March of Anger. Polish Public Sector Workers Say: Enough is Enough!

On Friday, 15 September, one month before Polish elections, workers employed in the public sector plan to march on the Prime Minister’s office. Trade Unions’ Forum and All-Poland Trade Unions Confederation formed a Protest Committee of Public Sector Employees to say no to low wages and lack of adequate measures to tackle inflation. Thousands of people will fight for a better future – for themselves, and for the Polish state as a whole.

What pushed them to the streets is “lack of implementation by the Government of the Republic of Poland of the demands for indexation of the average annual wage growth rate in the state budget sphere by at least 20% as of July 1, 2023 and by at least 24% as of January 1, 2024” – writes the Committee of the March of Anger. This is the name of the protesters’ committee, and the anger among state employees is real. Due to low salaries offered in the entire public sphere, there is a permament shortage of people wishing to work there. This applies to schools, local and central administration, public transport associations and culture institutions. All these places are often considered a job ‘for a start’, until they find a better-paid position. In case of transport, local governments struggle so much to deal with shortage of qualified drivers that they would have been lost without foreigners filling the vacancies.

To change that, at the end of August, the government declared that the final budget salary increases for the following year will be 12.3 per cent more than those made this year (6.6 per cent). However, only teachers, whose salaries are regulated by separate laws, can actually expect raises in this amount. How about officials, culture workers, or even security forces or the military? According to the proposed budget legislation for 2024, the base amounts, from which the multiples of wages are calculated, will rise by 6.6 per cent rather than 12.3 per cent. Therefore, there is no assurance that everyone employed by the government will get the promised raises.

And even the teachers are far from being happy with this ‘generosity’.

– We have compared the education minimum salary, which will only grow by 12.3 per cent next year, and the economic minimum wage, which will rise by 20 per cent. If we relate teachers’ salary to the minimum wage, it is becoming lower – explains Vice President of the Polish Teachers’ Union Krzysztof Baszczyński, asked for comment by Business Insider. – Our salaries should be comparable to the average salary. It is challenging to work for such pay and find new employees who are eager to work at schools if the national average for July is one thousand higher than the average teacher salary. We want to alter the compensation structure so that the income in education automatically rises in accordance with the national average. We are currently dependent on politicians who set the maximum base amount – Baszczyński sums up.

Since 2020, cumulative inflation in Poland has amounted to almost 40 per cent.

Meanwhile, the average gross salary in the national economy and the minimum wage also increased by almost 40%. Only public sector salaries are practically stagnant. So yes, the increases proposed by the government are insufficient

– Urszula Łobodzińska, president of the KNSZZ “Ad Rem” trade union and one of the leaders of the March of Anger Committee tells me. 

The trade unionists are also fed up with the electoral campaign of the political parties.

– There is little interest in the budget sector among opposition parties. Only one formation committed to increasing public sector wages by 20%. The largest opposition party once mentioned raising our wages, but when it actually co-formed the government, they froze our salaries for 7 years

– another activist comments.

By protesting before the elections, he tells me, the budget employess want to force parliamentary candidates to define clearly what their plan is for budget employees, and therefore how the state should operate on a daily basis.

Some of the unions have preferred to collaborate with the government, weary of the strikes just before the elections. However even in this context, such a loud and unified response of the unions is something extraordinary in the Polish public sphere.

How does this cooperation look like? – We have established a protest committee of public sphere trade unions associated with two trade union headquarters, i.e. the Trade Unions Forum and the All-Poland Trade Unions Confederations. We are in contact all the time. We divided the tasks. In the media, some groups try to talk about others. This is really encouraging – tells me one leaders of the committee. 

However, the unity is not complete. – Groups that recently received pay increases or are in talks with the government did not join. Unfortunately, this is how the current government in Poland works. Divide and rule is their basic principle – adds Urszula Łobodzińska. “Solidarity”, the biggest trade union in Poland, and the most centralized, does not participate in the organization of the protest. – Their national authorities did not officially join the committee. However, individual Solidarity trade union organizations have contacted us and announced their participation in the march, which makes us very happy – tells me the president of KNSZZ “Ad Rem”. 

As we can read further in the statement issued by the unions: 

The Committee calls on all public employees for full mobilization and mass participation in the protest, and appeals to other trade unions operating in the broadly understood budget sphere and public finance sector units to support the demands for pay rises and actively participate in the protest action. The Committee also calls on all trade unions representing other sectors of the economy to support the demands of the Protest Committee and actively participate in the protest in solidarity. 

Later, the activists try to make one more appeal to Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister who so far has not been particulary attentive to the budget workers’ voices.

– This is the last moment to meet the legitimate demands of employees who serve the State and Citizens on a daily basis. Without fairly remunerated employees of the broadly understood budget sphere and public finance sector units, an efficient state does not exist! Acting on behalf of hundreds of thousands of employees, we expect immediate response and fulfillment of demands – they sum up.

It is possible that this march will make a considerable impact on the electoral campaign. The state broke the social contract with public sector employees a long time ago. It expects them to work responsibly, entrusts them with key areas of its functioning, expects further development and engagement, denies the right to strike to certain groups – and does not adequately reward their efforts.

The public sector has been underfunded for many years, and according to polls a lot of people seem to understand that. However, as it goes in Poland, everyone is against rising taxes. The only party that wants to address this problem structurally is the New Left that does not have any chance to create a majority. At best, they might influence a future government of the Civic Platform and Donald Tusk. Could they – or the sense of elementary responsibility for the state – also push the Law and Justice to making a real reform of the public sector funding? This would require more steps away from neoliberal state philosophy, but is not impossible.

The protest of budget employees will start on September 15 at 12 from the Palace of Culture and Science in central Warsaw. From there, the workers without whom the state cannot work will march to the Prime Minister’s Office.

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