Poland’s rising strike movement

The whole of Poland is paying attention to the strike of workers at the Solaris bus factory in Bolechowo, near Poznań. Additionally, in Białystok, workers at the Bison Company have begun a rolling strike; while workers at Pudliszki (a food-processing brand owned by the multinational Kraft Heinz) also issued a strike warning. Deteriorating living conditions are paving the way for the resurgence of the organised working-class movement in the country.

Last year saw the mobilisation of the public sector workers, accompanied by one of the most important events of the recent period: the victorious strike at the Paroc factory, which processes mineral wool insulation materials, in Trzemeszno. Increasingly unbearable working conditions are forcing the workers to take bolder action. Could we be seeing self-confidence finally returning among layers of the Polish proletariat?

The effects of capitalist restoration

Before dealing with recent events, it would be useful to provide some historical context.

After the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) collapsed, the resistance of Polish workers against the effects of capitalist restoration, which was undermining their living and conditions, suffered a temporary defeat. Nevertheless, they were only beaten following several waves of bitter struggle. When we account for the number of strikes, as well as the number of workers that participated in them, Poland saw the most extensive strike wave in the whole of Europe in the period 1989 to 1994, as a result of the shift from a centrally planned economy to capitalism.

The transition was overseen by Leszek Balcerowicz (in various capacities as then-minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister) who based his policies on the ideas of Jeffrey Sachs. The aim was to radically transform the whole economy. This was to be achieved through the rapid and wide scale privatisation of publicly owned companies, which were to be sold for pennies a piece. This was often referred to as “shock therapy”, on account of the fact that it ruined Polish industry and the economy, and public services and housing were dismantled. Enterprises were bought, went bankrupt, and were liquidated by western capitalists. The Polish economy was made dependent on the west and absorbed into the trade area of leading capitalist countries. Unemployment rose from negligible levels to 16 percent in 1993. To this day, some areas of the country still have not recovered.

The result was a multitude of strikes, peaking in 1992-93. At that time, the unions were still strong enough to organise them. Workers from the public sector, the formerly publicly owned companies, and the farmers demanded higher salaries, payment of the wages due to them, the introduction of tax relief, protective tariffs on Polish goods, and the protection of the state-owned companies.

The situation was such that the former Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), under the banner of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), won the 1993 elections. It went to show that, regardless of the disillusionment of the proletariat in the bureaucracy, the workers still hoped that the former nomenklatura would take a stand for them.

They were proven wrong. The bureaucracy made itself at home in this new capitalist reality. The SLD not only refused to side with the workers, but it actually pushed the transformation efforts even further. Subsequent strike waves in 1999-2000 (the period of Balcerowicz’s further neoliberalisation) and 2002-3 occured because of the country’s poor conditions: high unemployment combined with poor wages, as well as the anti-worker labour laws that the SLD government had passed. The strikers aimed at stopping these changes in the Labour Code, in order to safeguard workers' rights and restore their benefits.

The last wave of widespread protests occurred between 2007-8 and involved mostly public sector workers in healthcare and education. The gradual dismantling of the organised workers’ movement conducted by the liberals, hand-in-hand with the former PRL elites, created ideal conditions for destroying labour rights, which were replaced with the cult of capitalist ‘free enterprise’.

The crisis of capitalism in Poland

Over the past decade or so, strike action has been a rarity in Poland. According to the 2016 report of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), Polish workers were the least likely to go on strike compared to the rest of the continent. This was the case at least up until 2019, which witnessed the countrywide teachers’ strike, followed by the strikes in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis and government incompetence. More and more workers in the public sector took the decision to go on strike.

The crisis of capitalism, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in a renaissance of the workers’ movement. In 2021, it may have seemed to a superficial observer that Poland had handled the pandemic crisis well. Massive handouts to private firms combined with the flexibility of the labour market and the Polish economy resulted in a certain degree of growth. Nevertheless, the Polish state couldn’t contain the advancing pandemic, and we have seen the worst health crisis in decades. The reason is clear: Poland has experienced three decades of budget cuts, in which the problems of the healthcare sector have been ignored, and the cost of all this has been shoved onto healthcare personnel.

A lack of proper staffing levels and of funding first led to strikes by medical first responders (June 2020), followed by other healthcare staff (September 2020), and the establishment of a national strike committee. The rest of the public sector faces similar conditions, and we have seen the Social Insurance Institution (ZUS), courthouses and workers of the prosecutor’s office likewise coming out on strike.

