Sunday 20 January 2008

Three Labour Conflicts Highlight the State's Animosity Towards Workers

Currently there are many labour conflicts in Poland, including various forms of strikes and protest. Almost 20 years after Poland's transition to a market economy, labour unrest is still strongest in the budget sector and in state-owned companies.

THE STRIKE IN BUDRYK: Miners get the shaft as elite get wealthy
The mining industry in Poland is still a quite healthy business. Fuel prices are rising as is the global demand for coal. Budryk is one of the mines in Poland that was making a very healthy profit – until a labour dispute began costing the mine losses of about 1 million US dollars per day.

Budryk, at least on paper, wasn't always so profitable. Its former directors were implicated as being part of the infamous “coal mafia”. The coal mafia for years were diverting profits away from the state-owned mines by siphoning off proceeds to other companies which they controlled. Members of former governments from Solidarity, from the “leftist” SLD, as well as trade union leaders and mine directors have either been implicated or rumoured to be involved in not only the coal mafia but in shady privatizations. An investigation was made and mysteriously “lost”. More recently, a member of the SLD accused of taking bribes from the coal mafia died during a raid on her home. The special forces claimed she killed herself while the opposition claimed she was murdered. Such incidents show that the coal mafia is quite powerful and that there are powerful people involved in the cover-up.

The coal mafia was one of the reasons why some mines showed losses on paper even though the mines had good output and were selling their production at good prices. As members of the government and their business cronies were busy depleting the industry (and the State Treasury) of its wealth, other members of the government, spurred on by proponents of reform and privatization, were busy arguing that the mining sector was a drain on the state budget and that the people working in it were practically the equivalent of welfare seekers: people who were being supported by the good will of the state, a bunch of malcontent charity cases.

Budryk was built in the times when other mines were being liquidated. How could it be that politicians were arguing that mines are not necessary, were arguing that the industry needs to restructure and lay off thousands of workers but then decide that it needs to open a new mine? In one of capitalism's typical manipulations, they carried out restructuring, shutting down mines not because there was no demand for their product, but because they wanted to reorganize the workforce, to employ new people on less favourable conditions, to bust unions and to but pressure on workers.

Almost two and a half thousand people were employed to work in Budryk. Another two thousand or more work there, but aren't employed there. They're contract workers employed by other firms, often private companies which have shady deals with the mines.

Budryk is a profitable mine and the output there is very high. The average output per worker is twice the industry average. The wages at Budryk were the lowest in the industry. This is because Budryk is the youngest mine in Poland, formed during mining restructuring and was intentionally formed as a profit-making machine where production is high and wages are low.

Budryk was merged with a mining holding company - JSW. JSW is one of the companies slated for privatization and a profitable Budryk increased the value of the group. On the other hand, some claim that Budryk, with losses generated by labour conflicts, will help devalue JSW allowing some interests to buy it up at a fraction of its real worth.

On Dec. 17, after a larger one-day strike throughout the mining industry, several unions at Budryk decided to continue striking over pay issues. Budryk was to be merged with JSW at the beginning of the year and it turned out that worker in other JSW-controlled mines made up to 200 euros a month more than the miners at Budryk. The workers demanded that their wages immediately be raised to the same level.

The strike as been on ever since. Much of the mainstream media are against the strikers, as is typical of their class bias. The management, media and members of the government launched attacks against them, even calling them terrorists. They try to get workers against each other by claiming that the strikers are troublemakers, even ”anarchists” and by praising the people who just keep working and are “perfectly happy” with their wages. Solidarity did not support the strike and have played a role in criticizing the unions which are striking. Most scandalously, a long-time member of Solidarity and leading activist in ATTAC Poland called for the police to intervene and crush the strike.

The government has taken a hard, Thatcheresque line on this since the new government is made up of heartless proponents of stark pro-business policies. The Minister of the Economy Pawlak, head of the so-called Polish “People's” Party, is stearing JSW's negotiation strategy but claiming that the Ministry has “nothing to do with the issue”. The Ministry in fact oversees the state's interests in the mining sector and appoints the supervisory board of JSW. The Minister made no attempt to hide his contempt of the strikers, whom he refuses to speak with.

Currently, many of the strikers are occupying the mine 700 meters below ground. 27 people are on hunger strike. JSW has claimed that it can no longer afford to give the miners a raise... because it is lost so much money on the strike. The management of JSW has many times threatened to hold the leaders of the strike financially responsible for the losses of the company and have claimed that the strike is illegal.


The past two years has also been marked by teachers' protests over pay. On Jan. 18, over 12,000 teachers marched on Warsaw to demand pay increases.

Teachers in Poland can earn different salaries depending on a number of factors, but typical salaries range from 300-400 euros a month for experienced teachers. (Some teachers take home only about 220 euros a month.) Teachers' work in greatly undervalued, even in comparison to other employees in the state sector.

