Labor unionism in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria: revival or stagnation?

A discussion about recent the recent labor protests, attitudes towards workers’ fight, the role of a young generation of employees and the level of people empowerment in the three countries of Central and Southeastern Europe

A protest of the workers in the public transport in Bucharest, 19.01.2022 (source: YouTube)

A discussion about recent the recent labor protests, attitudes towards workers’ fight, the role of a young generation of employees and the level of people empowerment in the three countries of Central and Southeastern Europe

The Cross-border Talks

Following a rise in strikes and grassroots labor activism in Poland, Cross-border Talks made a discussion about the current state of affairs there, in Romania and Bulgaria. Malgorzata Kulbaczewska presented the case of “hope” – sharing analysis about labor unionism in Poland and video footage from a 24 January 2022 protest in the plant for electric buses Solaris. Radu Stochita – the youngest communicator of the labor union movement in Romania, spoke about the attitudes in Romania towards strikes. Both Malgorzata and Radu seemed to be hopeful about a new generation of activism. Vladimir Mitev shared his views on the difficulties before labor unions in Bulgaria and explained why in his view change from below is difficult in his home country and if change is to happen, it will probably be imposed from above.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Cross-border Talks are back after some time, and we come back to an international Polish-Romanian-Bulgarian company to discuss recent events in Central and Southeastern Europe with a possible look at other regions of the world. We come back inspired by events in Poland, but also Romania and to some extent Bulgaria. That will make us see again the phenomenon that according to some analysts belongs to the past. That is a – trade union, workers movement.

A wave of strikes was observed in Poland. It sparked a few confrontations between workers and bosses. They are going on just now, and we are going to discuss that and more. The organized workers movements are coming to the historical scene. Why is this happening now and what are the challenges to the advice of those people in Central and Eastern Europe? As I said, we are going to talk about that in an international company. My name is Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, representing, a leading Polish, left-wing electronic media and my my Balkan colleagues I believe will present themselves best. So: Hello, Radu! Hello, Vladimir!

Vladimir Mitev: Hello. Well, we might be generally known, given that I also participated as a co-host of the previous episodes of The Cross-border Talks. I think Radu Stochiţa is the more interesting person now, and we need to say that he’s, I guess, the youngest communicator within the ranks of the Romanian labor union. He has been writing and giving interviews, piling up data, and doing other activitie, on behalf of Cartel Alpha, which is one of the major labor unions in Romania. And he’s also a student in the USA, so he’s also involved in the American labor union movement. He has various media initiatives and researches labor, among other things, which he does.

In short, we are all now making this discussion in conditions in which our region is somehow believed to be on the brink of war. And we need to remember that for two years, coronavirus has been decimating the population and putting all social relations, including the work relations under old kinds of stress. So in this context, Malgorzata believes there is something going on in Poland and that we’ll have a look at what happens in our part of Europe too. So Malgorzata – up to you!

Yes, I think it is not only my belief, those are facts that we are observing a wave of workers protests in Poland. And it started even before the pandemic with a mass teacher strike in 2019. It was a strike that lasted more than three weeks, which was eventually ended by trade unions, which I think were afraid of confrontation with the government. It was inciting the society’s anger against the teachers and the closed schools. But as we see this wave of discontent did not disappear and it re-emerges in adverse conditions that hit the entire region: inflation and rising prices of energy, gas and other basic goods.

Workers see right now that their wages do not go up. They were forced to undergo extra sanitary measures. They were forced to adapt themselves to the pandemic situation while the business could count on extensive state support. Businesses see record record profits right now. As we know well, everywhere in the world, those who are already rich did not lose from the pandemic. And so also the big business in Poland and in our region, did not lose. Nevertheless, they are not going to share the profits, the record profits with the workers. And as far as the state workers are concerned the state workers like the teachers, like judiciary officials or even policemen, they see that their payments are also not on the rise and nobody seems to recognise their work as valuable and particularly important in the pandemic conditions.

This was particularly seen during the strike of medical workers. It was not a classical strike. It was a protest in the center of Warsaw. It took place last year. It was during the pandemic. Medical workers hoped for pay raises. They hoped to be recognized by the government, as those who actually fight against the virus. Instead, they were ignored and the government officials even suggested that medical workers could emigrate, if they are not satisfied with their working conditions.

