The development of the national Tripartite Commission

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Poland's Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Issues was established as a forum for national social dialogue in 1994, under a 'State Enterprise Pact' involving the government and trade unions. Initially, the weakness of the employers’ representation (especially of the private sector employers) and conflict between the NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ trade unions were major obstacles to the work of the Tripartite Commission. This conflict and the involvement of the trade unions in direct political activity hampered the work of the Commission for some years. However, since 2001 the present left-wing coalition government has introduced new legal regulations and revitalised the Commission. Despite some problems, the body is now functioning relatively well.

The programme of introducing market rules into the Polish economy and stabilising the country’s economic situation – known as the 'Balcerowicz plan'– was initiated directly after the transformation of the political system in 1989, and its measures were implemented in 1990. After the first half of 1990, protests and social tensions emerged, forcing the government to create procedures to regulate collective labour disputes. In May 1991, three Acts were passed by the Polish parliament concerning trade union organisations, employers’ organisations and the settlement of collective labour disputes. An important idea behind these Acts was to regulate labour relations in such a way that the government would no longer be a party to them, shifting the responsibility to the boards of enterprises. In line with this approach, the government initially tried to avoid taking part in negotiations with trade union organisations and strike committees. Given that it remained the employer in the state-run sector, however, it was forced to intervene directly in labour conflicts.

As a result, the idea that it was necessary to establish a 'social pact' in Poland became increasingly common. The concept gained currency halfway through 1992, when there was a strong wave of spontaneous protests by the employees of large, usually state-run enterprises. The government proposed that a series of partial social pacts should be concluded, including a pact concerning the transformation of state-run enterprises. Initially, the trade unions were sceptical about this proposal. They reacted thus under the pressure of strikes – which they usually did not organise but only joined later on – and they were afraid that their acceptance of the government’s proposals might be perceived as an effort to distance themselves from the protests.

A proposal for a 'State Enterprise Pact' was presented by Jacek Kuroń, the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, in 1993. The creation of a Tripartite Commission (Komisja Trójstronna), including representatives of the trade union organisations, the employers and the government, was a very important part of the plan. The Commission was to assess economic mechanisms and present its opinions and resolutions concerning remuneration and employment policies in the public sector, social services policy, pay policy instruments etc. The State Enterprise Pact was signed in February 1993. The government invited all registered national trade union organisations (including small ones) and the Confederation of Polish Employers (Konfederacja Pracodawców Polskich, KPP), which represented primarily the management of large state-run enterprises, to the negotiations. As concerns the trade union organisations, the rivalry between the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) and the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) proved to be a major problem. Because NSZZ Solidarność refused to negotiate the State Enterprise Pact together with OPZZ , both the negotiations and the signing of the Pact had to be conducted separately with NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ and the remaining seven trade union organisations. Thus at the very start of the Tripartite Commission’s existence, the problems of the various unions in finding a common standpoint surfaced.

First period of Tripartite Commission’s activities (1994-2001)

In the initial period following the signing of the Pact, parliament was dissolved and the government departed from previous arrangements, leading to protests from NSZZ Solidarność which stopped the process of establishing the Tripartite Commission. The cabinet eventually resolved the conflict and in February 1994 it issued a resolution establishing the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Issues. The Commission included four representatives each from the government, the KPP employers' confederation, NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ , and one representative from each of the remaining seven trade union organisations. The Commission was to be a consultative body, and its decisions were to be non-binding guidelines for future actions.

According to analysts, the main problem with the Tripartite Commission at this stage was that it was not really representative, especially of private sector employers. The abovementioned cabinet resolution did not specify the representation criteria for an organisation to become a member of the Commission. A historical criterion was used – the signatories of the State Enterprise Pact were included in the Commission. As a result, as Professor Kazimierz Frieske has noted, the Tripartite Commission was not representative for three reasons: no representatives of local structures were present; the trade unions and employers’ organisations included in the Commission did not represent the full spectrum of employees’ and employers’ interests; and the trade union and employers’ representations within the Commission were unable effectively to influence the behaviour of the groups they represented.

Researchers studying the activities of the Tripartite Commission have, however, pointed out that, despite the fact that the Commission and its members could not force the government to do anything and that the group of social partners present was not representative enough, subsequent governments tried very hard to obtain the Commission’s acceptance of their decisions in order to give them social legitimacy.

Another important peculiarity of the Polish Tripartite Commission was the political involvement of its members, especially the trade union organisations. Professor Frieske, who studied the activities of the Commission at the end of the 1990s and sat in on its sessions, claims that at this time the unions remained the political base of both the governing coalition and its political opponents. Thus the Tripartite Commission became an element of the political system; moreover, it was no longer tripartite but multipartite, with various interests being represented during its sessions and the trade unions not always acting in the interests of the employees. The negotiations took place in various configurations and, as a result, the Commission failed to activate – or rather activated to an insufficient degree – 'self-regulation' mechanisms between employers and trade unions. In the later years of the 1994-2001 period, the activities of the Tripartite Commission concentrated on political controversies surrounding the programme of institutional and structural reforms, such as the restructuring of the mining industry and reforms in the healthcare and pension systems.