Trade unions regain strength

While the profits of the capitalists continue to rise, living conditions amongst the working class are deteriorating. This deterioration is being blamed on the crisis (or, as the liberal bourgeois opposition prefers – on the incompetent policies of the current government). It is no wonder the Polish proletariat has resumed the fight for better economic conditions. The rising cost of living is pushing workers to fight for better pay. The degree of unionisation is so low that a Polish wage-worker has few means at their disposal with which to fight. But regardless of that fact, militancy is on the rise.

paroc polska strajk Image Grzegorz Ilnicki strajk.euThe strike action taking place in the Trzemeszno mineral wool insulation plant was a real display of what the Polish proletariat is capable of / Image: Grzegorz Ilnicki, strajk.eu

The strike action taking place in the Trzemeszno mineral wool insulation plant (at the Paroc Polska company) was a real display of what the Polish proletariat is capable of. It was led by the two unions: OPZZ Konfederacja Pracy and Solidarność ‘80. It began on 6 August 2021, and halted the entire production process. Demands included the increase of seniority pay (to include every worker with at least five years of employment history), and the safeguarding of indefinite employment contracts. 20 percent of the 800 Paroc plant operators were employed on the basis of fee-for-term agreements. Thirdly, the workers demanded the introduction of a bonus of at least 250 PLN. The demands were supported by 97.5 percent of the workers, who had tried to negotiate with the boss for a month, but had been met with a refusal to talk. The workers responded with a two-hour warning strike.

Deterioration of working conditions began when the company was seized by the American Owens Corning enterprise. The American capitalists, even more ruthless than their European counterparts, cut costs while demanding more from the workers in order to maximise profits.

It is noteworthy that small unions like Konfederacja Pracy and Solidarność ‘80 were able to mobilise most of the Paroc Polska workforce, posing bold demands and leading the workers in multiple days of strike action. That is an extraordinary feat under the conditions in Poland.

After five days, the strike was victorious. Although negotiations dragged on, the demands were met thanks to the workers’ determination, who had rejected a worse offer by management earlier on. The strike was widely publicised, a fact that may also have helped pile additional pressure on the owners. But without a doubt, the victory restored faith and a sense of self-confidence in union members across Poland, who have since drawn on this experience in further clashes with the capitalist class.

The Solaris strike

It wasn’t long before another important struggle broke out. On 24 January, a (still-ongoing) strike erupted at the Solaris Bus & Coach company in Bolechowo. Two unions are involved: the OPZZ Konfederacja Pracy and Solidarność. The majority of workers were in favour of strike action, and once it began, 90 percent of the workforce came out. The remaining 10 percent of these are migrant workers, who simply cannot take part because of the nature of their employment contracts.

The strike has raised the demand for a 800 PLN pay rise for every worker. Negotiations have been ongoing for four months now and show no sign of resolution, despite the unions having lowered their demands on more than one occasion. Although Solaris is racking up big profits, the company has refused to meet any of the workers’ demands. Instead, they have implemented a pathetic 5 percent rise, effective from 14 January. For the capitalists, this is the end of the story, but the workers are furious.

solaris strike Image Czerwony FrontCzerwony Front activists with striking workers at the Solaris Factory / Image: Czerwony Front

The management has claimed that the strike action will have a negative effect on the company’s operations, and that it could jeopardise the stability of the workers’ employment. In short, they have attempted to blackmail the workers into accepting the bosses’ terms. Such an approach implies that workers can expect to face layoffs, or for their jobs to be relegated to ‘junk contracts’ (i.e. contracts that violate the proper labour laws) if the bosses are allowed to get their way.

During a visit by members of Czerwony Front to the striking workers’ picket line, Wojciech Jasiński, the chairman of the OPZZ Konfederacja Pracy, explained that spiralling inflation and the consequent rise in the cost of living is the cause of the strike. The company could clearly afford the raise, but the management board are resisting doing so because they want to deal a blow against what they see as the “demanding trade unionists”.

Jasiński explained that the success of the strike in Trzemeszno was a positive inspiration for the strikers, who have learnt from that experience. Morale among the crew is high, and they are adamant to continue the fight until their demands are met.

Strike in Białystok

In Białystok, at the other end of Poland, in the Podlaskie Province, on 24 January, an all-out, rolling strike began at Bison. The strike covered the following plants: Bison S.A., Bison-Bial, Bison Nowe Technologie and Odlewnia Białystok, which employ over 400 people in production, including operators of lathe chucks, cylinders and milling devices. The strike is being organised by Solidarność 80, OPZZ and NSZZ “Solidarność”, and the ballot saw 90 percent of workers support the strike action, with the entire workforce participating from day one!