And right now, we are seeing yet another wave of mobilization. This time it takes place in industry. More precisely, it is industry located in Poland as most of the owners are not of Polish nationality. This industry hit record profits this year. And as I said earlier, the owners are not going to raise wages and we are not going to share the profits with workers. And here we come. It is astonishing moment. The country where trade unions are regularly smeared in the mass media, where they are regularly called parasites or institutions that parasitize on the backs of hard working businessmen, trade unions start to gain popularity again. Once again, the industrial workers seeing that the wages are not going to rise. They resort to the trade unions, organize collective collective fight. And here I think that the workers will say better than me how the situation looks like. We will screen a video they recorded just a few days ago. It is from a general strike in Solaris, a huge bus and coach factory in western Poland. Basically, the situation is classical workers are fighting for payrises in their ultra modern company that refuses to share their record profits with them

Wojciech Jasiński, a labor union leader at the Solaris bus factory in Bolechowo, Greater Poland voivodeship: We are right now in front of Solaris headquarters. What we talked about last week had just happened: at six o’clock Solaris went on strike. Production of buses has been stopped. Why so? We have been negotiating with the company since September 2021. We demanded a payrise – 800 zlotys (around 170 euro) for every worker. During the talks we lowered our demands, in order to show our willingness to cooperate with factory owners. In December 2021 and January 2022 we were ready to accept just 400 zlotys. Half of our initial demands. Nevertheless, the company rejected our offer, our peace offer and that is why it is no longer valid. We are surprised that the offer got rejected, because these 400 zlotys would have easily fitted into the projected budget of the company. So we draw conclusions: the Solaris board did not really mean that they had no money for pay rises. They wanted to show us our place. They wanted us to stay silent, not to raise our heads and not demand decent wages. So we demand again what we wanted in September. 800 zlotys for everyone counting from October 2021.

I want to mention a range of unethical actions by the company board, which took place during the negotiations. The Solaris board at numerous cases issues communiques towards the workers. In them the board claimed that it can’t raise the salaries, because the labor union hasn’t agreed to them. It was not said openly, but it was clearly suggested. We had to explain many times that a private company can always raise the salaries. A labor union can not block that!

In the end on 14 January the board announced the pay rises in amounts decided by it. So their claim that they can’t raise the salaries was false!

The video was recorded on 24 January 2022. Since then, a lot of things have happened in that particular factory. Representative of one of the trade union organizations, basically a leader of this trade union organization on a national scale, was banned from entering a factory. It was said that we have pandemics, so nobody from outside can come in, and the company board refused to talk to the workers and the whole matter became an international thing as one of the left wing members of Parliament talked about the story in Spanish, in the parliament, so that Spanish owners of the factory can find out. Solaris was sold to a Spanish multinational CAF in 2018. And so the matter became international.

Why are the Western European standards of social dialogue not applied to Polish workers? And so I said the situation is astonishing from one point of view. But it is fully predictable, if we rationally look at Polish society. In the previous two years, the conservative government of Poland offered some social changes that made the situation of the Polish workers a little bit better than under the previous neoliberal government. Extra money for families with children were introduced and even more important – minimum wage was raised two times. So the workers are no longer in such a desperate situation as ten years ago, when wages in Poland were absolutely horrific and many workers, like the ones employed in Solaris, could not even think of stopping the work because they would lose means for survival.

On the other hand, the workers now see the changes that just happened as a kind of accident and that there will be no stable dynamic of growth for the working people. And so seeing that their supposed defenders in the government are not going to help their plight, they are now organizing themselves on a grassroots level. This is fascinating. As I said, just a few years ago, Poland was a place where trade unions were ridiculed and particularly the young generation, when hearing about trade unions claimed it would not join any of them because their wish is to start their own business.

Right now it seems that unions are regaining their position at least as an option to be considered and as a place where people can organize and make their voice heard. And now I am going to ask you, how is the situation in your countries? And can we have some hope that these positive developments in Poland will have their equivalent in your country’s plans? Poland shares a big part of history with Bulgaria and Romania to a certain extent. But as we know, there are no two identical countries and perhaps your experience is better or worse. So Radu, what is your perspective?

