Unions pile the pressure on Polish govt as 100,000 fill the streets

By bne IntelliNews September 16, 2013

Tim Gosling in Prague -

The streets of Warsaw were crowded on September 14 with 100,000 protesting against the government's handling of the economy and efforts to create jobs. The mass demonstration will do little to cheer an administration fighting for its life, and which has seen its majority cut to just one seat.

The finale of a four-day protest against Prime Minister Donald Tusk's unpopular and increasingly fragile centre-right government, the events in the Polish capital remained peaceful despite the huge numbers. However, the goal of the trade unions organizing the protest against the recently eased labour laws and raised retirement age is clear.

"We want the departure of Donald Tusk. This is the only way to change social policy in Poland," Marek Lewandowski, spokesman for Poland's iconic right-of-centre Solidarity trade union, told AFP.

Warsaw city hall confirmed a total of 100,000 protestors were on the streets. They have the support of a majority of Poles, according to an opinion poll by MillwardBrown on September 12 - the day before the four days of demonstrations kicked off. A full 59% of respondents said they backed the protest.

That widespread hostility towards recent government efforts to raise growth is a further worry for Tusk, who has seen his approval ratings plummet as the country struggles against the crisis. While the economy looks to be slowly climbing out of the trough it fell into last year, unemployment remains a bugbear, sitting above 13%.

The unions, however, are protesting recent legislation to allow more flexible working hours and raising the retirement age to 67. They are also calling for an increased minimum wage. "The government gets its last warning today," Jan Guz, leader of the OPZZ union, told demonstrators, according to Reuters. "If it draws no conclusions, we will block the whole country, all roads and highways."

Tusk, who swept to an historic consecutive term in 2011, has increasingly moved from a focus on austerity to growth-orientated tactics over the past year or so as the Eurozone crisis took a belated grip of Poland. However, that switch has come too late to save his ratings, and his coalition-leading Civic Platform has been trailing the populist Law and Justice (PiS) in polls throughout most of this year.

Solidarity has a close relationship with PiS, and the unions clearly sense the timing is right to pile on the pressure. Clearly rattled, Tusk took on a populist tone on September 13, boasting of his success in pushing through a revised 2013 budget that widened the deficit by an extra €3.8bn.

The PM also insisted that concerns over the exodus of MPs from his party are "unfounded". However, the government saw its position weakened further on September 12 when it lost its third deputy in as many weeks. The departure of Jacek Zalek - following on from resignations from the conservative right wing of PO - left the coalition with a majority of just one seat in the 460-seat chamber. "Those protests are a sign that we were unable to rise to the challenges that were put before us by Poles," the MP said.

The same day, Labour Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz accused the unions of breaking off talks, reports Polskie Radio. The official claimed one of the unions' major demands - for a faster increase in the minimum wage - has already been met, noting it is set to rise to $531 a month starting next year. "You can argue, discuss, but first of all you have to sit down at the table," he said.

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