The Land of Junk Contracts

The Poles call them umowa śmieciowa or “junk contracts.” If you’re young and lucky enough to have a job in Poland these days, it’s likely to be short-term and come without benefits. Ten percent of young people (up to the age of 25) are working in the black market, and another 25 percent have part-time or short-term work. Of the rest, most have job contracts that provide little in the way of security.

Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate in Poland has averaged around 30 percent over the last 17 years. Though it’s dropped to around 23 percent in August, young people are happy to get any kind of job. A huge number have simply given up and taken advantage of the freedom to travel throughout the EU. More than two million Poles, many of them young, have left the country for better opportunities abroad.

Slawomir Rakowiecki has been a long-time trade unionist in Poland, part of the first generation of Solidarity activists. He has been involved in the union in Warsaw and at the provincial level (Mazowsze), and his focus has been the transportation sector. A nationwide railway strike last year and several other actions have boosted the unions‘ profile in this sector.

But the ground has shifted in Poland since the glory days of Solidarity. The independent trade union once counted 60 percent of the workforce as members. By 2013, trade union membership overall in Poland had dropped to only 10 percent, one of the lowest in Europe.

“We are totally aware of the changes that have taken place in the structure of the labor market, especially taking into consideration the number of our members,” Rakowiecki told me in an interview in August 2013 in Warsaw. “In the past, when the working class was huge, promoting our ideas was very easy. Nowadays however, when huge numbers of employees are forced to be ‘self-employed,’ organizing trade union activity is very hard. Look at the example of the taxi drivers. The cars, the repairs and service, the insurance, the gas, and the telephone exchange all belong to the taxi company, but drivers are forced to be self-employed. Therefore the taxi company does not pay pension insurance for its taxi drivers. And according to the current law taxi drivers do not have the right to be members of a trade union since they do not have the status of an employee.”

The junk contracts are an even more obvious symbol of changes in the relationship between employer and employee. “Poland is an indisputable leader of the so-called junk contracts,” he continued. “These contracts provide for 2-3 months of temporary employment with minimum salary, which literally means creating a new class of employees ‘under the table.’ Therefore people are permanently afraid to lose jobs where even their health and pension insurance is not covered. Moreover because of this employment relationship they do not have the right to join a trade union. This is why the officials’ argument about the decrease in popularity of the trade unions is a ridiculous assumption.”

Rakowiecki was frustrated with the Polish government response. Shortly before we spoke, Solidarity representatives had walked out of the tripartite commission (with government and business), and demanded the resignation of the labor minister. Together with the former official trade union OPZZ, Solidarity organized one of the largest demonstrations in years in Warsaw in September 2013.

“We used to face a situation when a worker came to us with an issue, and we were knocking on the doors of different directors, heads of departments, representatives of self-governing communities,” Rakowiecki lamented. “But for the past three years, we get no response. The doors don’t have knockers or keyholes.

 

The Interview

 

Tell me about your work in Solidarity.

 

I don’t work in the trade union. I am only a so-called activist. Professionally I am a senior administration specialist as well as a history teacher and the head of a workshop on military history and scale modeling. Because of my profession, from the very beginning I’ve been engaged in the transportation union. In the communication division, I head up the tram infrastructure sub-division. At the regional level, I am a representative of the communication trade union in Mazowsze Region. Finally I am also a member of the National Commission, which is the highest executive chamber whose members are elected during the general assembly for a four-year term. Our term will be over this fall, and in the middle of this year the next election will be held for the next four-year term. My roots are deep in the municipal service, which I specialized in on the regional committee. Right after Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnosc (AWS) was established, I was promoted and became a vice president in Warsaw. When the coalition broke up, I went back to the communication and education sectors.

What I am doing at the trade union is structured on three different levels. Here in Warsaw I am dealing mostly with the municipal transport company of Warsaw. At the provincial level, on the other hand, I am monitoring the activity of the legislative assembly of the Masovian Voivodeship. Finally on the national level, because of my language skills and interest in the economy, I am helping to develop the union position on Polish economic issues.

