On 24 June tram and bus drivers in Bydgoszcz, a city in northern Poland, stopped their vehicles and blocked the entrance to the city depot. What is happening is a textbook example of an industrial strike. Yet, the workers themselves prefer to talk about a revolt – as they went on strike without going through the lengthy procedure of industrial action prescribed by Polish law. They felt that only a radical step would make someone want to talk to them seriously. In fact, it is hard not to agree with them.
In one of the episodes of Cross-Border Talks at the beginning of this year, I suggested that a wave of protests and strikes may rise up in Poland, if nothing is done about low wages, inflation and rising prices of basing goods.
Then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine became the topic number one, and for many of us solidarity with our neighbours became more urgent than our own grievances. Yet, the reality is severe: life of an average working Polish citizen has become significantly more expensive, and our salaries do not adjust to the trend.
New protests were only a matter of time. In some entreprises, workers reached agreements with the board on the earlier stages of industrial dispute. The drivers from Bydgoszcz, though, felt that a lengthy procedure of mediations and signing protocols of divergence would not bring them anything.
In Poland, city bus drivers are yet one category of essential workers who are nightmarishly underpaid. The strikers from Bydgoszcz often earn not much above 3000 PLN (approx. a bit more than 600 euros), not far from the minimum salary. If they say that soon no one would like to ride a city bus for this money, they are not making idle threats.
Furthermore, it is not just an isolated case of one city. The author of these words lives in the Upper Silesian-Zagłębie metropolitan area in the south of Poland, an urban area with a population of nearly 2,5 mln inhabitants. I do not need to explain the importance of urban rails, buses and trams in a place like this. Yet, the “course cancelled” sign on the boards indicating the arrival times of city buses no longer surprises us. Other examples from other Polish cities can be found, too.
We persisted for a very long time – and many Poles, sadly, still do – in the belief that nothing can be done about poor wages. At best, one can simply work more, at the expense of health and time spent with loved ones. However, recent months show that the working people of Poland see more and more clear how pointless are such ‘advices’. We in Poland do work hard. Nevertheless, high prices and inflation hit us. There is a growing feeling that waiting for mercy would equal to a suicide. On the other hand, the industrial working class is gradually growing a belief that a collective action can actually be succesful. The victorious strikes in Paroc Polska factory in 2021 and then a historic six-week strike in Solaris bus factory, to name just the most famous examples, helped to grow self-confidence and determination.
In addition, Polish workers have seen frequently in recent years that the capitalist motto “the government has no money” should rather read: “there is no money for hard-working people”.
Under the Law and Justice government (since 2015), they have seen with their own eyes that if there is a need, funds are found. The last example were generous business support packages launched almost overnight during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the government boasting loud about how much money was distributed among entreprises.
The Bydgoszcz drivers have learned their lesson. They demonstrated their strength. In doing so, they proved the regularity that when workers are really angry and have been disrespected for years, they will express their indignation in a way that shatters the framework of the legal order, which, after all, was not designed to favour their interests.
Trade unions in Poland have for years raised the demand to amend the Polish industrial disputes law, which prohibits solidarity strikes and expects a complicated, multi-stage bargaining and mediation procedure to be completed before workers are even asked if they want to strike. Bydgoszcz drivers did not wait for legal changes, that might never come, as they feel their wages must rise here and now.
If Solaris, a record-long strike was one milestone in the newest history of Polish labour movement, then the Bydgoszcz revolt, proving courage and high organisation level, is another one.
The Bydgoszcz strike/revolt shows us, too, that even the most elementary demands of the workers may not be met with understanding by the representatives of power. The city mayor Rafał Bruski, whose own salary was raised to 20 000 PLN (approx. 4200 euros) last year, sent a letter to the protesters, claiming that ‘economy laws are not a subject of discussion’. He also suggested them to choose how they wanted to find funds for their wages: by ticket prices rises or by slashing the number of bus & tram courses.
Bruski, come and work for 3000 PLN – says the slogan on display on the protesting tram:
The city has also sent a formal notification of the possible offence being committed to the prosecution office. Instead of showing any degree of good will and readiness to search for solutions that would include workers’ interest, local politicians want to see the drivers persecuted for illegal strike.
Yet, the city was able to hire private companies to secure a substitute transport, which is, of course, not free. And, as the labour activists from Inicjatywa Pracownicza union warn, may also not be entirely safe for the inhabitants of Bydgoszcz. On 4 July, a young man fell out of a substitute bus, and while the inquiry into the incident is still going on, the drivers suggest that a bad technical state of the vehicle could have been the most probably reason.
– The Mayor is (…) playing with the safety of ordinary citizens just to maintain the humiliating salaries of the drivers. Thus, the current drivers’ protest reveals more than a crisis in this one municipal company. The reactions of the local authority to the protest show that this authority has become too detached from ordinary residents. The municipal elite doesn’t care if someone flies out of the open door of a contractor’s bus again, and prefers this to giving decent wages to public transport – sum up the activists.
Yet one ironical dimension of the story becomes evident, if we see how Polish politicians, including Mayor Bruski and his colleagues, praise the Solidarity movement, a workers’ movement that ultimately contributed to the fall of Polish People’s Republic. Celebrating courage and determination of strikers of that time, they never wonder if they stopped their factories in a legal manner or not. Apparently every tool was right to resist to the fallen ‘real socialism’, but only a limited set of ineffective tools is granted to workers in democracy which was supposed to offer them more.
Ordinary people who work hard, and local elites who do not care – this is a Polish (Central-Eastern European, and not only) reality we have learned to live in.
It is possible that now we are starting to learn how to express our unwillingness to live like this any more. The industrial workers are in the forefront of the protest. And they will not give up easily.
7 July, in the afternoon, the protest was finished and an agreement signed by all trade union organizations uniting the drivers and by the city hall. The workers are to receive a pay rise worth 350 PLN (around 60 euros), which is around 1/3 of their initial demands. Before the strike and during the protest, the local government claimed that there were absolutely no money for any pay rises. The conclusion is pretty obvious.
It is also quite clear that the workers of Bydgoszcz and the drivers from other cities in Poland would be able to draw conclusions from this short, but dramatic episode of class struggles.
Cover photo: group photo of protesting workers in Bydgoszcz bus depot. Source: the protesters’ archive.