Social dialogue reaches critical juncture

Social dialogue in Poland has been problematic for many years and the social partners have been calling for change since 2005. In June 2013, unions suspended their participation in the Tripartite Commission in protest at government changes to the Labour Code without consultation. In September 2013, successful national protests led to a rise in public support for the unions. The social partners are now trying to agree on how a new social dialogue body might operate.

Background

Poland’s government has been accused of not being truly engaged in social dialogue. Because of this, for many years the social partners have been demanding more influence for the Tripartite Commission over the government’s social and economic policy.

These demands were made more frequently after 2005, when former Tripartite Commission Chair Jerzy Hausner stepped down and the right-wing coalition led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power.

During the PiS coalition’s rule, new Commission Chair Anna Kalata also represented the ‘Self-defence’ (Samoobrona) coalition party, and was only rarely able to persuade other ministers to take part in Commission meetings. In September 2006, she officially complained to the Prime Minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, that the then Minister of Finance, Zyta Gilowska, failed to attend meetings devoted to budget issues. Ministers were also disregarding deadlines for consulting social partners on draft legislation.

After the 2007 elections, when the Civic Platform Party (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) formed a coalition government, Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak of PSL became Chair of the Commission. Initially, the Commission was more active, negotiating partial compromises on issues such as the reform of early retirement schemes (PL0811019I), reform of Open Pension Funds (PL1102019I, PL1402019I) and establishing an anti-crisis package (PL0906019I). However, in 2010, during the debate over minimum wage levels for 2011 (PL1110019I), the first social dialogue crisis arose during the rule of the PO/PSL coalition (PL1202029I).

Initial social dialogue reform proposals

Since 2005, the social partners have been working on proposed amendments to the legislation that governs the activities of the Tripartite Commission.

The first draft was prepared in 2006 by the Business Centre Club (BCC) and an extended version was published in 2009. It proposed replacing the Senate with the Social and Economic Chamber. The aim would be to establish economic self-government to represent the interests of all Polish entrepreneurs, fund the Tripartite Commission directly from the national budget and make it independent of government by transferring its supervision from the Minister of Labour to the President.

Another set of draft proposals was prepared by the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) in 2006, listing 21 demands. These included the creation of a separate ministry for social dialogue, increased influence of the social partners in law-making, submission of annual reports on the condition of social dialogue to parliament, inclusion of the National Labour Inspectorate in the Tripartite Commission and handing over a part of the Labour Ministry’s budget to the social partners for management.

In 2010, a joint draft proposal was put forward by all the social partners based on the OPZZ and BCC drafts. The first demand of this joint proposal was ‘the right to submit directly to the Prime Minister a binding motion for initiating the legislative procedure to pass or to amend an act concerning labour law and collective labour law’. Although the draft act was drawn up by the Tripartite Commission’s Team for Social Dialogue, it has never been adopted by the Tripartite Commission.

Crisis in social dialogue

The current crisis in social dialogue began in the second half of 2010 (PL1202029I).

In December 2011, the temporary anti-crisis legislation expired, and with it the flexible working time arrangements that the government had introduced to help Polish companies cope with any drop in demand caused by the economic downturn.

At the end of 2011 the Ministry of Labour, with the Tripartite Commission and an informal group of experts, began work on proposals to introduce working time flexibility into the Labour Code. Although there was some agreement on a number of issues, no full agreement was reached between unions, the government and employers’ organisations. As a result, in December 2012 the Ministry of Labour drew up its own draft flexible working time legislation without consultation. On 13 June 2013, parliament adopted these amendments to the Labour Code and there was widespread union protest (PL1309019I).

On 26 June 2013, trade unions suspended their participation in the Tripartite Commission, its thematic teams, the Tripartite Sectoral Teams and the regional social dialogue commissions. They set two conditions for their return: withdrawal of the flexible working time amendments and the dismissal of the Minister of Labour. The government rejected these demands.

