Workers in Poland after 1989

It is very hard to write one article about all the processes and conditions connected with the situation of polish workers. In this article I will try to present the most important matters diving them into several groups of ceratin topics.

Constitutional transformation and the privatisation of companies

During the revolution of 1980/81 workers demanded to create companies of workers' councils. This condition was thought to be necessary not only for making the economical reform work but also a method to humanize the workplaces and emancipate the individual. The researcher of "Solidarnosc" movement Alain Touraine stated that the language of polish workers at that time was not very different from the one of the workers from the West who in fact were working in the terms of "law of efficiency and profit". "Socialist and capitalist states - he wrote in 1982 - differ or are even opposite to each other in matters of carrying out social changes and processes of industrialization but talking about the measure of the same kind of industrialized society they have the same class structures, putting the workers on the opposite sides, those with the power, qualifications, experiences and their group solidarity, organizers to those who are managers demanding to be efficient, dictating the conditions and the rhythm of work, the system of payments, those who exploit others." The workers' councils were to completely change that system of exploitation. "Solidarnosc" trade union appealed in 1981 to all the parts of the union to "support and help in creating the workers' councils" independent to "the state administration, political organisations and trade unions."

At that time there was no agreement to privatize the economy in a capitalist way. The statistics of social research show that. One of them carried out in 1980 just before the general strike in Poland shows that about 56,9 per cent of workers were unconditionally for national and social forms of property, and only 11 per cent called themselves as decided followers of privatisation. In 1990 already after the constitutional transformation 23 per cent of workers were still for the national property, and 48,9 per cent called themselves as followers of very limited privatisation of trade and agriculture. The privatisation of trade (the so-called: small privatisation) took place extremely quickly and, generally, it was supported by the society, but still in 1992 a majority (60 per cent) of Polish people were for leaving the big industry in the hands of the state.

Of course these statistics show that the support for privatsation was increasing year by year, but it has never been unconditional. The increase of the support for the privtaization was partly because of the not clear position of "Solidarnosc", which in 1985 wrote in their programme some thesis for market economy what meant privatisation. Generally, the neoliberal elites did not take this level of support into consideration. The proccess of privatisation that began in 1989 was very impulsive, not controlled by the society and very often was called as "savage privatisation".

Social-economical consequences of constitutional changes in Poland

In 1989 the private part of the economy generated 20,4 per cent of GNP (gross national product) - some ? of today's GNP. The private sector employs about 75 per cent of workforce. In the beginning of the 1990's there were still 8,5 thousand national companies, in 2000 there were 2,4 thousand left. Currently commercialization is developing very fast, meaning transforming the so-called companies of the Treasury and put then out for sale, most often to the foregin concerns. The privatisation harmed not only the energetic sector, public transport but also the education system and the heatlh service, what was never allowed by the society.

Piotr Szumlewicz writing for "The New Worker" ("Nowy Robotnik") a critical opinion about the constitutional transformation from the distance of 15 years after its beginning states that: "There was no compulsion to walk that way of privatisation that Poland did after 1989." The authorities chosen the worst solution of all possible ones. Of course it has caused many negative phenomenons: in years 1990-1991 the GNP decreased for almost 18 per cent and the unemployment increased for 2 million people. The number of people living below the social minimum doubled. The real payments decreased for almost ?. The level of crimes commited increased (eg. in 1990 the number of crimes compared to 1989 increased for 60 per cent, and the number of criminal ones inreased for 70 per cent). And so on.

The political reforms, freedom of creating associations, trade unions, political parties, the annulment of censorship and especially recovery of sovereignty of local councils, caused many positive phenomenons. The politics of the communist regime caused total destruction of some civilisational and ecological matters. Eg. thanks to the help of investment politics of regions afetr the transfomation (from 1990 to 1994) about 18 thousand km of water-pipes were built (a 60 per cent increase). The length of the sewage system increased for about 24 per cent, the heat engineering system for about 113 per cent. The number of telephone subscribers increased for 44 per cent etc. The economical-political changes after 1989 improved for sure the communal infrastructure.

That does not change the global assesment of the transformation which was carried out against the postulates of vast majority of workers. It caused an increase of social tensions. According to polish Main Statistical Office, in 1990 250 strikes engaging 116 thousand workers took place in Poland. Government documents say that "During 10 months of 1991 104 demonstrations were recorded, most of them were peaceful and small. In this period 132 strikes and breaks in working were recorded" In 1991 for the first time force was used against the protesting workers, among others for pacification of Municipal Company of Communication in Bialystok where the protesters demanded firing the director, increasing salaries and dicussing about the property transformations of the company with them.

