Polish unions smell blood

By bne IntelliNews February 2, 2015

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


In the wild, a wounded animal brings out predators' blood-lust; something similar happens in politics if a politician displays weakness. That has become a growing problem for Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, who is facing a wave of union protests as she tries to get her party ready for this autumn's parliamentary elections.

In the first weeks of the year, Kopacz confronted a strike by coal miners at the government-owned Kompania Weglowa, Europe's largest coal miner, who were outraged at a government rescue plan for the loss-making state-controlled company that called for the closure of the four weakest mines. However, the prime minister backed away from her "Margaret Thatcher moment" and decided to consider merging the mines with state controlled energy companies instead of shuttering them.

While giving way ended the strike at Kompania Weglowa, it has also galvanised other unions, which sense weakness. Politicians were put on watch by Piotr Duda, head of the Solidarity labour union, who warned them during deliberations over the mine closure project: "We know your names and where you live and [parliamentary] immunity will not help you."

Duda saw the coal mining agreement as a victory for his hardline tactics. "The agreement is a consequence of the strike threat, that the government had a pistol put to its head," he told reporters.

Now the government is faced with a strike at another coal mining company, Jastrzebska Spolka Weglowa (JSW). Meanwhile, farmers blocked a main transit road to Belarus on February 2, and threatened to shut down Warsaw at the weekend. 

The agricultural wing of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) is ostensibly fighting for increased compensation for the damage done to crops by hungry boar. But their claims have moved beyond wild pigs, and they're now demanding an accounting of the €100m that Poland has promised in emergency aid to embattled Ukraine. 

"If the prime minister doesn't come, there will be no talks," said Slawomir Izdebski, head of the farmers' union.
At JSW, strikers are demanding the head of the CEO, who is trying to bring in a cost-cutting programme, as well as the reinstatement of ten strike organizers that have been sacked.

Union leaders are also demanding direct talks with the government on a host of other issues, including the reversal of reforms which raised the retirement age and the end of temporary employment contracts. The tone of the protests is increasingly aggressive and strongly political, with unions demanding Kopacz personally intervene, as she did at Kompania Weglowa.

The PM is willing to talk, but "is against ultimatums," she insists. "I'm ready for any dialogue, but without pistols being put to heads." But the unions sense her frailty. The ruling Civic Platform party is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the populist opposition Law and Justice party (PiS). 

Law and Justice is also worried about Duda's potential political ambitions. Youthful, energetic and charismatic, he is a marked contrast with the more sclerotic leadership of former PiS prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

While the unions are making politicians quake, they are also not working from a position of strength. Unions are strongest in heavy industry, but they have largely failed to make inroads into the most vibrant areas of the economy like the business processing centres springing up on the outskirts of most Polish cities, or underpaid retail workers. 

Despite Solidarity playing a key role in undermining communism, Poland now has one of the EU's lowest rates of workforce unionisation - only 12.5% of Polish workers belong to one.

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