Radu Stochiţa: Definitely. I mean, we can only hope for the best. I must say I’m a bit sick when leftists come with very pessimistic perspectives, I think we’ve had this for a very long time. So even if the numbers don’t show it because we don’t have any clear statistics on the labor unions and labor movement in Romania. They very seldom do any kind of statistics. And quite often they, let’s say the press, are quite obsessed with the wages of some people working in the labor movement. Yes, some people get paid very high, but the majority of us don’t get that high income. Full wage, let’s say, is like a decent wage we basically earn. So we do not really know what the situation is on the ground. We don’t have anything of the kind that the US has with the Economic Policy Institute, which they survey every year to actually see the clear membership of the unions, actually see the support that people manifest towards the unions. We can only assume, but I guess the assumptions also can be a very powerful point for us because you are right.

But we do share a very common history. I mean, we’ve had shock therapy in both our countries. The 90s were especially traumatizing for both Poland and for Romania, and labor unions were the ones that in a sense fought against some of the shock to a certain extent in order to try to prevent some of the privatization from happening very aggressively. And the Romanian labor movement, I think it’s known at this point that basically stopped some of that from being extremely aggressive and causing even more inequality than it could have. But for the past two years since the pandemic started, the labor movement has definitely been a major actor, I would say, expressing discontent towards what the politicians have been doing. That’s also because civil society hasn’t necessarily been able to be in the streets the way it has been in the past. Romania has witnessed in the past, let’s say, five to 10, even 12 years a resurgence in the civil society. I mean, like NGO groups, you know, individuals like informal groups mobilizing and taking to the streets to protest against various causes, both being right-wing and left-wing. That has been quite absent during the pandemic. So the kind of protest and movements which basically were, you know, the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, we had the pride, you know, that happens every year. We also had some small leftist events, but the unions have been the ones that have also dominated in the sense of the scene to protest against the lack of social dialogue, to protest against freezing of the salaries, against the fact that energy prices have increased and the fact that, like living nowadays is very difficult.

I think the past months have shown us that labor unions and at least the past two months in Romania – labor unions aren’t only concerned with their own with the benefits of their own employees. And we can see that in the fact that I think some of our unions – Cartel Alpha, BNS, also the other big confederation of Romania and also the others, have expressed great discontent towards the fact that energy prices have increased. In some cases, they doubled and for some people they even increased by tenfold. So which is high if you were not able to pay for energy prices by now and you have to go into your savings you’ve accumulated over the summer? Now the situation is even more difficult.

So a bunch of alliances of like industrial unions have been able to like formerly also informally to call out the government for its actions and say that the liberalization of the market, especially of the energy market, is kind of a fallacy itself. It’s very hard to achieve, especially when you have very little competition, because if we think about it theoretically, when we imagine a free market, we imagine it to have multiple actors, they compete, you are able to choose, you know, you get the best offer at the end of the day. In this case, there aren’t that many energy companies, you know, and truth be told, the free market isn’t really much present there. It’s conglomerates that basically monopolize or create almost like a cartel like institution in a sense. So they’ve been able to voice their discontent.

Also, the cartel for about a week ago, has started a formal action with the Directorate of National Anti-Corruption (DNA) in Romania against the practice of the government, of trying to set the price of a certain level. And what I mean by that is the fact that they’ve used this tactic and strategy that we haven’t agreed on before because the government doesn’t only decide things by itself. In any country we engage in social dialogue, and Romania is a country that has social dialogue in its laws. So you have to have the government, the unions, the employers associations that come together to the table and discuss basically. So we’ve done this in the past and we end up in business groups. I mean, Cartel Alpha and the business groups have come to an understanding of it, but the government completely ignores it. It’s been done in the past 10 years when it comes down to social dialogue and putting forward a solution that basically doesn’t really answer.