The work market and the unemployment

One of the most harmful effects of the constitutional tranformation in Poland is the increase of unemployment. Analizing the statistics the differences between the "old" and the "new" EU members can be clearly noticed. The average level of unemployment in EU was 8,1 per cnet in 2003. In majority of the newly accpeted countries the level of unemployment is higher, especially in Poland (almost 20 per cent) and in Slovakia.

What is more - as the censuses from 1988 and 2002 show there have been extremely big changes in the professional structure. The percentage of people professionally active has decreased from 65,2 per cent to 55,5 per cent, so the number for people professionally passive has increased for about 10 per cent. At last, 32,3 per cent of people over 15 years old live from their own job and in 1988 this number was 45,5 per cent - this percentage has decreased in spite of the fact of the demographic growth which brought more people in the production age.

The demographic growth causes the situation that the unemployment touches young people first, who are just starting to look for their first job. Between the age of 15 and 24 the unemployment rate is 29,4 per cent. The fears of the experts on analitics are mostly about the fact that more and more often the unemployment is touching the people graduating from universities. Since now, it has been said that if you finish a university you will get a job for sure, and hundereds of thousands of people are accepted to universities to study (Poland has second after Finland level of scholarization), when in many regions of Poland 1/3 of universities' graduates still remain unemployed.

Even though since several months the production level has been growing in Poland, the hopes of political elites of improving the situation on the employment market still remain unfulfilled (GNP has reached 7 per cent, and the industrial growth had increased for 12,3 per cent). The improvement of these macroeconomic statistics doesn't seem to reflect on the stable growth of number of workplaces. In Poland, in the 1990's foreign investments and the know-how transfer were based on the most modern technologies, it made the development and the rationalization tempo faster what causes the current growth of productivity that is faster than the integral economic result. So the so-called jobbless growth can be seen.

The fact that the final crash of the social still hasn't take place is a result of the condition of the working class that is disorganised and the agile play of political elites that from the 1st May 2004 promised that after joining the EU the situation would improve. The researches show that half os the unemployed people in Poland are prone to work abroad. The government promises that in majority the workers can count on improvement due to the opening of Western work markets.


One of the myths that is supported by political elites says that the basic reason of the unemployment is a high price of the work and inflexibility of the work market. As an example they bring the statistics showing that te cost of the real work is increasing. But within the privatization of more and more sectors of the economy in Poland it turns out that only the salaries of bosses and higer-profile officials of management sector and the personnel of medium level, and the salaries of bureau workers and factory workers decrease. As one of polish economic magazines stated in 2002 the salaries of polish managers are 10-15 times higher that the average payment of the country. "Nowhere in Europe - the magazine points out - the range of payments is that wide as it is in Poland". It is not said too that the real payments debreased for 25 per cent during first two years of constitutional transformation. The price of workforce is one of the lowest in Europe. The average rate per hour of work is for particular countries:
- Germany - 17,56 euro
- Italy - 16,72 euro
- Great Britain - 15,45 euro
- France - 14,08 euro
- Spain - 10,41 euro
- Portugal - 5,33 euro
- Czech Rep. - 3,31 euro
- Poland - 2,64 euro
- Russia - 0,93 euro
- Ukraine - 0,36 euro

The payments in privatised branches of industry are much lower that in the public sector. Eg. the payment in controlled by the state branch of industry such as mining was in 2003 on average 3801 zlotys (which means 570 euro netto), and the payment in provatised building branch, trade, majority of services was twice lower. The payments of teachers are about 2198 zlotys gross (330 euro netto).

Amongst the countries of EU Poland is a place where people work the longest and earn the fewest (in 2003 employed poles worked for 1984 hours approximately and earned about 453 euro gross - 1350 zlotys netto). If you referred that to Germany - the worker in Germay works for about 40 per cent shorter and earns about five times more. Of course those differences can be explained not only by the level of work productivity.

Finally - according to the social researches - only 14 per cent of Polish people admit that after the transformation of 1989 they have succeeded financially.

Social situation after 1989

The unemloyment and the decrease of payments that touched a lot of professional groups caused the decrease of the level of material existence, and also affected the quality of life. In 1989 15 per cent of society lived below the income poverty line, in 1996 it was 47 per cent and now it is 58 per cent. This line is defined according to the amount of income allowing to buy products and services indispensable for life, health and the ability to work, and also the participation in some range of cultural events and public life. In dependence to the size of family this line is from 500 up to 800 zlotys per eprson (111 to 177 euro).

