Poland: Tensions in coal-mining escalate into major conflict

In January, tensions in the coal-mining industry, which had emerged in the fourth quarter of 2014, escalated into a major conflict verging on a nationwide general strike.

The conflict unfolded over two phases. The first phase was a dispute in Kompania Węglowa, a so-called state treasury company, which is a type of economic entity entirely controlled by the state. The dispute arose following an announcement in early January of the foreseen closures of four loss-generating mines operated by the company. In response, employees of the four mines launched a protest, held underground. Sectoral unions announced reactivation of the Inter-union Protest and Strike Committee, a body to coordinate protest action that had operated in 2013 during the previous wave of protests in coal mining. The protest occupied headlines, and alongside the government, the president of Poland become involved in the negotiations as a mediator.

The conflict intensified when the remaining 10 mines within Kompania Węglowa joined the protest. The wave of discontent spread outside the mines, and on 14 January in the city of Bytom (where one of the soon-to-be-closed companies is located) local inhabitants held a street protest in a gesture of solidarity with the protesting miners. Reportedly some 10,000 people participated in the demonstration. On 15 January, the miners from Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa (JSW) joined the action, followed the next day by employees of Katowicki Holding Węglowy (KHW). On 16 January, the parliament voted a special bill on restructuring in coal mining into law. Following adoption of the law, the miners in Kompania Węglowa ceased the protest.  

The second phase saw conflict erupt in JSW. On 21 January, the board of the JSW revoked the collective accords made in 2011, prior to the company’s debut on the stock market (JSW is listed in the Warsaw Stock Exchange, although the controlling stake of stock is still in the hands of the government), and in 2012. The collective accords guaranteed the employees a number of benefits, such as the right to a coal allowance, and pay increases. Most important, however, were the planned changes in working time organisation, which would result in introduction of a six-day working week, including Saturdays. The company-level unions responded with a strike ballot, held on 26 and 27 January; 98% of those voting (over 70% of staff) opted for a strike.

In the meantime, the JSW board terminated the employment of union leaders in the Budryk coal mine on disciplinary grounds, citing their participation in the protest held in solidarity with the Kompania Węglowa workers earlier that month as the reason. As the strike was launched, the union leaders presented a list of demands including a reversal of the decision on disciplinary dismissals of the Budryk union leaders, the resignation of the company’s board, and the reinstating the collective accords revoked on 21 January. The mediation procedure was then initiated.

On 3 February, the miners from Kompania Węglowa and Tauron Wydobycie organised a street protest in front of JSW headquarters to support their colleagues. The demonstration ended in riots, albeit on a small scale. On 6 February, the mediation procedure produced an agreement between the company board and the unions. Yet the protests did not end, as the unions continued the pressure for the JSW chairman's resignation. On 11 February, there was a road blockage in an attempt to increase the pressure. On 15 February, the chairman announced he would resign from the job, and the strike was subsequently suspended. The action of the JSW unions proved partially successful, as the chairman stepped down from the post, but at the same time, the board was able to enforce most of its intiatives aimed at improving the economic efficiency of operations.

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