Agreement on pay rises ends collective dispute at Opel Gliwice

In late November 2007, a lengthy collective dispute at the Opel plant of the General Motors group in Gliwice in southern Poland came to an end after the parties involved reached an agreement on pay increases, a financial bonus for employees, and regular permanent employment of some 350 temporary staff. This latest agreement concluded a series of disputes which took place at the plant during 2007.

Company profile

The Opel plant in Gliwice in the Upper Silesia region of southern Poland, which is part of the General Motors (GM) group, ranks among the largest automobile manufacturing plants in Poland, and it is also one of the major units of its parent company in Europe. GM’s Polish subsidiary was established in 1991, originally as Opel Polska; the production facilities in Gliwice launched operations in 1998, initially as an assembly plant, and gradually developed into a major manufacturing plant with an annual output of over 180,000 vehicles of the Opel brand and more than 3,200 staff on the payroll in 2006.

Trend in industrial action

For many years, as unemployment levels in Poland remained high, industrial action was rare in the country. Opel operations posed no exception to this trend, as subsidiaries of a major multinational company were regarded as an attractive employer offering decent wages, stable working conditions and opportunities for professional development. Moreover, the company maintained an open approach towards organised employee representation and came to be viewed as a channel through which modern industrial relations practices could disseminate across the country.

However, for the past three years, with rapidly improving labour market conditions, immigration flows in the direction of the ‘old EU’ Member States, and an increased feeling of confidence among employees, wage demands have continued to rise. It is not surprising, therefore, that this new climate in labour relations also started to affect the Gliwice plant.

Call for increased wages leads to dispute

Throughout 2007, the issue of pay increases remained on the agenda of the trade unions, which continuously forwarded wage demands to the management board at Opel. The first wave of negotiations took place in March 2007, when the trade unions submitted a list of 22 demands to the company board regarding issues such as pay increases, improvements in working conditions, and labour law observance. Subsequently, in late March, the Independent and Self-governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy ‘Solidarność’, NSZZ ‘Solidarność’) requested a monthly bonus of PLN 500 (about €139 as at 2 January 2007) to be introduced in May 2007 (PL0704039I); however, having received no response, the trade union decided to enter into a collective dispute with the company board. The negotiations which followed did not lead to any conclusive outcome, as the board rejected the request for a bonus and also for a monthly pay rise of PLN 450 (€125) from the beginning of 2008.

In April, the board put a new offer on the table: a bonus totalling PLN 1,500 (€418) to be paid to workers until the end of 2007 and a 6% cap for the prospective pay rise. The employee side was not satisfied with this proposal.

Unions request mediation procedures

Facing a deadlock in the negotiations, the trade unions asked for the commencement of mediation procedures and proposed Klaus Franz, the Chair of the company’s European Works Council, known as the European Employees’ Forum (EEF), to undertake this mission. Mediation began in May 2007 but eventually proved unsuccessful. In the next episode of the protracted dispute, the trade unions called for a warning strike, which took place on 28 May.

Initial agreement reached

The negotiations subsequently resumed, and in early June the parties reached agreement on both a bonus of PLN 2,500 (€698) to be paid over a two-month period and an extra paid five-minute break a day; it was also agreed that, in the case of each employee, pay would not fall below the level agreed in June 2007. Meanwhile, the trade unions clearly stated that the debate on pay increases in 2008 would continue in the autumn of 2007.

Further pay demands made

In September 2007, a new negotiating team composed of delegates representing the company board, all trade unions apart from NSZZ ‘Solidarność’, as well as the remaining two trade unions active at the Gliwice plant – the Free Trade Union ‘August 80’ (Wolny Związek Zawodowy ‘Sierpień 80’, WZZ Sierpień 80) and the autonomous Trade Union of Opel Polska Employees (Związek Zawodowy Pracowników Opel Polska) – the works council and the EEF launched a new round of pay negotiations. The trade unions presented a joint proposal, including demands for a monthly pay increase of PLN 1,000 (€279) and an increase in the rates of extra pay for night work and overtime. The list forwarded by the trade unions also reiterated demands for improvements in working conditions and labour law observance. The parties to the negotiations, however, once again proved incapable of reaching an agreement on the basic issue of pay rises: for instance, the board was willing to offer a monthly amount of PLN 400 (€111) while the employee side firmly stuck with its original target of PLN 1,000 (€279). Since the talks ended yet again in a stalemate, the employee side decided to re-enter into the collective dispute. In November, Sierpień 80 held a short rally in front of the board’s office. Later that month, a new mediator was named, from the list held by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (Ministerstwo Pracy i Polityki Społecznej, MPiPS). Thus, the talks resumed and finally, on 29 November, a new agreement was reached.

Provisions of new agreement

Under the new agreement, employees at the Opel plant will receive a PLN 500 (€139) rise in their monthly pay effective from 1 January 2008 and a financial bonus paid in two steps: PLN 800 (€222) in December 2007 and an additional PLN 400 (€111) in February 2008. Apart from financial matters, the agreement also resolves the issue of temporary agency workers at the plant. The company declared its intent to employ some 350 temporary workers on a permanent basis under two conditions: first, these staff members are expected to work for the agency for at least six months and, secondly, any such worker’s performance must be assessed favourably by his or her supervisors. Finally, the board announced that the proportion of temporary workers as a percentage of total employment would oscillate around 5% and that permanent job offers for temporary workers would become a regular company policy.

The head of NSZZ ‘Solidarność’ at Opel Gliwice, Sławomir Ciebiera, called it ‘a good agreement’. Moreover, he stated: ‘Had we not achieved it, the next step would be a strike referendum and, perhaps, finally a strike. No party would benefit from that.’

In early December 2007, the trade unions announced their intention to discuss the possibility of introducing a collective agreement in the company.

Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs

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