Despite these numerous limitations, which often prevented the Tripartite Commission from becoming a forum where the interests of labour and capital could be reconciled, the Commission played an important role in shaping remuneration policy. Remuneration issues were one of the major subjects on which the activities of both the Commission and its task groups concentrated (in 1998, five of the 13 issues discussed by the Commission regarded pay problems). They were also one of the few issues on which all trade unions were able to cooperate, regardless of political divisions (especially in the first years of the Commission’s activity). Pay negotiations basically took place between two parties – the trade union organisations and the government – bypassing the employers’ representation. The role of the government was essentially limited to protecting the public finances from the pay demands voiced by the employees of civil budgetary agencies.

The role of the Tripartite Commission in shaping pay policy had its source in the parliamentary Act on determining the increase in average remuneration through negotiations, which was passed in December 1994 and came into force at the beginning of 1995. This act replaced the old system, which limited the pay increases in state-run enterprises. Since the passage of this Act, pay negotiations have taken place both at the central level and within specific enterprises. Talks concerning the planned increase in pay in the market sector for the subsequent year are conducted within the Tripartite Commission. The 1994 Act provided the Commission with the power to agree upon and determine the pay increase index. The reference point for the index is the inflation forecast included in the state budget law. If the trade union organisations and the government cannot agree, the government may overrule the unions, a right which has been exercised several times. The pay increase index is not binding, but rather serves as a guideline and reference point for enterprises employing over 50 persons.

Research conducted by Bogusław Urbaniak in 1997-8 yielded important information concerning the role of the Tripartite Commission in shaping pay policy. This research indicates that in 1995-7 pay increases in enterprises were 5% to 5.9% higher than proposed by the Tripartite Commission. Questionnaire surveys conducted among enterprise boards by the researcher showed that 39.3% of the enterprises surveyed did not take the Tripartite Commission index into account when determining employee remuneration and only 27.1% treated this index as the pay increase limit within the firm.

The most important problem, however, was that close connections between the trade union organisations and the political parties cast a shadow over the activities of the Tripartite Commission. The union organisation that was part of the governing coalition at any given moment did not take the opinions of the other trade unions in the Tripartite Commission into account. This induced the other unions to leave the Commission, making its work difficult or even impossible. NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ periodically shifted between the ruling coalition and the opposition, which periodically paralysed the activities of the Commission.

New situation from 2001 onwards

Two events that took place in 2001 significantly influenced the situation of the Tripartite Commission. The first was the termination of the trade unions’ active involvement in political issues, which raised hopes for their increased identification with the activities of the Commission. The second was a new Act on the Tripartite Commission.

Following the most recent parliamentary elections (September 2001), the trade union organisations no longer have representatives in parliament (there are 19 trade unionists from OPZZ who are members of parliament but they do not act as a separate group). Previously, the two major union organisations (NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ) had been convinced that in order to have a real influence on political issues, they had to participate directly in the work of parliament, constitute an important part of parliamentary coalitions or even head such coalitions (as NSZZ Solidarność did over 1997-2001). To achieve these objectives, it was claimed, numerous trade unionists had to become members of parliament. This method did not yield the expected results – it prevented neither the weakening of the trade unions (PL0208105F) nor the deterioration of the working conditions of employees. Before the 2001 elections, both NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ announced that they would change their methods of exerting influence on political issues. This naturally pushed the trade union organisations towards utilising the Tripartite Commission.

However, after the 2001 elections it appeared that the new left-wing coalition government had decided to follow what is regarded as the example of the UK Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and aimed to change the Labour Code, regardless of the protests voiced by the trade union representatives within the Tripartite Commission (PL0209107F). There are indications, nevertheless, that currently, after the leadership of NSZZ Solidarność changed in September 2002 (PL0210103N), there is a chance that the two trade union organisations might cooperate more closely within the Commission. The Commission deals with pay issues and many other problems, associated in particular with the restructuring of the economy.

In July 2001, parliament almost unanimously passed the new Act on the Tripartite Commission and regional (voivodeship) social dialogue commissions. This act, apart from institutionalising local dialogue, solved the problem of representation of the social partners. This raises hopes for a strengthening of the Commission’s position. The act states that two trade union organisations – NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ – are representative, and apart from that, 'national trade unions … having more than 300,000 members who are employees, constitute representative trade union organisations'. Both NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ meet this condition. In the case of the employers, the Act automatically considers KPP, which includes the managers of state-run enterprises, the Polish Confederation of Private Employers (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych, PKPP) and the Association of Polish Crafts (Związek Rzemiosła Polskiego) as representative (PL0209104F). Analogous to the conditions regarding trade unions, the Act considers employers’ organisations that consist of entities employing more than 300,000 employees to be representative and thus eligible for membership in the Tripartite Commission. The fact that another employers’ organisation, the Business Centre Club, and a newly formed trade union organisation are trying hard to become members of the Commission (they will have to show that they are representative in order to do so) is a testimony to its attractiveness.

Commentary

Despite the many imperfections of the Tripartite Commission and the fact that it is a consultative body, it is one of the crucial institutions supporting the social order through negotiation and one of the basic mechanisms of involving society in decisions over important social issues. Now it is facing new opportunities. If the trade unions adopt a common policy, are able to focus on pay issues, labour relations and the restructuring of various sectors of the economy, and negotiate in a professional and responsible way, they may strengthen the institutions of social dialogue and the Tripartite Commission. Now that the trade unions have left parliament and union leadership elections have taken place (in May 2002 in the case of OPZZ , and September in the case of NSZZ Solidarność), the opportunity to construct a common trade union platform in the Tripartite Commission will emerge. (Juliusz Gardawski, Warsaw School of Economics (Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH) and Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP)

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