How did you guys choose the values you’ve chosen for the energy crisis? How do you choose them? In a sense, the big question that we have? Is it just a fraudulent way that in the end is going to make sure that some money goes in the pockets of other people? So in this way, the unions have been quite active in fighting it. If we think about it, if we go back to the first thing, the model I was saying, which is are we seeing a resurgence of interest in trade union affairs? I’m quite young in the movement, as Vladimir said in the beginning, so I know only the history of the 90s and early 2000s, basically from a couple of discussions with other union leaders. Now it’s no longer that taboo to talk about unions. I would say that it’s no longer that much of a negative topic, like for full of pejorative meetings, as it used to be back 10-12 years ago when everyone was only thinking in neo-liberal terms, you know, almost Thatcherite terms.

But we must be very honest about this: we are also living in a left bubble in which, yes, the people are becoming more sympathetic towards unions in our bubbles. But the example of the last strike proved to us that there is still a segment of the population that will not show solidarity with our causes. We had a strike in the past week in the public transportation sector. Basically the public transportation company that takes care of the surface level public transportation buses and trams – its workers have gone on strike or as they called a protest like a rank and file protest. So while the union might have been involved in getting people to show up, the union didn’t coordinate. It was a rank and file protest that happened.

They shut the activity for five days almost in its entirety for all the five days. And what I expected was different because I have the experience of being in the United States, where Starbucks, the big coffee chain is unionizing and where people from the outside of the shop show solidarity with this. I expected it to be quite similar in this case. I think it proved to be that there are people that show solidarity with the public transportation workers and realize that you shouldn’t cross the picket line because it’s actually to the benefit of us all if they win something and if they show that the workers have the power. But instead it happened that the public televisions and the private televisions in Romania were just like inundated literally with statements against the unions, statements to cross the picket line, proving that the ones that break the strike are the great people of the country. There was a constant circling around of the fact that people and workers do not have the buses, which is true, it’s an inconvenience. What happens in a strike is a sacrifice, which we make as a population. But the implications of a strike, if it’s well coordinated and if actually managed to achieve what it wants being it legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter at this point is that it can actually show that workers have the power and can inspire more movements. But when workers turn against other workers, it becomes a bit problematic because you realize that maybe that sense of solidarity we were referring to in the beginning might be a bit more limited than we imagined it to be.

Yet if you allow me just 30 more seconds, I don’t think that should be discouraged, though I think there should be a lesson in a way. You know, it’s a history lesson. We’re living in historical times. Indeed, we’ve lived through austerity, and will live through neoliberalism. They’re still very new liberal people in our society that would love to stump that with the boots, the workers, whenever they find them. But there are still people that want to work for them. And even if that’s not happening in the union, it’s happening at the NGOs. And we’ve seen that in Romania when we pushed at Cartel Alpha the discourse for increasing the minimum wage and raising it close to the average basket of a decent living, even though we’re not at that level. Other NGOs jumped in what other people jumped on board that previously didn’t care about the minimum wage. So there is a chance for solidarity, but we need to approach that. We need to speak the language of the people as well. And if people have a very corporate language as well, we need to approach them where they are and bring them closer to us because I don’t think we’re going to win them over with a very working class type of language sometimes.

I think that’s an important thing that was said by you. Thank you Radu. And I think you said one important thing: the solidarity that you were referring to is limited by the usage of neo-liberal language. We cannot expect from a society to stand on the site of the strikers immediately and to show solidarity. The same thing happened in Poland to now, when some segments of the society were absolutely furious with the striking industrial workers saying that they are going to ruin the company and that the factory owner is basically the owner of everything, and if they are not happy with working conditions, they can just go somewhere else. And Vladimir, how is the level of social conscience in the area? What are the trade unions in Bulgaria compared to what we talked about in our countries? Are trade unions visible in Bulgarian social life or are not? And is solidarity a lost value in Bulgaria.

Well, of course, labor unions, just maybe like in other countries, have their problems and certainly there is a poor image of the labor unions in Bulgaria. They usually get criticized for anything they do or don’t do. They’re always somehow suspect, always to blame.

