Malgorzata Kulbaczewska: Poles view membership in labour unions positively

A talk about Polish attitude towards Labour Day and the specifics of Polish labour unions, including in the context of the influx of Ukrainian migrants before and after the war in Ukraine

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist, specialized in labour and migrant issues. In 2022 she reported from the strike at the Solaris factory. She is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, which allows her to understand the complex past and contemporary realities of the wider region of Central and Eastern Europe.

An interview given for the Bulgarian National Radio’s Horizon programme.

Polish attitude towards 1 May

Mrs. Kulbaczewska, how has the attitude of Polish people towards the day of labour, 1st of May, changed in the last 33 years?

In fact, for most Polish people, the 1st of May is now that day when you go out of the city, when you have some fun with your friends and family. You relax. You are happy because of the warm weather. The feast has been deprived of any significant meaning since socialism fell. Today, if people are asked about their attitudes, they either mention this day of relaxation or they start talking about how it was under the socialist time. 

Basically, after the real socialism fell in Poland, nobody tried to do anything significant on this day. Of course, there are still left-wing marches or trade union marches, but this is just a shadow of what we used to have before 1989. And in fact, even the organizers don’t expect thousands of participants at such events. For years the right wing tried to attack 1 May as a kind of tradition that belongs to the past. But now they don’t even bother to do it. They simply know that the date does not mean anything to most people in Poland. And it does not seem that it will change in the near future.

Attitude towards labour unions in Poland

What is in fact the attitude towards labor unions in Poland? I know that there are a lot of members of labor unions in Poland, unlike other countries in our region. So what are the specifics and what makes these labor unions so interesting for the Poles to participate in them?

Yes, it is a kind of paradox. 1 May is not a date treated very seriously, while trade unions have experienced a moderate revival over the last years.I mean, the fact that the trade unions cannot mobilize more than a few hundred people for the 1st May marches does not mean that they are helpless and does not mean that they are not doing many more interesting things. 

The trade unions in Poland, I would say, are not very weak, but not very strong either. They are, of course, not the same mass organizations that they used to be under socialist rule. In the 90s a lot of people gave up on their trade union membership, believing that unions belong to the past and that now it is a personal initiative that counts. And a lot of people, I would say even more people, were also forced to leave trade union organizations because the law on trade unions that we have, the law on collective bargaining that we have in Poland is in fact very strict toward trade union organizations.

You can’t organize a union in a small company when you don’t find ten members. And if you decide to go on strike or organize a protest, you need to undergo four stages of negotiations, mediations and then voting before you actually can do something against the employer’s will. This also makes people think that unions are ineffective, that they only collect the membership fees but can’t offer very much to the members. And that is also one of the reasons for which some people are not interested to join unions or that they abandon their membership. On the other hand, unions are now getting a more positive vibe than ever. The young generation or the young workers who were born at the end of the socialist times or at the beginning of the capitalist era in Poland start to think of unions as something positive. This is something new compared to the previous generations.

Young people’s attitude towards labour union

For young people, labour unions are an institution that could democratize the labour market, an institution that could actually support them, support their rights in the confrontation with the employers. And this is a generational change. This young generation that lived and worked only under capitalism declares that they want strong unions. They want unions to participate in public life and even have a stronger influence over politics. 

Generally speaking, one more thing also should be mentioned about the trade unions in Poland. Our trade union movement is very divided. One of the labor unions – Confederation named Solidarity, which is the continuation of the famous social movements in the 1980s, is a union which is, I would say, more right wing, more Catholic, more solidarist in the sense of Christian democracy. And it is also on very good terms with the present Conservative government. It does not mean that they were able to force some revolutionary changes in the Labor legislation. Nevertheless, they were able to negotiate some decisions that were favorable to different groups of workers. Another group, another confederation of trade unions, which is called All-Poland Union of Trade Unions, is, generally speaking, more militant, secular, not Catholic, more to the left, generally speaking, more oriented towards a kind of democratic socialism or social democracy. And as I said, they are generally more militant, and the unions that belong to that confederation led some of the most militant strike actions over the last years, including the strike in Solaris factory, the bus factory, in 2022, which lasted six weeks and was one of the biggest strike actions in Central Europe after 1989.

Also, we have some smaller trade unions which are usually more radical than the big groups. And I would say there is one more important thing to know. Trade unions are, in my view, much more democratic organizations than political parties in Poland and very often they are the only groups that citizens of Poland are actually active in. Some people on the left complain that they are not radical enough or that they enter into all kinds of deals with their employers. Of course, this happens as different people form trade unions, but generally speaking, if somebody enters a political party in Poland, we often have second thoughts. Perhaps he is not sincere. Perhaps he wants some personal business to be fixed. But when somebody becomes a trade union activist, it means that this person has a motivation to do some social work.

Key labour issues in Poland

What are the issues that are of the greatest interest for the labor unions and for workers to fight for in recent times?

