On Saturday, September 14, more than 100,000 Polish working women and men marched through the streets of Warsaw, the capital, to protest against the anti-popular measures that the government of the center-right Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has been implementing, and the discontent created by the steep economic downturn that the country is going through.
The mobilization was part of a four-day protest (September 11-14) in different cities, called by the majority union federations, that culminated in Saturday’s mass march against a series of measures taken by the government and, especially, against the recently-approved work flexibilization law that does away with the eight-hour day and directly attacks the workers’ union organization.
Two years of neoliberal austerity
The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, from the center-right Civic Platform Party, has been implementing a brutal austerity plan, that, in the last two years, included raising the retirement age to 67 years (previously, it was 60 years for women and 65 for men), the announcement of a reform of the pension system and the recently approved modification of the Labor Code, that was what unleashed the current mobilizations.
Three months ago, the Parliament approved a series of changes in the Labor Code and the law on unions, that eliminate the guarantee of an eight-hour workday, leaving open the possibility that the companies will take the workday up to a maximum of 78 hours a week, without paying for the extra hours.
This work flexibilization law allows the firms to increase the workdays, according to the production tempos, up to a total of 78 hours a week, while they would reduce the workday at other times of the year. This means an enormous transfer of money from the workers’ pockets to those of the businessmen, since, during the lengthened days, they have no obligation to pay for extra hours, while during the period of shortened days, the law permits them to pay their workers only the minimum wage.
But the law does not stop there, but directly attacks the unions and the organization of the workers, by allowing the businessmen to be able to negotiate these new conditions individually with each worker or even to be agreed upon with a "representative of the workers from a company committee." These company committees would be elected according to the regulations established by the businessmen themselves (that is, they would be a type of yellow unions set up by the employers and at their service), the representatives of which would not be responsible to the workers, nor would they have a right to initiate collective bargaining.
That is, the ground is being prepared to undermine the ability of the unions to negotiate, by weakening and fragmenting them.
Discontent makes itself felt
This most recent attack on the labor conditions of the working class was the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced the leaderships of the majority unions of OPZZ and Solidarity to call at least the recent days of protest, although not a strike.
The discontent expressed on the streets of Warsaw last weekend has a more profound reason in the steep downturn that the Polish economy is undergoing. After two decades of uninterrupted growth, Poland’s GDP tumbled last year, showing its vulnerability in the face of the European crisis (Poland entered the European Union in 2004, although not the Eurozone, and the slowed down German economy is its main commercial partner) .
Large-scale layoffs have multiplied in the most recent period, to the rhythm of the fall in growth, that went from 4.5% of GDP in 2011, to 1.9% in 2012 and to only 0.1% in the first quarter of this year. This triggered unemployment, that reached 14.4% in February of this year, especially affecting young people.
However, the economy is not the only thing that is plummeting; the rate of approval of Tusk’s government, that plunged to its lowest levels since the government took office six years ago, has also fallen steeply. Right now, this disappointment with Tusk’s government has been capitalized on by the Law and Justice nationalist opposition party, headed by the former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The role of the union leaderships
Since Jaruzelski’s resignation in 1990 and the process of capitalist restoration that had already been developing, the Polish workers have seen their wages and the quality of their working conditions fall constantly. However, the leaderships of the majority unions have been incapable of calling a general strike in the last 25 years.
They did not do it in 2007, during the big nurses’ strike, that questioned both their working conditions and the healthcare system as a whole, and they did not call the general strike, when the increase in the retirement age was announced, nor during the mobilizations against the government’s policy in September 2012.
Facing the current attack, they found themselves forced to call the recent day of struggle, but, although they are making threats, they still refuse to call a strike that will unify all the demands and aim at Tusk’s government.
It is obvious that the union leaderships of OPZZ and Solidarity are not only lagging behind the level of attack imposed by the government, but lagging behind the dissatisfaction expressed among the workers and the Polish people, in view of the economic downturn, the increase of unemployment and the attack on their historic conquests.
The government and businessmen of Poland have been catching up with the adjustment applied by the rest of the states of the European Union, and they have increasingly tried to unload the effects of the economic crisis onto the backs of the workers; however, the mass mobilization of recent days shows that it still remains to be seen whether they will be able to do it, without confronting the resistance of the workers and the people.
 Poland entered the European Union in 2004. By implementing a policy of economic liberalization, it benefited from the entry of money through foreign investment that permitted it to have a high growth rate, during the first 8 years, as well as the possibility of manipulating its currency to confront the crisis, by having remained outside of the Eurozone. But the European crisis and a combination of the economic downturn of its main commercial partners, next to domestic political problems, has led to the current situation that, although it did not reach a recession, is a matter of a steep fall in growth that Poland has had during the most recent period. It is anticipated that the growth of the Polish economy will be as much as 1% in 2013, its worst performance since it joined the European Union...