The Ministry of Education has been promising wage increases for a long time. Last year the government promised a seven-procent pay raise which was eventually revised down to 2%. The situation got complicated last year over political issues with the union ZNP calling for the removal of far-right Education Minister Giertych, who in turn took various measures to persecute members of ZNP for having left-wing leanings, including having them removed from many positions on responsibility within the school system. The mess with Giertych and the subsequent change of government meant that the raise issue was pushed aside and teachers had to return to work this fall with no meaningful raises.

The current government is offering a 55 euro a month wage increase, but the teachers want 3 times that much for junior teachers, and six times that much for senior teachers. They point out that the cost of living has increased so much in Poland that most people cannot get by on such salaries without taking a second job.

As the quality of public education plummets in Poland, the new government has already proposed a “solution” to the problem: tax vouchers for parents who want to send their kids to private schools.

ZNP has threatened to go on strike during exam period if they cannot reach a settlement with the government.


The doctors and nurses labour disputes are extremely complicated as they are often in the foreground of the movement towards privatization of health care services. The new government is a strong proponent of commercialization of health care and privatization, about to introduce new reforms which will eliminate many services and force more people to take out private health insurance policies.

I outline the problem of the workers' struggles in the context of privatization in another article.

For many doctors, the “solution” to their wage disputes have been to quit their jobs and to enter into private contracts with hospitals, sometimes as business entities. Often, their services must come at a premium to patients or are only available for paying patients of through private clinics. In some strange deal, the details of which are hidden to the public, the government claimed that the heads of the doctors' union have somehow agreed on a strike-free period during which apparently structural changes will be made to hospitals, including wage increases. Despite a triumphant press conference to that effect, some hospitals are still on strike. Recently, a few hospitals had to be “evacuated” that is all the patients had to be moved elsewhere to get care. In many hospitals, even the emergency rooms are closed now. There is no other word to describe the situation than chaos.

Among the issues at dispute is legislation about working hours. Poland transposed an EU directive on working hours which would mean that doctors are entitled to 11 hours rest period per day. When the new government came into power, they immediately claimed that doctors are entitled to no such thing and that the legislation is just “poorly worded”. The Ministry of Health and even the State Labour Inspectorate issued an interpretation of the law claiming that doctors are entitled to 11 hours rest after their duty, which may in fact last 24 hours. There have been two EU court rulings on exactly this matter which uphold the doctors' right to 11 hours rest per day, but this apparently does not concern the government which is looking to convince doctors that they should work all day and night.

Of course the law allows doctors to “opt out” of this right and voluntarily agree to work longer hours. The government has been actively encouraging doctors to waive their rights by issuing legal opinions stating that they don't really have that right anyway.

As part of the state-organized guilt trip against doctors, who are often made out as greedy murderers who let patients die, the government has been trying to get them to agree to longer working hours in exchange for salary increases. Many such schemes have offered doctors more take-home pay, but no increase in salary per hour. As the state pressure doctors to work 60, 80 or even more hours a week, the care available to patients has not been worth the obligatory insurance payments for a long time and all who can afford it have long ago taken out private insurance or turned to private health care providers. With this the case, the government then claims that people do it because they know that private health care is intrinsically better.

Amidst the growing chaos in the health care system, it turns out again that nurses have been treated like workers of lesser value. Tomorrow, Jan. 21, they'll walk out in protest for at least a few hours and are threatening to go on strike if they do not get a pay raise. They have threatened to go on strike.

Last year nurses set up a tent city in Warsaw for a month. They called off the action without having reached any agreement on their demands. The government claimed (and still claims) that there is “not enough money in the budget” for the nurses.
Despite “not having enough money” in the budget for the nurses, teachers, or any other useful workers, the parliamentarians gave themselves raises this year, as they did for most of their political buddies who got cushy posts in different ministries and state institutions.

The Minister of Education, Katarzyna Hall, takes a taxi from Warsaw to her home in Sopot and back every weekend and charges the state for it instead of taking the train. (It's a 4-5 hour drive – without traffic.)

The National Health Fund builds luxury offices for its bureaucrats, although the state wants to liquidate the fund.

The government decides that among the greatest investment opportunities for the country is building football stadiums for the EURO 2012 and that what Poland really needs is more F-16s and missiles so that they can build up the presence of the Polish army.

Way down on the list of state priorities, less important than lining their own pockets and bringing business opportunities for their buddies and campaign contributors, comes the fate of not only the teachers, doctors and nurses, but in fact of all public services, which is being increasingly treated as an annoying relict of communist ideology. Perhaps the only positive thing in this all is that the new government in Poland is too heartless to even pretend to give a damn, which surely will mobilize even more workers against them. That is, unless some of them get brainwashed by the media and certain unions that all of this privatization will eventually lead to their prosperity down that line and that the best thing to do is tighten ones belt instead of raising ones fist.

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