By the way, right now is a very important moment for the Polish trade union movement. The issue of the quality of public transportation has become more and more important these days. A conflict has arisen between the transportation union and the government, which is trying to reduce staff privileges for free transportation, a traditional benefit for people working in the transportation sector. The cuts reached all of the transportation companies: Warsaw’s subway, buses, trams, rapid transit system, and even the department in the municipal government responsible for supervising transportation companies. In this way over 30,000 transportation company employees with their families and children has been hit by the new regulation. In response, the trade unions of five different transportation companies got together to create a common protest committee with me as a head of the committee. We began talks first with the municipal government and then with employers. We organized a huge demonstation in front of the municipal government building on Plac Bankowy in Warsaw where later we met with the vice presidents of Warsaw responsible for the city transportation sector. We have also met a couple times with city representatives mostly from Civic Platform (PO), and this is when the current government realized that all the teams are determined and we are ready to strike.

Although the regulation was supposed to go into force in September this year, the government started to negotiate with the trade unions because it faced the threat of a strike that would paralyze the entire city. When we announced in the media that we were going to launch a strike of all of the transportation companies in the city, we were invited to the talks where the majority of our requirements were agreed to and the date of the regulation entering into force was postponed until March 31, 2014. Thanks to that agreement, the employees and their families maintained their privileges with the proviso that until the end of this year the board of each transportation company involved would work out its own internal regulation with the trade union. However, the government required the companies to standardize those regulations as much as possible. In practice the regulation applies to companies in entirely different economic conditions, meaning that the trams, which are more ecological and less noisy, have to harmonize their regulations with the bus company, which is in the worst economic situation, being noisy, expensive, and polluting. We will return to the negotiations with the government right after the holiday period. But this time I need to focus more on the regional level, though one can sense the anti-governmental atmosphere at both levels.

In the meantime, the mayor of Ursynow, Piotr Gusial, along with local activists came up with idea to organize a referendum to recall the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. We immediately agreed to that and started to collect the signatures under the referendum proposal. We are doing this because the current government continues to avoid basic regulations.

For instance, according to company law, the governing bodies of companies with only one owner are subordinated to the owner’s will. A prosperous company can afford better social benefits for its employees. However, in case of the city bus company, the owner decided to implement new regulations that forced the company to face collapse and cut benefits. Hence we as the employees were instructed to somehow compensate for these lost benefits with financial subsidies and other methods. The management also decided to start closing depots and dismissing employees through a voluntary redundancy program. Of course, there is no room for negotiations regarding certain regulations, such as occupational safety and health, when the company was instructed to immediately increase municipal revenue. No wonder, then, that anti-government sentiment has increased at the regional trade union level.

However this anti-government sentiment was already visible on the national level. Around three years ago Solidarity as a trade union significantly changed its strategy and organizational structure. I was one of the initiators of those changes. A new head of the national trade union was appointed, Piotr Duda from Silesia. He’s quite young. He’s not involved in political activity but is deeply engaged in union activity. So that automatically separated us from direct cooperation with any political party. At the same time he managed to direct the work of national committee in such a manner that we succeeded in organizing a huge referendum and collect 2.5 million signatures to defend not only employees but all Poles from the introduction of a new pension regulation that would increase the retirement age.

During the negotiations we were very surprised to see officials keeping their distance almost as though we were still the union that burns tires and throws firecrackers. At each of the governmental levels, we faced a very unpleasant attitude. “We do not talk to you,” they said. “We do not see you, we ignore you.” This was especially visible during the talks about the new pension bill. During the parliamentary session, when we blocked the entrance to the parliament hall, the prime minister uttered very upsetting words about our head, Piotr Duda. Although we were always the ones accused of misbehavior, this time it was the government officials that misbehaved. The governmental officials really did not want to negotiate with us, as they don’t see us as the real representation of the employees.

