What we saw in Poland in 2013 was a growing socio-economic crisis and a government attack on workers' rights. Unemployment remained at a high level (around 13 percent), almost the same as in the second half of the 1990s. Employers continued with mass redundancies and while intensifying work for those who managed to avoid unemployment. For the third year in a row wages rose slower than the inflation rate, so real wages actually dropped. At the same time, the central government as well as local authorities introduced a series of reforms which made workers pay for the crisis: the flexibilization of working time, the extension of the periods for calculating the average amount of working hours from 3 to 12 months (so employers have to pay less for overtime). The high VAT rate was maintained while income tax and capital taxes were kept low. Cuts in public services were made in many cities, especially in education, housing, and culture.
For the first time in many years, in 2013 the Polish unions mobilized together against the crisis and anti-worker government policy. In March, a one-day general strike was organized in Silesia, and in September the largest trade union demonstration since 1989 took place in Warsaw (with 200,000 participants). The main reason for the protests was the recent labor law on the period for calculating the average working time, however, there were also other demands: an increase of the minimum wage, the reduction of the retirement age (that was increased to 67 years for both men and women), and stricter regulations for the employment through so-called "junk contracts" (contract labor that is not covered by labor law). Poland has the highest proportion of workers in the European Union employed under those contracts: 30 percent of employees in Poland, the average for the EU is 14 percent.
Recent opinion pools show that public support for protests and union demands increased significantly in the past year, reaching nearly 70 percent.
On the background of these developments, Inicjatywa Pracownicza tried to continue to organize workplace activity, while joining larger mobilizations and protests. In comparison to previous years, in 2013 we also gave more attention to internal issues – like organizational and financial issues, activity focused on creating new committees, self-education and knowledge sharing.
Internal issues and nationwide activities
In March, we organized the 8th national congress of delegates. It approved the change of the financial model, i.e. a bigger part of the union fees is kept under the control of a local/workplace union section, and a smaller part is used for nationwide coordination and activities). The new national committee of nine members was elected and works on the basis of new regulations defining its internal division of tasks. The congress also introduced so-called "program conferences", i.e. regular meetings for the discussion of the union's program and mission. A first discussion on the coordination at local and industry level took place during the congress, although no changes have been introduced, yet.
Regarding street actions and protests, in 2013 Inicjatywa Pracownicza staged four nationwide mobilizations. We organized or actively supported (1) a demonstration in Gorzow (West Poland) demanding unpaid salaries of hospital workers in Kostrzyn and the stop of the privatization of health services [see pictures]; (2) a Mayday demonstration in Wroclaw under the slogan "Poland: Special Exploitation Zone"; (3) an hours-long picket on the first anniversary of the strike at the Chung Hong Electronics factory near Wroclaw [see pictures] lasting for long hours; and (4) a mobilization during the "days of protest" in September in Warsaw (where we co-organized an anti-capitalist bloc under the slogan "Time for a General Strike") [see pictures]. Each mobilization gathered several hundred people, which can be considered as satisfactory result.
The union protests in September were an opportunity for us to focus on theoretical and informational work. We started the website www.strajk.org and published "The Strike Newspaper" with 10,000 copies, where we promoted the concept of the general strike along with groups from the anarchist movement. We also pointed to the numerous legal restrictions for right to strike in Poland. That was the start of a campaign in defense of the right to strike. As part of the campaign we published legal guides for those who want to organize a strike at their workplace and discussed important alternatives for "legal" strike action.
In 2013, we started to do regular educational work. Our working group on labor law published a series of manuals on labor, union and strike laws (including solidarity strikes). In December, the group organized a law seminar for the exchange of experiences between IP members, attended by delegates of 7 IP-sections.
At the end of the year the bulletin of "Workers' Initiative" intended to be a bi-monthly [see PDF], changed substantially: Since November 2013 we distribute 5,000 copies free of charge wherever sections of IP exist.