Apparently, in Bulgaria, grassroots activism is very difficult to take place in many fields, not only on labor issues. I have given many times the example of the Romanian housing movement. Bulgaria is yet to find its housing movement activists. And of course, with regard to labor unions, there have been areas which are traditionally more unionized. I can give the classic example of mining as one such area. But of course, it’s complex because. When there isn’t sufficient grassroots activity or involvement and when the people are not in general, not very aware what labor unionism is about, there is a tendency that labor unions are just limited to a few bureaucrats which stand in Sofia. They are experts. They’re probably people who know the labor code. They have some practice. They can give advice. But in any case, if something is to happen, it has to happen at the local level. And what can happen on the national level even with regards to the two major labor unions, what they can do is to negotiate with the political parties and the governments.

There is one telling example when in the summer of 2020, major protests erupted against the government of local bodies. There were protests led at least in part by the so-called middle class or a part of the middle class, which has some kind of a corporatist profile. And lots of people were demanding that labor unions take the people out on the streets. That was the understanding that when labor unions, or rather their leadership can take many people on the street. And that didn’t happen.

What happened was that at that moment, already there was the looming issue of the Green Deal, the kind of energy reform which the EU proposes. The issue of a major conglomerate of coal mines and thermal power plant in the Stara Zagora region was looming. So the labor unions, in fact negotiated at that moment that amount of money to be given as credit with very good conditions so that this kind of industry remains viable for some time. At that moment, it could have been seen as the interest of the workers because their labor, their work remains somehow economically viable. Their jobs were protected.

But on the other hand, it was also seen as some kind of a political involvement and the activity, which the protests kind of did not approve of. The protest wanted a major revolution against corruption. So these were the contradictions. In any case, we are living in the real world. There is power and there are people who want to take power, and there are people in opposition, who want to seize political power. There are also economic powers in the country.

So in this real world, labor unions, at least in my view, without being so much involved, give so much understanding from their inner dealings… I think they are generally in a crisis in Bulgaria, and it is namely because once again, for the very same reason that. There isn’t pride for the young people in being a worker. There is pride in being a capitalist. In our media when some crises happen, like the energy crisis or corona crisis, there is always the question: what does the business want, are the problems of the business? You don’t get the question, or at least I haven’t heard it on major TV networks: what do the workers want? At least, I’m not aware of this kind of discourse.

It is somehow presumed that when workers are somehow attachment or extension either of the corporatist business sector or of the oligarchic business sector, or maybe they’re with the state, they’re looking for the state administration. Or some state-owned industry. So maybe if something is to happen ever, it would be the gradual development of consciousness among workers. But of course, that has to happen from within, in order to be authentic, that can be imposed from the outside. And that is happening with difficulty in Bulgaria for a number of reasons.

Maybe our labor is not that powerful in economic terms. Maybe many people just don’t have energy after work. It is exhausting. And let me just finish with one relatively positive moment. A recent story from this week. There was a trilateral discussion between labor unions, employers and the government on the issue of the rise of the minimum salary, which is right now at quite low level. I mean, it is less than €350 and there was discussion for not that significant increase. But it was interesting that the current financial minister who is from the party Change Continues, who is the second major figure in this party and government, he is called a super minister, a co-prime minister, etc… he’s a very influential figure right now. He said that if employers can’t allow even the minimal salary they are not doing anything meaningful is a business. It’s not a real business. I am retailing it. But basically that is the meaning of what he says. And that is a very unusual thing to be heard in Bulgarian politics. For quite a long time the government was mostly siding with the employers and introduced a lot of anti-labor measures, such as, for example, the expansion of the allowed overtime work hours and other issues.

So, I now say a hypothesis – if something ever happens or change happens in Bulgaria, it is maybe likely to happen from the above. Maybe that is the hopeful situation. If those people who are ruling have sensitivity and awareness in the economic policy, they will be aware that you can’t correct the demographic crisis in Bulgaria, you can’t expand and modernize the economy without high salaries.

Vladimir, it was really surprising to hear Vasiliev’s quote because Polish strongman Yaroslav Kaczynski said something very similar, some two years ago. Basically, he said that if somebody is a businessman and can’t afford minimal wages for his workers, perhaps it is time to close the business and go working himself. So we see that again, similar tendencies are seen in our countries despite the geographical distance.