Workers are demanding a 600 PLN gross pay increase for each employee. The situation in the plants is so dire that most of the employees, even those with over 40 years of work experience, earn just above the national minimum wage. Here too, negotiations lasted many months and did not bring any results. The management board's proposal included a 6.5 percent increase. Taking into account the difficult working conditions, this proposal was an insult. Moreover, the bosses withdrew from a 2018 agreement regarding awards for service and severance pay for retirement.

The strike did not attract much media attention. The management is attempting to ignore the strikers, with the plant owners refusing to even talk to journalists. On 27 January, the capitalists announced their intention to liquidate one of their subordinate companies, which would make 45 workers unemployed. This is a transparent attempt to suppress the strike. Despite these threats, morale in the plant remains high – everyone intends to fight to the end.

What awaits us in the future?

In addition to the strikes described above, Avon employees took steps towards winning better wages, and issued a statement regarding poor working conditions. They demand a 15 percent raise for the worst-paid operators, and 10 percent for the rest, and redress of so-called ‘productivity standards’ that are beyond human capacity. The strike is organised by the OZZ “Inicjatywa Pracownicza”.

The employees of the Polregio railway company and the Pudliszki food plant, owned by Kraft Heinz, are also considering a strike for higher pay. At the end of 2021, employees of the Polish branch of the international automotive company, Cooper Standard Automotive in Myślenice, also protested attempts to lay off 25 employees on the pretext of supposed ‘losses’, which were actually just profits that weren’t as large as expected.

mBank Image ikonowicz facebookA recent survey shows that 46 percent of Poles have a positive attitude to trade union activity, an increase of 10 percentage points since two years earlier / Image: ikonowicz, facebook

There is no doubt that we are dealing with a turn in the situation: a lively strike movement led by trade unions that have been marginalised to date. The mood among workers seems to be militant, which is shown by the high support in the strike ballots. Participation in the strike action itself shows the determination of workers to fight for their rights. There is no doubt that the constantly deteriorating living conditions and rising prices will continue to stimulate labour struggles in the future. The experience gained by workers and the self-confidence of trade unions may result in much bolder strikes and greater determination to fight in other plants.

The trade union movement in Poland is still weak. According to CBOS (Centre for Public Opinion Research) data, trade union membership covers only 6 percent of the adult Poles, i.e. 13 percent of salaried workers. However, sympathy towards the unions is growing, and the same survey shows that 46 percent of Poles have a positive attitude to trade union activity. This is an increase of 10 percentage points since two years earlier.

The widespread repression suffered by trade unionists in workplaces remains a problem, and often constitutes a barrier to workers joining. For instance, at mBank, one of the largest banks in Poland, a worker was fired for trying to establish a trade union in the company. The prevalence of so-called ‘junk contracts’ are also a factor in weakening the unions. They prevent the formation of trade unions, as these can only be legally created by employees working under an employment contract.

The struggle is currently resurging primarily on the economic plane. However, these developments signal escalating antagonism between the working class and the capitalists. It is increasingly difficult for the bourgeoisie to keep the Polish proletariat in a passive, obedient state.

Unfortunately, the economic struggle does not always provide universal concessions for the proletariat: the rights won are typically limited only to improving the fate of workers in a specific workplace or sector. It is necessary to fight to change the entire system. Marxists support every reform that benefits workers, however small. Even the smallest victory in the field of economic struggle is worth winning, and furthermore helps raise the class consciousness of the proletariat by showing them their collective strength. However, in order to guarantee a decent existence for workers in the whole of Poland, now and in the future, the fight for higher wages must develop into a fight to overthrow capitalism. The awakening class consciousness of the Polish workers is vital. In the course of these struggles, the working class will become increasingly aware of its shared interests and of its power as a class. As the sickness of capitalism becomes clear, wider and wider layers will strive towards a socialist alternative. The workers’ organisations must generalise their separate battles with the bosses, draw all layers of the working class into the fray, and take up political demands for the democratic control of the economy for the betterment of all, rather than the enrichment of a parasitic few.

In order to accelerate this process, it is necessary to educate the proletarian vanguard: the bravest and most conscious members of the working class. That is why it is paramount to build an organisation based on Marxist theory, with roots among the working class. Reformist leftist organisations restrict themselves to purely economic struggle. Our goal as a Marxist organisation is to build a force capable of transforming the economic struggle into a political struggle. Only by directing the proletariat to the ground of the political struggle can we win!

The striking workers of the Solaris factory will not receive remuneration for the duration of the strike. They therefore need support! By making a payment here, you can help maintain the strike! The money collected will go directly to the workers on strike.

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