would welcome such a turn of events. The worst possible outcome would be if the current tensions persist, with unresolved grievances threatening to erupt in the future.

Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs

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