Eventful year for major trade unions

Last year was an eventful year for Poland’s main trade unions. All three of the big unions held national congresses and both the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ and the Trade Unions Forum elected new chairs. While no significant shifts in policy have been noted, it is clear that the unions are trying to distance themselves from party politics. Reshuffles at the top of the hierarchy may indicate internal changes to come.

Background

Trade unions in Poland are still the largest voluntary organisations in the country, yet they enjoy only a moderate degree of influence on everyday labour relations. The unionisation rate is low, and so is collective bargaining coverage.

The fall in membership numbers has been somewhat compensated by the involvement of major unions in tripartite institutions at national, regional and sectoral levels. Furthermore, research suggests that over the past few years the de-unionisation process seems to have slowed down: since 2006, roughly 15% of employees claim to be union members each year.

There are still some crucial issues to be resolved, for instance the challenge of effectively reaching workers in the private sector and attracting younger people to the organised labour movement.

Trade Unions Forum

The youngest nationwide confederation, the Trade Unions Forum (FZZ), called its national congress in mid-May 2010. As expected, Chair Wiesław Siewierski did not stand for re-election after serving two consecutive terms in office.

His decision was widely believed to be a result of the exit of his parent union, the National Trade Union of the Heating Industry (KZZC), from FZZ in 2007. Tadeusz Chwałka of the Trade Unions Alliance ‘Kadra’ (Kadra), a former deputy chair, emerged as his successor.

Judging by the content of resolutions adopted at the congress, no significant shifts in the current policy line should be expected. FZZ is likely to retain its profile of a confederation confined to the public sector.

All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions

In late May 2010, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) held its national congress. After amending its statute in 2009, only the chair and the board were to be elected by all delegates, while the deputy chair would be appointed by the board.

The delegates opted to retain the confederation’s current policy line, which was clearly indicated by the election results: Jan Guz was elected to continue as Chair of OPZZ for the next four years, as were two Deputy Chairs, Wiesława Taranowska and Andrzej Radzikowski.

As expected, the new rules for appointing the deputy chair stirred some controversy, as the board could not reach consensus on who to select as the third deputy, whose position remained vacant as a result. As for the programme, it appears politically neutral, albeit with leftist inclinations.

Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’

The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (NSZZ Solidarność) held two national congresses in 2010. The first one, organised in August, was held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the August Agreement between the independent trade union movement and the communist government in Gdańsk.

At the second congress, held in October, new authorities were elected. The current Chair, Janusz Śniadek, in office since 2002, was expected to secure re-election. However, his contender Piotr Duda emerged as a winner, beating his opponent by a slight margin of 27 votes (of the total 305).

Although his victory came as a surprise, Mr Duda had long been one of the most influential leaders of Solidarity, being chair of the largest (in terms of membership) territorial unit, the Silesian Region, with about 110,000 members. He had been thought of as a candidate as early as 2002, yet he had declined to enter the race, citing his inexperience as the main reason.

Eight years later, however, Mr Duda did not hesitate to run for the office and delivered a strong message to the congress, stating his willingness to decisively break the union from party politics and focus on defending labour interests. In his acceptance speech, the new Chair also revealed the desire to improve Solidarity’s public relations policy, so that the labour movement image could be enhanced.

Commentary

The two largest unions (Solidarity and OPZZ) appear determined to avoid forming close ties with particular political parties, against the tendency that often prevailed in the past, causing more harm than good to organised labour in the long run. Furthermore, the shift in the balance of power in 2010, resulting in the dominance of one political milieu, has thus far led to a growing disinterest from the government in tripartite social dialogue. The government’s lack of concern seems to be drawing all social partners (including employers) together. The unions are also eager to closely follow the debate within the European trade union movement.

Finally, new leaders have been elected in two cases. Whether this means that Polish trade unions are on the verge of key internal changes remains to be seen during the next four years.

Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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