Trade unions lead largest street protest in decades

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In mid-September, more than 100,000 Polish workers marched through Warsaw in the biggest demonstration seen in the capital city in recent decades. It was part of the ‘National Days of Protest’ campaign jointly organised by three national trade unions. This type of concerted action by major unions at national level is unprecedented in Poland and follows the unions’ decision to boycott the Tripartite Commission in protest at the current government’s approach to social dialogue.

From negotiation to the streets

Since 2011, the poor quality of social dialogue in Poland has led to clashes between the government and major trade unions on a number of subjects. They have disagreed on proposed reforms to the retirement age, the minimum wage, atypical employment and working time (PL1202029I).

Social dialogue began to deteriorate as the global financial crisis began to have a profound effect on the Polish economy in 2011 and 2012, and in March 2013 the Silesian region witnessed the first general strike held in the country for 30 years, supported by more than 85,000 workers (PL1304019I

In July 2013, the national representative trade unions decided to suspend their participation in the activities of the Tripartite Commission for Socio-Economic Affairs, a body which has been surrounded by controversy for some years. After the 2011 elections, the new government failed to appoint a new chair to the commission, and then introduced reforms without consulting the social partners through the commission in the usual way (PL1202029I).

Now social dialogue in Poland appears to have slipped into deep crisis. The unanimous decision by the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność), the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) and the Trade Unions Forum (FZZ) to abandon the national body which deals with formal national-level social dialogue was unprecedented. Their subsequent decision to form a joint Inter-union Protest and Strike Committee to steer the national campaign, under the slogan ‘Stop ignoring the people’, was also a radical departure from the fierce independence that has characterised the three unions’ approach to industrial relations and social dialogue in recent decades.

The major phase of the new joint campaign, called the ‘National Days of Protest’, was planned for 11 to 14 September, culminating in a massive demonstration in Warsaw.

National Days of Protest

From 11 to 13 September, all three trade unions held a series of events in Warsaw, including setting up a camp in front of the parliament to provide a forum for a series of debates on crucial social and economic issues, such as healthcare and industrial policy, involving independent experts. Six rallies were also held in front of various ministries followed by a demonstration in front of the parliament building. The unions issued a list of demands, which included:

  • amending national referendum law, so that any motion supported by at least 500,000 citizens would automatically trigger a referendum;
  • revoking the recently introduced amendments to the Labour Code on flexible working time (PL1309019I);
  • reverting to former retirement age thresholds (65 years for men, and 60 years for women) (PL1206019I; PL1201019I);
  • reinstating retirement privileges for workers who have ‘special’ working conditions;
  • legislation to curb the extent of ‘junk jobs’ (PL1111019I);
  • halting public school closures, moving responsibility for financing primary and secondary education from local to national government (PL1107019I), and increasing public expenditure on education and healthcare;
  • increasing income thresholds for social assistance eligibility;
  • support for enterprises that do not lay off staff despite economic difficulties;
  • raising the national minimum wage to 50% of the national average wage (PL1110019I);
  • introducing regulations on compensations for energy-intensive industrial operations.

Peaceful march

On the final day of the campaign, 14 September, each of the three unions organised three separate rallies to march from different locations in Warsaw and meet in the town centre. However, the powerful Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP), affiliated to OPZZ, did not join the demonstration.

The unions claimed that 200,000 people took part and the public authorities said only 70,000 attended. Media reports, however, have consistently reported that the number of protesters exceeded 100,000.

Protest organisers kept their distance from all the political parties, although the action was clearly anti-government in nature. The demonstration was well received by the public and triggered sympathetic comments in the mainstream media, which is usually quite hostile towards trade unions. The massive turn-out and the good organisation of the event (with only one minor incident, in which no one was injured) met with overall praise.

Next steps

While the march of 14 September was an undeniable success for the unions, the campaign’s overall outcome is still unclear, as the government has so far ignored the unions’ demands.

The Minister of Labour, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, has continued to invite the unions to attend Tripartite Commission sessions but they continue to refuse to rejoin. Meanwhile, social dialogue at the central level has become bipartite between government and employers, within the confines of the thematic teams of the Tripartite Commission.

Sectoral social dialogue also goes on, with all three unions taking part in, for example, the textile industry committee.

However, at the same time, employers as well as unions continue to talk of the need to reform tripartite social dialogue in Poland. The Business Centre Club set out a series of proposals in 2008 and has now revived them, and comments and suggestions from the Employers of Poland (Pracodawcy RP) have been circulating in the media.

Commentary

Trade unions have adopted a tougher line and proved they are capable of standing together for the first time in two decades. The large demonstration enhanced the unions’ image. They are now seen as organisations with capacity to mobilise mass support yet, at the same time, they are seen as responsible and not keen to provoke social unrest.

However, the unions now face a difficult choice. They can rejoin tripartite social dialogue and try to reform it from within; activate autonomous dialogue with the employers; or maintain their defiant anti-government attitude and escalate the confrontation.

Jan Czarzasty, Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) and Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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