Thursday 19 June 2008

Protest and Wildcat Strike: Bus Drivers Angry but have no Effective Strategy for Struggle

The public transport system in Warsaw is controlled by ZTM, (the Municipal Transport Board) but various companies are contracted to operate Warsaw's buses. The largest company, MZA, is operated by the City of Warsaw but also several private operators run bus lines. These companies usually have won contracts through public tenders. One of these companies is PKS Grodzisk Mazowiecki (further PKS GM) which is a privatized "worker-run company". (Such companies in Poland usually are worker shareholder schemes, quite far from any idea of collective self-management by the workers.)

PKS Grodzisk Mazowiecki, like most other companies which pay shit wages, has trouble finding people to work and recruits people from impoverished areas of Poland and the Ukraine . In May, members of Union of Syndicalists (ZSP) heard about problems people were having in PKS GM from some of the Ukrainian drivers.

Drivers are expected to work very long hours, despite the fact that work time regulations clearly limit the hours a driver can work to 9 per day and require that they have two free days per week. However, it is not uncommon that the drivers were made to work 10, 12 and even up to 17 hours per day – without overtime pay. Many Ukrainian drivers worked 60-75 hours a week or even more. This is not only abusive, but extremely dangerous for both the workers and passengers; one bus driver fell asleep at the wheel in May and had a serious accident.

PKS GM also committed other infractions and abuses. Members of ZSP documented how drivers had money taken out of their wages (even up to almost 50% of their salaries) for going over "gas limits". The company set strict limits (which they often don't tell the drivers about) for how much gas should be used during a typical route. If a driver gets caught in one of Warsaw's notorious traffic jams and burns more fuel than the limit, this gets docked out of their salaries.

Other problems that workers had included that fact that PKS GM were holding workers' passports so that they couldn't leave and that the company was holding the drivers' licenses. Not to mention poor living conditions, etc.

On May 13, workers held a wildcat strike. Not all of them went on strike. Mostly it was the Ukrainian drivers, although a few Polish drivers supported the protest. We went to talk to the workers and see if there was anything we could do.

Basically, workers in this position have limited choices. They can take radical action, but then they should have a plan: storm the office of the company, make an action to get in the media, block the streets or the routes where scabs were driving, or some sort of radical direct action. Or they could go the legal route and
file suits against their employees. Unfortunately it turned out that many
of the Ukrainian workers were not convinced that anything they would do could help them.

It wasn't exactly true. Some pressure was put on PKS GM. A few articles got into even the mainstream news, we also gathered evidence of the firm's violations, sent them to the appropriate authorities, sent them out to the city, politicians, the transit board, etc. so that should the workers want to pursue legal action, the documentation would be there in Polish. Had the workers decided to organize themselves and take action, whether direct action or legal action, they would be in a good position to stop the abuse.

On May 15, Zenon Marek, the head of PKS GM came to the depot and gave out envelops filled with cash to the striking bus drivers. Of course this was done without any receipts or calculation as to how much was really owed to people. But it was enough to calm down some people, unfortunately. Additionally, drivers were given a 10-day vacation to go back to Ukraine. Ostensibly, this rest was to make up for being overworked, but in reality it was just another strike-breaking technique. Unfortunately there wasn't much we could do to convince people that they need to stay and fight at that moment so we agreed to meet in June.

The bus drivers we knew are no longer working for PKS GM. There was conflicting information as to whether they just quit or whether they were not allowed back. We were getting different information from people we spoke to. Disturbingly, it seems that rumours were being spread about the Ukrainian bus drivers. One Polish driver told us the problem with the gas was that the Ukrainians had been stealing it; it isn't clear whether the source of the rumour is the boss or whether some Polish drivers started it, but apparently new Polish drivers hear that explanation for the labour problems. Some workers seemed very scared to talk to us. Others told us different stories: that the payments were made correctly this month, or that they had illegal deductions made. We are still trying to work out this conflicting information but it seems now that the company is selectively abusing the workers and that the new guys, the ones just recruited, with no knowledge of Polish, with their passports confiscated, are the ones most likely to have their rights abused.

At the same time, workers in the other bus companies are also dissatisfied, but the workers and unions have not decided to try to get together and cooperate. In fact, the workers in the different bus companies more or less defacto compete against each other. This is especially true since contracts with the city awarded by public tender usually go to the lowest bidder, so in giving this work this way, ZTM is encouraging bad labour practices since these firms offer low prices by overworking people and paying bad wages.

The City Council had allocated money for bus drivers from MZA to get wage increases, but the management of MZA instead decided that this money would be turned into an efficiency bonus. Last year drivers had threatened to strike unless they received more money. This year, some unionists organized a protest on June 5th demanding better working conditions but it was not a grassroots action organized or attended by the workers - instead it was a union action mostly attended by union funtionaries, even from other cities.

Of course the workers of MZA need to be more pro-active and not leave this struggle up to union leaders. MZA has already started hiring bus drivers from Belarus as "an experiment". Rather than improving working conditions so that Polish drivers will consider working in Poland, instead of Ireland, it's more convenient to find some people who have lower expectations - and who better than workers trying to escape the misery of Lukashenko's regime.

A sad thing may also be that some Polish workers may feel resentment towards these workers or may be inclined against them. Apparently some drivers in PKS GM were eager to believe in stereotypes about "crooks from the East" and the bosses used this against the workers. By no fault of their own, these workers are used as pawns by the bosses against other workers who are fighting for better conditions.

Managers from MZA also openly spoke about why they started to hire women bus drivers: they were more likely to do their work, not make trouble, and to stay on the job than men. Of 3000 bus drivers from MZA, only a couple of dozen are women.

Although salaries in MZA differ, most drivers start out at less than 400 euros a month. In Warsaw, this is not a living wage. You can only survive frugally on such wages if you have very cheap housing and are not paying commerical rent, just common charges. If you agree to live like the Ukrainian bus drivers at PKS Grodzisk - 4 people to a 10 sq. meter room on bunk beds in barracks built from containers - then you can even manage to save something from this kind of salary.

All of the workers have got to get together in common struggle for decent wages but for now, they are divided, passive and not resolute, Direct action, with the support of passengers, who also have everything to gain from the overthrow of the elites and bosses who control the transport board, is clearly the way forward for the drivers.

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