Despite objections raised, the Polish Parliament passed an amendment liberalising the Labour Code. In reaction, trade union representatives broke off talks with the government and demanded the immediate resignation of the Minister of Labour and Social Policy. Prime Minister Donald Tusk expressed his doubts in the good will of the unions and called their demands a dictate. Social dialogue is secured in the constitution but the tension between unified workers and the government is increasing. Unions are in a paradox position: on the one hand they are granted a place in decision-making processes, on the other – they have never seemed to be so neglected. This very rough situation leaves social dialogue in limbo.
The position of trade unions in Poland is ambiguous. They are an essential part of tripartite dialogue but their erosion is progressing. The Polish democratic revolution of 1989 started from the workers movement. It was massively supported by society. However, the ongoing capitalist transition shook the world of labour. Trade union membership has dropped to ca. 10% of all employed. Considering that at the beginning of the transformation 20% of people were unionized this number gets a special meaning.
Union representation in social dialogue consists of 3 confederations. All of them experience decline. The biggest drop can be observed in the legendary “Solidarność” – mostly masculine, industrial and conservative right-oriented. Its membership share in the total labour force dropped from 6% to 1,1% in the last 3 years, allowing the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) to become the biggest confederation, mostly present in public services and clearly self-defined as leftist. The Forum confederation represents the youngest workers, focusing on public services and refusing any political affiliation. Stable values of membership indicators refer only to public sector and the biggest enterprises, which is an indirect consequence of the legal framework of establishing union organizations. Still, the least unionized sectors are trade and services, dynamic and still developing branches. Loosing members is not the only negative tendency in Polish trade union movement though. Another feature is their age. An average trade unionist is up to 5 years older than an average employee. Moreover, the dynamics of this tendency also show that unions progressively grow older every year. Outflows of members are not balanced by inflows to replace them.
Still, trade unions strive to be present in the public sphere, but their voice in negotiations is not heard enough. Only during the last years of global financial crisis confederations were actively opposing policies of cuts on the national level, without expected results. In 2010 wages in public sector were suppressed. In 2012 confederations were massively criticizing the increase in retirement age to 67 years for both sexes. Despite these protests Sejm passed the reform, which ended up in a siege of parliament building.
The antagonism between unions and the ruling conservative-liberals continues. At the beginning of the year the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy presented a project of the so-called ‘act on special solutions for the protection of jobs related to the mitigation of the effects of the economic slowdown and economic crisis for employees and employers’, as a continuation to the former anti-crisis acts of 2009-2011. The Tripartite Commission could not meet the agreement. Meanwhile, on March 26th a general strike was held in Śląsk, an industrialized and highly populated region in Poland. Around 85 000 workers refrained from work in the dawn to make it least harmful to the society. Using Donald Tusk’s favorite football slang it was announced that this was a “yellow card for the government” and evidence of growing solidarity against the neoliberal rule.
Finally, in last days and despite the unions’ persistent resistance in the Tripartite Commission, amendments to the Labour Code were accepted. The changes stand for the continuous liberalization of labour market. Firstly, payroll processing has been extended from 4 to 12 months if justified by objective or technical reasons on the organization of work. Secondly, depending on fluctuations employers will be allowed to introduce flexible working time that might reach even 13-hour-long workdays 6 days a week. The representatives of all 3 confederations left the Tripartite Commission meeting with Prime Minister Donald Tusk to boycott inequality in social dialogue. Negotiations are possible to be restored after the resignation of the Minister of Labour and the withdrawal of amendments. If this does not happen, a general strike in the beginning of September is planned.
The situation is in deadlock. The Prime Minister accuses the trade unions of declaring war on the Polish state. The employers are more moderate in their opinions but they definitely do not sympathize with workers. Some interpretations of the situation suggest arrogance or attempts to take the Tripartite Commission hostage. The unions decision might be interpreted as bold and daring but there is an element of despair in it too. The last few years of destandardizing employment conditions show that the outcomes of tripartite dialogue were not fully taken under consideration. The unions as well as the opposition accuse the Prime Minister of favouring employers and entrepreneurs while neglecting other partners. Thus, this dramatic act of abandoning social dialog is of high political meaning. The ongoing flexibilization of the labour market was not agreed in Tripartite Commission negotiations but the government continues with it regardless. Passing this bill leaves the impression that unions legitimized it. Despite formal presence, their resistance to the deconstruction of the welfare state is not respected. This situation has raises crucial questions about the role of social dialogue in a neoliberal state. Does it still exist or is it just mere facade?
Meanwhile, despite diminishing numbers of trade union members, their recognition in Polish society remains relatively high. Positive opinions about their influence on the situation in the state prevail. Moreover, growing demand for their impact on public life has been reported. Within the last 3 years expectations for trade unions presence in decision making processes have grown, while contradicting opinions diminish. These preferences do not meet reality. The policy of discounting the unions is not part of serving society. The contradicting interests of social partners are inevitable. Lack of mutual respect and trust causes the conflict between Polish trade unions, employers and government to simmer. Grudge and resentments stand on the way to effective mediation, what also results from weaknesses of a relatively young democracy. This latest episode is likely to be debated not only on the national but also on the European level.