Union protests against allegedly unfair dismissals at Officina Labor

A number of workers who joined the newly established branch of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity at Officina Labor were dismissed in September 2009. The decision was met with strong trade union opposition, which included a demonstration in front of the company’s head office in October. However, the company insists that the decision to dismiss the employees was not connected to their membership of the new trade union structure.

Background to conflict

The company Officina Labor Sp. z o.o. is a subsidiary of Torfarm S.A., which is mainly active in the area of pharmaceutical distribution. Based in Rzgów, a town in Łódź in central Poland, the company employs almost 400 people. Like many other players in the market, Officina Labor was affected by the economic crisis in 2009. The company’s deterioration was also felt by the employees, who no longer received extra pay for weekend work – instead, they were compensated through extra days off for work on Saturdays and Sundays.

The feeling of insecurity and restlessness among employees was compounded by a workplace accident which occurred in August 2009, when four employees suffered hydrogen peroxide burns. As a result of this incident, in September 2009 a number of Officina Labor workers decided to take action to protect employees’ interests regarding health and safety at the company by registering an in-house trade union organisation. Steps in this regard were taken in consultation with the Łódź branch of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność), which duly registered an in-house commission at Officina Labor and notified the corporate headquarters in Toruń in northern Poland of this development.

However, the company’s management board allegedly reacted by dismissing the trade union chair and, subsequently, a number of other employees who had joined the newly established branch of NSZZ Solidarność at Officina Labor. A total of eight trade union members lost their jobs in this way.

Trade union demonstration

The trade union members dismissed from Officina Labor filed statements with the District Court in Pabianice in central Poland, demanding that their jobs be restored and arguing that Officina Labor had fired them due to their trade union membership – which is an illegal practice in Poland. Pending a court ruling on this matter, trade union activists around the country decided to hold a demonstration in a gesture of solidarity for their colleagues in Rzgów. The demonstration took place in front of the headquarters of Torfarm SA in Toruń, Officina Labor’s parent company, on 27 October 2009. Over 1,000 trade union members participated in the demonstration, among them the Chair of NSZZ Solidarność, Janusz Śniadek. The protest lasted for about two hours – in the course of which the demonstrators submitted a letter demanding the reinstatement of the eight Officina Labor employees to the company’s spokeswoman, as well as throwing stones, eggs and firecrackers at the Torfarm buildings.

Management rejects unfair dismissal claim

Commenting on the events, the company’s management board released a statement in which it pointed out that the eight employees in question had received their notice of termination on 15 and 17 September 2009, while news of the establishment of the new trade union branch at the company was not communicated to the board until 21 September. Thus, the company argued that the employees’ dismissal from the Officina Labor workforce could not have been connected with the establishment of a new trade union structure. In this context, the management board also cited its history of good cooperation with other trade union organisations active within Torfarm SA.

Commentary

According to a statement issued on 16 December 2009, the termination notices for the eight Officina Labor employees, who also happened to be involved in the running of the new branch of NSZZ Solidarność at the company, were issued before information about the new trade union structure was sent to the management board. However, the court ruled that the former workers could insist on compensation on grounds of discrimination. Nevertheless, other pressing issues also remain – including the potential impact of the economic difficulties being faced by Officina Labor on its occupational health and safety practices, as evidenced by the industrial accident in August. Moreover, levels of frustration seem to be increasing among the company’s employees, as reflected by the anger of some participants in the October demonstration which was regrettably vented through violence.

Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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