In July 2013, all representative trade unions convened meetings of their executive committees and established the Inter-union Protest Committee. This agreement ended an ideological conflict between ‘Solidarity’ (NSZZ Solidarność) and OPZZ which had made meetings between the executive committees of the two unions impossible. It was also agreed that the unions would not re-join the Tripartite Commission while its operating principles remained unchanged.

The national days of protest organised on 11–14 September 2013 (PL1310029I) were supported by more than 100,000 people. They were organised by the Inter-union Protest Committee and both right-wing and left-wing social movements were present, and only the political parties were excluded from taking part. For the first time since 1989, unions were perceived to be expressing the concerns of all Polish workers, not just their own members. The result was a rapid growth in public confidence in unions in the public opinion polls conducted by the Social Opinion Research Centre (in Polish, 292 KB PDF). In October 2013, 69% of those polled said they supported the protests and 59% said they believed trade unions represented their interests. It should be added, however, that only 15% thought that the protests would result in a change of government policy on labour issues.

Recent proposals for social dialogue reform

During these national protests, a conference was organised on 10 October 2013. Entitled Social dialogue: a new opening, representatives of the President’s Chancellery were invited to attend, but the government and employers’ organisations were not. The conference presented three union federations’ draft proposals for changes to the operation of the Tripartite Commission.

The Trade Union Forum (FZZ) presented a concept that was similar to the BCC’s 2009 proposals, whereas drafts submitted by the OPZZ and NSZZ Solidarność contained demands that would significantly increase social partners’ influence on labour law. The most radical was OPZZ’s suggestion that a Socio-Economic Committee should be established, sanctioned by the prime minister, that should be consulted on ‘drafts of legislation of great social and economic importance, prepared by the institutions representing the executive branch of power’.

Immediately after the conference, a trade union working group was set up to prepare a proposal for the establishment of a Social Dialogue Council. The proposal, completed within three weeks of the end of the conference, contained suggestions for far-reaching reforms of the political system. In the introduction, the authors quoted Article 20 of the Polish Constitution which states that the basis of the economic system of the Republic of Poland shall be ‘a social market economy, based on solidarity, dialogue and cooperation between social partners’.

The proposal demanded that the government should be obliged to consult and agree with the Social Dialogue Council any amendments to the Labour Code or any new legislation on labour matters covering issues such as workplace health and safety, employment, combating unemployment, measures to get people into work and unemployment benefits. It also demanded consultation on any changes to the law on trade unions, the law on employers’ organisations and the law on resolving collective disputes. The Social Dialogue Council should have significant influence on the law-making process in Poland, said the working party.

In effect, the document proposes changing the type of capitalism that governs the country in general. Referring to the Varieties of Capitalism by Peter Hall and David Soskice, the Social Dialogue Council proposal wants to see Polish capitalism move away from the liberal to the coordinated market economy model.

On 30 October 2013, the President of the Republic of Poland Bronisław Komorowski took steps to break the deadlock between the social partners. Inviting the heads of all representative social partners to meet him, the unions handed their proposals to the employers who promised to respond.

A further meeting took place on 12 December 2013, during which employers presented their initial opinion in writing. They said they accepted most of the organisational suggestions, supporting the tripartite nature of the proposed new Social Dialogue Council, but rejected the idea that it should exercise decisive influence in worker-related issues. The employers argued that this would violate the constitutional order and the separation of powers.

After the meeting, it was agreed that the employers would carry out a thorough analysis of the trade unions’ proposals and, at the end of February 2014, a debate would be organised between the leaders of all the social partners.

Commentary

If it were possible to agree on the principles of how the new tripartite body will operate, work could begin on a new legislation on social dialogue. However, the prevailing view is that no agreement will be reached, especially since 2014 is a major election year, with polls scheduled for local government, European Parliament and for the NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ governing bodies. Election time is not a good time to be making compromises.

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

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