If I tried to analyse the social situation not only according to the economical categories it turns out that in many cases the level of existence in Poland is quite low. Eg. according to the Human Development Index, referring to life expectancy, the quality of eductaion, the average income per citizen, Poland is on aboout 40th place out of 170 researched countries. But if I took the situation on the work market into consideration it leads to radical fall in the rank (below the 70th position).

Unemployment and the tragic material situation leads people to commit suicide. Since 1989 the number of commited suicides is still growing, especially amongst youth.

Trade unions

In Poland, according to various statisics 14 up to 18 per cent of all employees (the general number of all employed is 13,2 million) are members of trade unions. The percentage is still falling for many years. In 1980 "Solidarity" trade union was a movement that 10 million paople took part in. Still in the beginning of the 1990's the trade union was gathering 2,25 million members. Now, only 750 thousands employees are members of this trade union. The second biggest trade union in Poland is OPZZ - All-Polish Agreement of Trade Unions that gathers about 730 thousand employees. The OPZZ was created middle 1980's as a pro-regime trade union. The third biggest trade union is newly created FZZ - Forum of Trade Unions, it gathers 300 thousand employees. Other trade unions that very often are based in particular plants gather 600 thousand employees.

Most often the reasons of the decrease of the number of participants of trade unions the are eg. the changes in the structure of employing workers. The heavy and mining industry that used to gather the biggest number of trade unionists is no longer the main sector giving employment to people. The dominantt role is now played by trade and services. Those branches are characteristic with a completely different ways of organising work. The workers of trade and services are very often idstracted, more mobile and work in small groups. Eg. in Polish mining 60 per cent workers are still members of trade unions, and in the trade and in services only several are (in building industry only 3 per cent).

The second and not less important reason because of which people do not participate in trade unions is the fall of trust in trade unions. It comes from radical politicizing of trade unions' authorities in the early 1990's and also from the too often corruption of unions' plants' structures. The use of trade unions in political fights by different political parties (rightist or leftist ones) hasn't given any benefits for the working class. The pro-capitalist reforms that began in 1989 brought massive unemployment (now it has reached almost 20 per cent), limitation of social privileges and decrease of salaries of qualified workers and office workers, the main base of trade unions. Even the thought to be a success limitation the working week to 40 hours after the pressure of "Solidarity" in 2000, turn out to be a fiction. In fact, Polish people work longer - as the researches show - 45 hours a week. More than a half of employers do not care about the time of work, and 2/3 of them harms the conditions of payments (most often not paying on time). Generally, the position of workers whose trade unions should defend their rights without compromises has worsened. The number of unionists is still falling though, because more and more big plants either go bankrupt or radically limit its employment and the trade unions are not able to fit into these new conditions, still being involved in the politics.

Workers' protests in 2002 - 2004

In 2002 - 2003 there have been the biggest since 1989-1991 workers' protests, sometimes they were wery violent. In 2002, 8 thousand shipyard's workers from Szczecin were protesting for many months, also the crew of Bison-Bial in Bialystok and there has been a conflict in the factory of cables in Ozarow Mazowiecki that ended up with five-day riots (26-30 November 2002). There has been a very strong protest of miners on 11 September 2003 in Warsaw. The workers of Tonsil from Wrzesnia were protesting in the streets and they were threatening to block to the highway A-2. On 26 April 2002, 70 thousand unionists from "Solidarity" were protesting against the changes in the work law and on the 25th April more than 20 thousand unionists were demanding to stop the dissmissals' politics, a respect for workers' rights, paying salaries on time and bringing back the unemployment benefits and pre-retirement welfare benefits. And so on.

Thanks to the power of those protests the state donated weak companies with 5,5 bilion euro (100 per cent more than a year before), thanks to what many workplaces were saved (in the shipyards' industry from 30 up to 60 thousand according to variuos researches).

Currently the number of social protests is decrasing what can be linked to the state's donations and the stabilization of situation in many branches. But after the accesion to the EU such big interferrence of state will not be possible anymore. Few years ago during the EU summit in Stockholm the states of the Union obliged that the welfare will be reduced for 0,7 per cent of GNP. In Poland the GNP was in 2003 smaller for 3 per cent! The fitting in the EU's conditions can cause more social-political problems and a wave of workers' uprisings, especially when the economical growth will not cause the creation of new workplaces and the western European work market will not absorb the big part of polish unemployed people.

Jaroslaw Urbanski

OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza
Komisja Krajowa

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