Crisis of social dialogue

Social dialogue in Poland has been in crisis since July 2011. Following the elections in autumn 2011, new Prime Minister Donald Tusk decided not to appoint a Chair for the Tripartite Commission, and no meetings took place for several months. The government did not consult on matters such as retirement age reforms and signing of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. This resulted in massive protests and a decrease in the popularity of the Government.

Background

When the liberal Civil Platform (PO) won the parliamentary elections in 2007, trade unions feared the marginalisation of social dialogue. However, the coalition government – made up of PO and the peasant Polish People’s Party (PSL) – attached more importance to social dialogue than the previous government of Law and Justice (PiS).

During the coalition’s first term, between 2007 and 2011, there had been two significant achievements of social dialogue. In March 2009, bipartite negotiations between the social partners led to agreement on a draft ‘anti-crisis package’ which was partially implemented by the government (PL0909019I).

There were also successful negotiations on the reduction in the number of professions entitled to early retirement (PL0811019I). As a result, the government accepted a number of trade union proposals in exchange for union guarantees that they would not organise public protests against limiting workers’ privileges

However, at the end of the government’s term, there were some significant defeats for social dialogue. The most significant was over the minimum wage (PL1110019I). In 2010 Prime Minister Tusk refused to agree to a pay rise negotiated and agreed between the social partners, significantly undermining the trust of not only the trade unions but also some employers’ organisations.

Reforms without consultation

The last meeting of the executive committee of the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Issues (TC) was in July 2011, before the parliamentary elections in October 2011.

After the elections, the ruling PO–PSL coalition stayed in power (PL1112019I), and PO’s Donald Tusk and Waldemar Pawlak from PSL remained in the posts of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively.

In his policy address, the Prime Minister announced a number of reforms, including an increase in the retirement age, but there was no mention of social dialogue. The trade unions read that as a sign that the strong government would try to introduce difficult reforms without broad public consultation.

Following the elections, the government failed to appoint a Chair to the Tripartite Commission. Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak, the former Chair of the Tripartite Commission, had not agreed to resume his role, so no meetings were convened. The government delayed appointing a successor, despite pressure from social partners. It was even proposed that the Prime Minister himself should chair the Commission.

By February 2012, no meetings of the Tripartite Commission Executive Committee and no plenary session had taken place, though some meetings of the Committee Task Groups had taken place.

Wave of protests

In the meantime, the government had prepared and sent to the parliament the draft act on equalising the retirement age of men and women and on raising it to 67 by 2020 for men and by 2040 for women (PL1201019I).

That caused outrage among trade unions. At the end of 2011, the Solidarity union NSZZ Solidarność started a campaign to collect petition signatures demanding a referendum on the issue of changing the retirement age. By February 2012, the union had collected 1.4 million signatures. Nevertheless, the petition was rejected by the Sejm, Poland’s Lower Chamber of Parliament.

In January 2012, protests and mass demonstrations erupted against the signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) (169Kb PDF) by the government and against the lack of public consultation regarding this issue. The proposed agreement sought to curb piracy, but internet campaigners said it posed a threat to online freedoms. The scale of the demonstrations was greater than any seen elsewhere on the issue in Europe. Protests were organised in many cities across Poland with thousands turning out to demonstrate. The biggest demonstration was in Kraków where 15,000 protesters gathered. A huge wave of criticism was directed at the government and the Prime Minister personally.

The intended change of the retirement system and signing of the ACTA resulted in a significant decline of support for the government and the ruling PO party from 42% in October 2011 to 28%. Support for the biggest opposition party, PiS, stood at around 26%, according to polls carried out by market research company OBOP.

Government reaction

On 26 January 2012, the government appointed a new Chair of the Tripartite Commission, the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Władysław Kamysz-Kosiniak of PSL. On 10 February 2012, he held a meeting of the Commission’s Executive Committee in which Prime Minister Donald Tusk took part. It was only the second time the Prime Minister had attended a meeting of the Executive Committee since 2007.

During the meeting, the Prime Minister apologised for the delay in appointing a chair. He said important decisions would be discussed at the Tripartite Commission, emphasising, however, that the government did not intend to withdraw the draft of the pension system reform. He encouraged the social partners to support the government in its work, especially on the issues of the increased retirement age and deregulation of certain professions and occupations.

He also conceded that more time should be spent on talks and consultation. The social partners agreed that changes should be made to the retirement system, but said that did not necessarily mean raising the retirement age to 67.

A new phase of social dialogue had begun in Poland, although there remained problems and disagreements on the issue of retirement age.

On 11 May 2012, the Sejm adopted the act on increasing the retirement age. Some suggestions from the social partners and the PO’s coalition partner, PSL, had been taken into account. The draft act also introduced a partial pension for women aged 62 who had done paid work for 35 years, and for men aged 65 and with 40 years of work behind them. This partial pension would pay out 50% of the full pension until statutory retirement age was reached. The retirement age for uniformed services would rise to 55 for those with 25 years of service.

Social dialogue in the second half of 2012

The Prime Minister’s promises to intensify social dialogue were only partly fulfilled in 2012. The government did not engage in any debate on retirement age, even though pension system reform was discussed in two tripartite sector teams, the Team for the Brown Coal Mining Sector and the Team for Miners’ Social Security. The government also failed to address the issue of the minimum wage and of junk contracts – that is, contracts on which pension contributions are not paid.

That led to Solidarność, together with a Roman Catholic organisation Radio Maryja and PiS, organising a huge demonstration in Warsaw, on 29 September 2012 under the slogan ‘Poland, wake up!’. On 14 November 2012, the other two trade union confederations, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) and Forum ZZ, organised a picket in front of the Ministry of Labour.

However, from July 2012 onwards, discussions were held with the social partners on reform of the Labour Code to allow for flexible working time, extending the working time settlement period to one year and changing the representativeness principles. During the summer holidays, the debates were carried out informally. Their organiser was the Deputy Minister of Labour, Radosław Mleczko. The parties did not manage to reach a compromise but on the basis of those debates, in September 2012, the government prepared some initial proposals. Those proposals then became the subject of two formal debates within two Tripartite Commission teams – the Labour Law Team and the Social Dialogue Team.

In December, all the employers’ organisations prepared a joint position which, however, did not take into account the trade unions’ proposals. Though the trade unions did not agree on a common position, the proposals of all three organisations roughly coincided. In principle, trade unions agreed to more flexible working hours and the extension of the working time settlement period, although individual organisations differed in the detail.

The main demand of the trade unions, however, was that something should be offered by the government and the employers in return for the trade unions’ consent. The government undertook to prepare another draft of the changes and planned to submit it for debate in the Tripartite Commission’s teams in January 2013.

Juliusz Gardawski, Warsaw School of Economics, Institute of Public Affairs

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