The key issues that unions are involved in are related to wages. For years, the biggest confederations have demanded the salaries in Poland to go up. And the second big issue is, I would say, the question of so-called junk contracts or different temporary labor contracts that are signed with people in Poland, even in the condition when somebody should get a standard labor contract. So trade unions, first of all, try to fight against these very basic pathological phenomenons of the Polish labor market, low wages, outsourcing, and these, as I said, ‘junk contracts’ where, for example, somebody is doing regular work coming to the workplace for eight hours every day but is not offered a proper contract, which gives him or her all the guarantees, access to health care, etc. Instead he is given a kind of contract for a civil job which does not even guarantee the right to have a day off.

Another issue that has been important for trade unions in Poland is to modernize and to adapt to the current labor market as it is today. Trade unions in Poland were born when most of the workers worked in big factories or in smaller factories. This was this model of work: you are connected to one workplace for a long time and you do your work together with your workmates, et cetera. And now the Polish trade unions are reaching out to people who do platform work, who do just temporary jobs, who are employed through outsourcing companies. And there is still a lot to do in this resort by the trade unions. It was a huge success for the Polish trade union movement last year to set up a first organization of platform workers, namely drivers who bring food on personal orders through a platform. And now there are constant attempts being made to organize Ukrainian workers, where unfortunately, much less successful success has been achieved so far. Another issue that is pretty important for Polish trade unions is this labor law or the law on industrial disputes, which is very strict and which makes workers undergo different stages of mediation, negotiation and so on before a strike is actually allowed. Trade unions have been fighting for years to have a different law on industrial disputes, more based on Western European regulations, where a trade union can actually proclaim a strike without all these complicated preparations and just then see if the workers want to participate or not. However, in this case, it is more likely that trade unions will have to face even tougher legislation than to see it liberalised, because the current government wants to limit the possibilities of smaller trade unions, the smaller ones which are usually more more radical and leave certain possibilities only to the biggest trade unions, which in practice also are more willing to seek a kind of compromise with the employers.

Ukrainian migrants

You mentioned that Ukrainian workers may also be an issue and the war in Ukraine led to a big influx of Ukrainian refugees in Poland. So how are these social issues related to the war in Ukraine and Ukrainian migration into Poland affecting the fight for labor rights in Poland?

In fact, there was a huge migration of Ukrainians into the Polish labour market even before the war. I can’t give you an exact number because nobody has it, but at least 1 million Ukrainians were working in Poland before the 24th February 2022. And a fair, fair share of this number were actually planning to stay here forever, or at least for a very long time. Now, when we have a couple of millions of Ukrainian workers here and even more of them planning to stay in Poland, indeed it becomes one of the key issues for the Polish labour market, namely, if these people are not integrated into trade unions, they will form a big ‘reserve army’ for employers. And I mean, if it would be much more difficult even for Polish workers to demand their rights, if employers know that there are millions of people willing to work for a lower wage. unfortunately, this is the case already at the moment. Most of Ukrainians are used to working for lower wages than those that are available in Poland, and so they often tend to agree for worse conditions than the Polish workers. 

Ukrainian workers and labour unions

On the other hand, this problem is not as big as it used to be a few years ago, as Ukrainian workers are also better organized than they used to be. They have their own channels of information exchange and of supporting each other. This is, of course, very unofficial. But what I want to say is that these people are not are not helpless when confronting their employers and so on. Unfortunately, as I said, this cell, this organization, this contact networks of the Ukrainian workers happens in most cases outside the trade unions, as there were no regular contacts between Polish and Ukrainian trade unions before the war. And there were only a couple of attempts of Polish trade unions to set organizations specifically addressed at Ukrainian workers. most of these attempts were not really successful either. 

What is happening now is that there are new initiatives on both sides. The trade union, which is called Confederation of Labour, which is a part of the All-Poland Trade Union Confederation, has been very active in supporting Ukrainian migrants. They opened special info points after the invasion and they started supporting migrants very effectively. And the second organization I need to mention here is Initiative of Nika or Workers Initiative, which is in permanent contact with the Independent Union of Miners in Ukraine and which has co-organized a couple of humanitarian aid convoys coming to Ukraine to the city of Kryvyi Rih. So as I said, there is a lot of work to do here. There is a lot of work even to encourage Ukrainians to join trade unions, to stop them thinking that they came to Poland to earn money and not to get into trouble. But on the other hand, these Ukrainian workers are already most of the Ukrainian workers, especially now with the war in their homeland. They want to stay here for longer and they are likely to be fully integrated in the society very soon. And it is also possible that they will be members of the trade unions as active as their Polish colleagues. We will have soon, however, even a bigger problem with other groups of migrant workers who are also coming to Poland. Here I mean the workers from the Caucasus, from India, from Bangladesh, who are becoming even more and more numerous with every year and who are completely disinterested at the moment in getting unionized.

Photo: Day of Labour in Poland (source: Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat)

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