But we are totally aware of the changes that have taken place in the structure of the labor market, especially taking into consideration the number of our members. In the past, when the working class was huge, promoting our ideas was very easy. Nowadays however, when huge numbers of employees are forced to be “self-employed,” organizing trade union activity is very hard. Look at the example of the taxi drivers. The cars, the repairs and service, the insurance, the gas, and the telephone exchange all belong to the taxi company, but drivers are forced to be self-employed. Therefore the taxi company does not pay pension insurance for its taxi drivers. And according to the current law taxi drivers do not have the right to be members of a trade union since they do not have the status of an employee.

It is even more visible in the case of the employment relationship. Poland is an indisputable leader of the so-called junk contracts. These contracts provide for 2-3 months of temporary employment with minimum salary, which literally means creating a new class of employees “under the table.” Therefore people are permanently afraid to lose jobs where even their health and pension insurance is not covered. Moreover because of this employment relationship they do not have the right to join a trade union. This is why the officials’ argument about the decrease in popularity of the trade unions is a ridiculous assumption.

This all adds up to a new definition of socialism with regard to the organizational structure of the company and employer-employee relations. Previously, the Fordist labor market allowed employees to secure a living not only for themselves but their entire family. Now, the labor market in our country is what one of my colleagues calls PO, or “paid occupant.” It’s enough to say that during six years of occupation, Hitler destroyed fewer schools then the PO [which also stands for the ruling party, Platforma Obywatelska] has done during its term. Hitler did not also remove transportation subsidies from company workers as PO has done. The current government uses every opportunity to decrease workers’ rights. It trashed the referendum and the 2.5 million signatures we collected. It refused to organize negotations. And the workers’ anger has just built up.

In the media, especially in private broadcasts, words like “employee” or “worker” have disappeared from the political vocabulary. They’ve been replaced by “taxpayer” or “customer.” This is visible at all levels. During the municipal council sessions I see the struggles between PO councilors, the few people from PiS (Law and Justice Party), and the few from SLD (Social Democratic Party). They do not even like each other. The arrogance of the current leadership resembles public relations. Why am I talking about this? We used to face a situation when a worker came to us with an issue, and we were knocking on the doors of different directors, heads of departments, representatives of self-governing communities. But for the past three years, we get no response. The doors don’t have knockers or keyholes. We always put a huge effort into explaining that workers, in order to work efficiently, have to have some benefits, because workers are not slaves.

It came to the point that, even if we did manage to make a deal during the trilateral commission, Minister Rostowski or Prime Minister Tusk revoked the agreement. That is why we left the trilateral commission even although it was an idea of Solidarity in the first place. It was supposed to be a middle ground for negotiations between the representatives of government, the biggest companies, and the trade unions. However since the government backtracked on all the promises, we said “no” to the commission meetings. We do not want to be the ones that burn the tires, but we said that if they will not revoke their recent decisions we would need to go back to the previous way of persuasion. We well know that all fights start from talks and all wars are ended with talks. As the historians say – and my background is in history — history has taught us that no one has ever learned anything from history.

If this were not true, we would not have had to do what we have just finished together with the other major trade unions including OPZZ. On September 11, the work will start. It will start because we were all cheated. We all could not find the doorknob on the other side of the door. Of course we used to compete with each other and didn’t really like each other. But we did not have any other choice but to combine our strength. When the authorities realized that we were cooperating, they finally started to arrange the negotiations that I have talked about already. Then came the public announcement in the media of their revenge. For example there is a particular PO representative who is eager to amend the trade union bill. This is especially difficult for me, as a long-time activist who achieved a lot at different trade union levels, because this PO representative and I used to do a great job together. Some of the people who want to get rid of Solidarity used to greatly influence our movement.

