100,000 on the streets of Poland: “Part-time jobs, full-time exploitation”

On Saturday 14 September over 100,000 people marched through Warsaw in a joint action called by Solidarity, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) and the Forum of Trade Unions. This was the culmination of four days of trade union demonstrations against the Donald Tusk government.

The main demands of the protests were on the issues of unemployment, the minimum wage, the retirement age and access to social benefits for those in need. The unions are demanding, along with changes to proposed legislation, the dismissal of Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz from his post as Minister of Labour. The size of this demonstration is far greater than has been seen in Poland for many years and is a reflection of the economic stagnation and falling standards of living that Polish workers have experienced over the past years.

The spark

The spark for the demonstrations last week were the proposed reforms to the labour code that allow for so-called “junk” contracts, which refer to temporary contracts designed for casual labour under which employment rights are severely limited. One demonstrator, Zdzislaw Urabanek, a 60 year old chemical factory worker and member of the Solidarity trade union said on Saturday, “I want an end to temporary contracts. Young people are only getting contracts for one, two, three months” and one of the placards being carried on the demonstration read “Part-time job, full-time exploitation!”  In response to these proposals the leaders of the three major unions voted to walk out of talks with the Minister of Labour and call for joint demonstrations against the government.

Economic troubles

This proposed reform has not come out of nowhere. Poland’s economy is stagnating. Although it was the only European country to officially avoid recession in 2009, its growth rate at present is an unimpressive 0.1%. According to staffing firm Randstad, 67% of Polish companies expect the economy to either stagnate or contract over the next six months and only 25% expect growth.

Meanwhile the Polish government’s tax revenues have fallen well below expectations, forcing the government to push through an amendment to the 2013 budget last Friday that allows for an increase of the budget deficit by PLN 16 billion (USD 5.07 billion) beyond what was originally expected.

Wider demands

As a result of these economic woes and in order to safeguard the profits of the Polish bourgeoisie, the ruling liberal party – Civic Platform (PO) – is being introducing cuts in public services and worsening working and living conditions for Polish workers. This attempt to introduce more “junk” contracts is just one reflection of this tendency. It is therefore not surprising that the demands of the protestors grew to be wider than simply an end to “junk” contracts. Marek Lewandowski, a spokesman for Solidarity, said “We want better pensions at the age of 65 as before, and not at the age of 67. We want better social policy and guarantees for employees.” Another major demand of the unions is the introduction of a law that will create a faster rate of increase for the minimum wage. 

But the unions have not stopped at economic demands. Tomasz Danielewicz, a nurse who travelled to Warsaw to take part in the demonstration, said “We have come to Warsaw to show a red card to the government”. Piotr Duda, the leader of Solidarity, said “We should start collecting signatures calling for the dissolution of parliament because the government are beyond coming up with anything new”, while Jan Guz, the leader of OPZZ told the demonstration “The government gets its last warning today. If it draws no conclusions, we will block the whole country, all roads and highways”. As a minimum requirement for the unions to come back to the negotiating table the leaders have demanded the dismissal of the Minister of Labour. As with all workers across Europe in the recent period, Polish workers are increasingly insistent on political change to solve their worsening economic position.

A political change to what?

The question Polish workers will be asking is: a political change to what? With 59% of Poles in favour of these protests, and only 31% against, it is clear that the majority can see that the PO offers no alternative to the economic problems and decline in living standards faced by ordinary workers. However, the main opposition party is the right-wing conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), whose economic policy is one of privatisation, nationalism and protectionism. But these policies would not change anything for Polish workers.

Meanwhile, what is supposed to be the biggest Left party – the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – is currently led by Leszek Miller whose time as Prime Minister of Poland from 2001-2005 saw increased privatisations and a strengthening of capitalism in Poland, despite the party’s roots in the communist Polish United Workers Party.

It is not simply the “bad” policies of the PO that are responsible for the grievances of the Polish workers – it is the direct result of the crisis of capitalism. Like the PO, the PiS is a bourgeois party, and a political change to a PiS government would simply lead to continued attacks on the working class – nothing would change. This realisation that neither party offers anything different is beginning to dawn on a layer of Poles. In 2011 PiS and PO between them captured almost 70% of the vote. The latest polls suggest this is now at 60% and will fall further before the next elections in 2015.

A dangerous game

But the Polish working class has shown that it will not wait for a clear political alternative to present itself before making its presence felt. Unemployment is over 13%, and inequality between rich and poor, town and country is steadily increasing. Healthcare and pensions were already rated poorly by Poles before the crisis (one in three said there was a lack of investment) and are now subject to sweeping attacks across the board, the retirement age is being pushed up higher and higher and VAT has once again been increased to 23%.

These factors have been simmering below the surface in Poland for some time now and are the motor force behind these demonstrations. The proposed labour code reforms have brought this growing anger into plain view. Such protests have not been seen for many years in Poland and they suggest that the pressure of worsening social conditions is penetrating the collective consciousness of the Polish working class and is beginning to stir them into action to defend their standards of living.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the unions and the political parties have been playing a dangerous game with their manoeuvres at the top. Solidarity and OPZZ are traditionally enemies, with anti-communist and communist traditions respectively. Solidarity is close to PiS, while OPZZ is closer to the SLD. But the fact that they have been forced to call the present protests together show the amount of pressure that is building up from below.

No doubt these union leaders see the anger of the movement as a means to ‘let out steam’ from the brewing anger of the Polish workers while they at the same time use the workers movement as a tool with which to advance their own interests and preferred political parties. But this is likely to be a serious miscalculation. The movement of the working class cannot be turned off and on like a tap by the union leaders when it suits them. As the workers become more conscious of their power to change society they will become more insistent on change that runs deeper than a superficial switch from one capitalist party to another. Unless the leaders of the unions break with capitalism and fight for a genuine socialist solution to the problems that have been building up and will continue to accumulate, they too will face the anger of the Polish workers.

For a long period Polish politics has been dominated by sly manoeuvres and backroom deals at the top. These latest demonstrations are the first signs that the working class is rising its head again and shaking off the aparent apathy and passivity which characterized it in the past period and instead are starting to take their destinies into their own hands. And once the workers start moving no corrupt politician will be able to hide. The centre of political gravity will begin to shift from politicians’ offices onto working class streets.