Regional railway workers go on strike over pay

In August 2011, trade unions in the Polish regional railway passenger transport company PKP PR announced a one-day strike, following a stalemate in pay talks with management and the unequivocal result of a strike referendum. The strike proved an effective means of pressure, as the company board eventually agreed to the unions’ demands. However, industrial relations in PKP PR remain tense, as the firm’s financial crisis deepens and it battles to keep its regional services.

Background

Regional Railways (PR) company was established in 2001, initially as PKP PR, to indicate its origins in the former monopoly Polish State Railways (PKP). PR assumed responsibility for local and regional passenger transport but also launched a special type of national, inter-regional train service. Consequently, PR has become the largest passenger railway operator in Poland, with roughly 300,000 customers daily using approximately 2,700 trains. As of 2011, PR has nearly 13,000 employees.

In 2009 the company’s ownership was transferred from the State Treasury to local government at the regional (voivodship) level. That change proved critical for the company, as the responsibility for financing it was split among 16 independent authorities, all of them relying on central government support. As a result, the company constantly lost money, which not only led to wage cuts but also triggered job losses in 2010 and 2011. The rail sector at national level has also experienced financial difficulties and restructuring (PL1102029I). The trade unions, determined to improve pay conditions for PR staff and to discuss ways of reducing redundancies, officially requested an increase of the basic monthly pay by PLN 200 gross (€46 as of 22 September) in January. Negotiations were set to begin in March. In May 2011, the unions decided to enter into a collective dispute with the company and to increase their pay demand to an average of PLN 280 gross (€64).

Overwhelming majority back strike call

With the stalemate in the negotiations continuing and redundancies announced by regional branches (in Silesia a total of 150 jobs were to be cut), the unions decided to launch a two-hour warning strike in early July to indicate their determination. Despite the action, the company’s position in the talks remained firm. A strike referendum was then held between July 11–15, in which over 70% of PKP PR staff voted. An overwhelming majority of them (98%) supported strike action, with the result that unions announced a one-day stoppage on 17 August. A 48-hour strike was also announced for the following week (on August 24) should the company continue to refuse union demands.

The strike caused a serious disturbance nationally for hundreds of thousands of commuters. The government, fearing the conflict would escalate, urged the company board to accept the unions’ wage demands. On 24 August, representatives of the board and company-level unions signed an agreement and the second strike was suspended. A company statement said wages would be raised by an average of PLN 120 monthly (€27) backdated from 1 August, and to be increased by PLN 130 (€30) as of 1 January 2012.

Views of the unions and employer

The unions appear satisfied with their pay increase, and with the respect this has brought them from their members. The ruling coalition parties in government, especially the biggest, Civic Platform (PO) also appear satisfied, having prevented a serious industrial conflict from escalating and possibly damaging their chances in the October parliamentary elections.

Nevertheless, PR feels its financial woes will worsen because of the planned wage increases. It is also concerned about the tendency among regional government authorities to establish their own regional operators to replace PR. So far there is only one regional passenger railways operator not related to PR – the Mazovian Railways (KM). This company’s performance has been moderately successful, so its example may serve as a benchmark for other voivodships.

However, representatives of trade unions, regional authorities and central government are aware of the problems faced by PR, and have agreed to call a ‘railways summit’ by mid-September, in order to discuss the future of regional passenger railways.

Commentary

In spite of the effective pressure over wages imposed by the unions, their success may prove to be short-lived, as the future of PR in its current form appears rather bleak. Regional governments seem increasingly uninterested in maintaining their involvement with PR on current terms, which is indicated by their initiative to launch local operators, independent from PR. A parallel existence of PR and local operators is out of the question. It remains to be seen whether social partners and representatives of government at the central and regional level are able to come up with a viable solution to the crisis. Otherwise, industrial conflict is likely to continue.

Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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