We people of the first generation of Solidarity are the most upset. I was invited to Atlanta, Georgia as a young activist and was working to the best of my ability, knowledge, and courage. But I did not stay there. I did not feel worse than others, those who have been on the make. I did not want to use Solidarity to make a political or business career. I believed in the movement. I wanted to be fully engaged. Even now I am wearing the Solidarity sign like a permanent tattoo on the forehead. All the people from either the education sector or the transportation companies know me as Rakowiecki from Solidarity. This cannot be erased from my resume or the list of my achievements. I have been employed by the union countless times as a head of the regional trade union or a supervisor, so I did not have a chance to work as an employee according to the Polish labor law.

I would like to emphasize that I do not think that that PO politicians are not well educated or incompetent or unprepared for performing their functions. However I believe that people who are not engaged in social work or trade union work and only in politics will not mobilize sufficient political will. They will be perceived as manipulators. They make arguments like: “the entire world is in an economic crisis while the Polish economy is flourishing.” This kind of attitude is an insult to intelligent, well-educated people.

The next step of the government added insult to injury. Our authorities presented an amendment to the trade union bill that allows trade union representatives to have offices at the workplace. The economic services at the workplace will not be able to collect premiums from the wage and redistribute it to the bank accounts. The regulation regarding so-called paid delegation will be also discarded. This regulation obligated workplaces that employed over 250 people engaged in trade union activities to waive the work obligation for one worker (with right to remuneration) and treat him as a full-time trade union employee.

The young deputy who proposed these amendments does not remember that, without Solidarity’s activities and achievements, we could have been another Soviet republic. But nowadays the trade union is the biggest in the post-war Polish history with over 700,000 workers paying dues (not counting those whose obligation has been waived due to retirement or layoff). During Martial Law in the 1980s, the government undertook similar measures. They took from us our material and financial goods that has been entered into the books but never returned in the form of financial aid (with small exceptions). Anyway, if this new law is introduced January 1, the existence of Solidarity will be at risk.

The situation is tense. The last time we celebrated the anniversary of the August agreements we put a lot of effort into avoiding altercation. The last time we were hosting celebrations that we were organizing together, the media brutally attacked and humiliated us. On the top of that, the mayor of Gdansk commemorated the previous shipyard name of Lenin. When we voiced an objection, we were accused of vandalism and malicious municipal damage. We became famous as the Duda gang! The truth is that we simply cut out the name of Lenin from the shipyard’s name. The funniest thing is that during the interrogation — we were interrogated in the different cities where we lived — we were all asked, “Where is the dot that was a part of ‘I’ character?” It was a round piece of metal 10 centimeters in width. That hardly seems like something 100 hooligans would be interested in. The case was really funny, and eventually the proceedings were dismissed.

However this is not the end of the story. We have just got information that an appeal was lodged, and we will be interrogated one more time. None of our activities was as visible and popular as this one. PO, on the other hand, was really surprised that so many people joined the protest. We counted around 30 representatives of different associations and foundations. Even the musician and actor Pawel Kukiz joined us. He was very upset with the current government, saying that they backtracked on many promises given during elections (like introducing single-member district regulations) and therefore he would not vote for them again.

 

Is there any other option though? Should another Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnosc be created? Should the trade union, dissatisfied with the current government, try to engage in politics?

 

 

We want our country to be ruled by well-prepared and competent people that work for the citizens.

We are now living in the great United States of Europe. We are fully aware that we will never be as important as Germany or the UK, and we are skeptical about entering the Eurozone. Our government focuses on the good relations with the UK prime minister and German Chancellor Merkel. Relations with neighboring countries are obviously very important. Nonetheless we are not at the same level of development. Even the media constantly fools Poles. The TV shows portray the lives of young, rich, and fabulous people that don’t face any mundane problems like working or paying bills. This is a form of indoctrination.

In the past we hated everything with a red star, and now we hate everything connected to the ruling party. The only difference is that the current enemy once claimed to be the one and only Solidarity movement and believed that all other Solidarity movements had to be destroyed. I would call this attitude cruder. But unlike the current officials I have some responsibility, discretion, and self-awareness.

 

Warsaw, August 29, 2013

 

Translater: Anna Maria Napieralska

 


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