Unions kick up a fuss in Poland

By bne IntelliNews May 11, 2012

Bogdan Turek in Warsaw -

Union membership may be on the wane in Poland, once famed for its Solidarity trade union federation that was instrumental in the toppling of communism. But this summer's Euro 2012 football championships are providing a useful backdrop for labour protests against the government's attempt to restructure the pension system and other reforms.

Among the disgruntled are cab drivers, upset by new regulations that no longer require examinations to get a taxi license, who are planning to block the roads to the brand-new National Stadium where the opening ceremony will be held June 8; road construction companies owed money are preparing to block access roads to Warsaw; and custom officers seeking wage hikes are threatening tough inspections of the tens of thousands of incoming football fans, or even blockades at the borders.

On top of that, Piotr Duda, the clever new leader of the 700,000-strong Solidarity union, has mapped out protests and a modern propaganda campaign in the media that could undermine the government without provoking it to use violence.

Time to put your feet up

Although the minimum wage and working conditions are also at issue, the main bone of contention is the retirement age. The government is sticking to a plan that both men and women will work until the age of 67 - two years longer for men and five years for women. Miners and some uniformed employees - police, army and firefighters - have already carved out exemptions for their workers.

Union membership has dropped dramatically, from the 10m-strong level of the Solidarity era to about 16% of those employed today, partly because Poland's economy is now characterized by small businesses, of which 96% employ fewer than 10 workers. Furthermore, the self-employed - who account for 23% all workers - are not allowed to join a union.

But the retirement age scheme has ignited protests not only from Solidarity, but also from the former communist union federation OPZZ and the non-political Federation of Labour Unions (or Forum FZZ). Three-quarters of the country's 25,000 company unions belong to one of these three confederations. "The goal of Solidarity is not to let the government pass the law on the prolongation of the retirement age," says Duda, 50, a former paratrooper who served as a soldier in the Golan Heights. A machine tool worker by profession, Duda held several jobs in the union before replacing Janusz Sniadek, more a politician than a unionist, in 2010.

Prolonging the retirement age would deny jobs to young people, who already account for one-third of Poland's 2m jobless, Duda maintains. "Prolongation of the retirement age means higher unemployment."

The government launched the retirement project four months in advance of the football tournament, which is scheduled to begin on June 8 in Warsaw and conclude July 1 in co-host Ukraine's capital of Kyiv, apparently in the hope that opposition would be tempered by football fever. It hasn't worked.

Solidarity, for example, is airing daily television ads labelled "Stop 67" against the planned retirement changes. To target the legislators who supported the initial draft legislation, the union has plastered about 400 billboards with their portraits. The Customs Union, which groups 16,000 members, staged a two-hour warning protest on May 8, slowing down customs procedures. "If a dialogue is not resumed with the government, we will block the borders" a statement by the union said.

Duda and Prime Minister Donald Tusk met May 8, but they did not reach agreement on the retirement issue. After the meeting, Duda said he could "neither deny nor confirm" there will be protests before the championships begin. And one policeman who declined to give his name, told bne: "Warsaw could be fully blockaded on the opening day [of Euro 2012]."

Mining support

Zbigniew Madej, spokesman for Kompania Weglowa, the largest coal-mining company in Europe which employs 60,000 people in 15 pits, tells bne that the law on unions provides the means to make them powerful, especially in the case of coalminers who are nearly 100% union members. "We have 170 unions in the company with the two biggest, the Solidarity mining union and the Union of Coal Miners," Madej says, adding that under the law, the leaders of the unions have the right to discuss or question any proposed decision by the managers concerning the smallest issues.

"We had about 80 meetings in the Kompania Weglowa last year," Madej says. "All issues were discussed - even the problem of miners' uniforms and rubber shoes for workers."

Madej says there is no way that miners would support a new retirement scheme; all the unions are unanimous on the issue. "They retire after 25 years of work in line with the law," he says.

The government, to keep peace in the country, subsidises the coal sector to the tune of PLN4.5bn annually, paying high pensions as well. An average monthly pension for a miner is about PLN3,200, while a teacher gets PLN1,760. There are 100,000 working miners and about 200,000 pensioners. Some miners' salaries exceed PLN5,000 a month, compared with the average national wage of PLN3,200. KGHM company, one of the largest producers of copper in the world and PKN Orlen, the country's largest oil and gas company, have as strong unions as Kompanis Weglowa has.

Janusz Sniadek, the former Solidarity leader, says the government is out of touch with the people, and the football tournament could be a good opportunity for those angered by the retirement project. "It will be a normal situation if protests take place," Sniadek says. "People know the protests will be more noticeable during the tournament."

Piotr Ochnio, manager of a company which delivered construction materials for the A-4 highway, says he will kick up an international scandal in June by using company machinery to block the Berlin-Warsaw highway. His company was not paid PLN8m by the construction firm he supplied, which went bankrupt. Urszula Nelken, spokeswoman for GDDKiA, the company in charge of highway construction, says her firm is trying to mediate, but there is a slim chance to resolve the issue. "Only the liquidator can help according to the law," she sighs, adding that the procedure is lengthy.

The government expresses satisfaction with its preparation for the tournament. "About 80% of the projects were completed," said Pawel Gras, the government spokesman.

But Janusz Piechocisnki, of the Polish farmers' party PSL, the coalition partner of Tusk's governing Civic Platform party, disagrees with Gras. "The road projects will be only be 40% completed," Piechocinski says. "None of the host cities [where matches are scheduled] - Wroclaw, Warsaw, Poznan , Gdansk – will have both direct road and railway connections with the others."

He adds that a lack of fast railway connections will mean a six-hour trip (310 km) from Warsaw to Wroclaw and a five-hour journey from Warsaw to Gdansk (350 km).

The most critical voice is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, who says that PM Tusk shattered the aspirations of Poles who wanted to have a modernized country for the games. "The hope was that those who came to Poland will see a European country with completed highways and express roads and a modern railway system like in the West," he says. "The picture will be different."

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