And I think you have made an important point that I think refers to many countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We hear constantly in the media how this or that situation with illness will influence the business, how the state can help the business, what happens to the business with and under the pandemics. For instance, in Poland in the first phase of the pandemic, the states tried to intervene more actively, mainly by providing money to companies. State help of large value was given to private companies. And we never heard, as you said, what the workers might want. Nobody said something like this under the pandemic condition.

Our discussion got a little longer than we planned, so I think we could close it just with one short reflection because the thing that changed in Poland as far as trade unions are concerned is that the trade unions perception is, in my opinion, also a generational change. We are living in capitalism and the young generation in Poland who are 30 and less years old, know no other system than the neoliberal capitalism and have no experience of anything else.

They compare right now what they were taught about capitalism with what was their real experience, from one job or from another. And I believe that for today’s Polish people in the age of 20 or 25, it is far easier to stand out against capitalism when they see the contrast between what they were taught that school, where they studied in the curriculum the basics of enterprise leadership – a compulsory subject in Polish school, that indoctrinates about the benefits of capitalism and the can counter put their own experience from the labor market.

I think that is why young workers today will be interested in more activism. Young people are more, more likely to hear the left wing agenda. And so I think this is also a hope for a trade union movement in our countries. It’s basically a generational change that is taking place and now a generation that experienced capitalism is going to say a word about capitalism. So very briefly, do you think that this is likely to happen in your country? Radu we start with you.

Yeah, yeah. Very briefly, I think it can definitely happen. You see you see the youth, at least some parts of the youth… it’s hard to theorize for the entirety of it and I personally don’t feel comfortable doing so. You see the rise of certain like more left leaning media creators right now. We know left leaning issues become more easily discussed in sort of circles. And even if the circles don’t fully have the language of a left leaning group, I think that youth is very much having the mindset that capitalism, the capitalistic system exploits them and they have to either fight or try to become one of the people in the ruling class, basically.

I think what we need to do very much as labor unions, and I think we’re trying to do in labor unions, in our own confederation we need in a sese to cherish the past. We have miners and we have industrial workers like any kind of workers that worked in manufacturing and used to produce machines, such as cars, which we drive on our streets such as Rennault.

But we also need to look at workers that work in call centers or like working banks. Fintechs centers are also a place of work. And if we don’t look towards those, you know, I don’t think the labor union movement is going to have a very promising future in a sense. But I would like again to end on an optimistic note. People in Denmark have been able to unionize the financial technology sector, fintech. So it’s very much possible because those people are workers at the end of the day, you know, not all of them believe in the labor union. Some of them do, but some of them just want to do a job that pays well. And I guess they also deserve the right to unionize. And by unionizing them, we bring their dues into the union and we can use that pragmatically speaking to build the society we want. But we very much need to turn to those workers. Society might not consider them workers because, you know, they workers are perceived as being blue collar and in the new technological industry employees sit at the office and play with their excel sheets. You know, they are workers too. They do their jobs.

Vladimir, should we expect a more optimistic note from you, too? Or you have no illusions about Bulgaria?

I would be happy to know more people like Radu in Bulgaria, and I am happy I know him personally. I am happy I discovered him or he discovered us. In any case, my impression from Romania has generally been about greater dynamics and the greater energy in people in comparison to Bulgaria. Maybe it’s the fact that I live in the provincial zone in Bulgaria, but I really feel Bulgarian young people, all types of all kinds of people are exploited not only so much in terms of money. Maybe there are various people who make some money as salaried workers. But it’s also energy and time, which is very deficient. So, you know, when you have so many things to resolve any day and week by week, life just doesn’t allow for some dream of something more, which is not existing, something to be created, some new fights to be held. So I’m always hopeful, but I just find my hopes, mostly in other countries right now.

Oh, thank you, friends, very much for this conversation! As I said, it went over the time level that we set for ourselves. It seems that we found the topic that is important. It’s a developing story. The strikes in Poland are still a developing story and I’m going to cover them next week at So thank you to everybody who listens! We are going to come back again with another trade union discussion, this time focused on America. And also, I invite you to subscribe to the channel or express your feelings to comment. Thank you very much and see you again.

Photo: Wojciech Jasiński, a labor union leader at the Solaris bus factory in Bolechowo, Greater Poland voivodeship:

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