The most important workplace conflicts
The beginning of the year brought legal battles in the psychiatric hospital in Bielsko-Biala, where an IP-section of hospital workers has been calling for improved working conditions for nurses for a long time and demands the provision of protective clothes for all workers. The nurses also struggle against the plan to outsource nursing and technical services.
The IP section in the Lubuskie region (Western Poland) continued their support for the workers of a hospital in Kostrzyn. In January, they organized a blockade of a Gorzow county council session. In April, 200 people staged a demonstration in Gorzow. The protest ended with a blockade of the provincial administration office. In November, another county council session was disrupted, and in December pickets in front of the homes of local politicians responsible for privatization on the cost of the workers were organized.
In Poznan, the labor dispute for a 30 percent wage increase continued in public day nurseries where IP has dozens of members. Workers put pressure on local councilors. At its December session the city council decided that their wages should rise by 150 PLN (35 Euro). Workers were picketing with banners saying "Nursery workers continue the struggle" and „We demand higher wages". In March 2013, the lawsuits of some nursery workers ended successfully, and they were granted outstanding overtime payments.
In autumn, the IP section in the "Arsenal" city gallery in Poznan fought successfully against the plans to transform that public gallery into an NGO (as part of the budget cuts). Together with other IP sections from Poznan they also demanded wage increase for employees in public cultural and art institutions.
The local IP section in Warsaw supported the employees and workers of the agency Impuls in their struggle for overdue wages. Through a series of pickets and the publication of the issue in the media, they managed to get some of the outstanding wages (that in some cases had not been paid for up to six months).
New sections of Inicjatywa Pracownicza
In the second half of 2013 three new IP-sections were founded. They were stated by workers in the cultural and art sector: the city gallery "Arsenal" in Poznan, the Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theater of the Eighth Day) in Poznan, and a national section coordinating other art, technical and freelance workers. Another new local section was established in Krakow.
In other workplaces, the participation and activity of IP sections remained more or less stable. Activity of certain sections decreased, such as the section found by the workers of the Chung Hong Electronics factory which was effected by the employer's illegal lockout [read more about the struggle]. Other sections developed new activities, such as the section at L'Oreal company which has expanded to two other workplaces.
The section at Cegielski factory in Poznan met regularly during the whole year and responded to the attempts to privatize the company. As every year, the IP members took part in a picket line at the gates of the plant on the anniversary of the uprising in Poznan on June 28, 1956. On that occasion this year they also printed a newspaper and co-organized an outdoor hip-hop concert in front of the factory, in which dozens of people participated.
Victory in labor courts
In 2013 we won two important cases in the labor courts, one against the Royal Collection company and one against Chung Hong Electronics. In the last case the employer may still appeal, though [read more in English]. In both cases workers demanded reinstatement or full compensation for unlawful dismissals. In the Royal Collection case an IP-activist was fired in the past when he informed his boss that the IP-section had been founded at the workplace In the Chung Hong case 26 strike participants were fired in July 2012. The victories have a symbolic meaning, too, as due to the determination of the workers involved their employers cannot just do what they want.
For various reasons, some other Chung Hong workers had already agreed earlier to a settlement proposed by Chung Hong. They withdrew from the court case, and Chung Hong changed the conditions under which their labor contracts were terminated and paid them compensation. Others are still waiting for the first court verdict.
Inicjatywa Pracownicza and social movements
As in previous years, a number of IP sections was engaged in other struggles and other social movements and organizations. In Warsaw and Poznan we supported local "Right to Housing" organizations of tenants, helped blocking evictions, and fought against rent increases, aggressive landlords, and the banks behind them. We took part in the protests against higher ticket prices for public transportation, too.
The Warsaw section supported two protests in the defense of independent social centers. In November, there was a protest against the the extreme right, which attacked two squats (read more in English). In December, IP supported the protest against the illegal eviction of another new squat in Warsaw.
We also co-organized a series of meetings in Poznan at local squats and at the anarchist bookshop. Among other topics, we discussed about the struggle of the indignados in Spain, the crisis in Italy, anti-capitalist feminism, and the Occupy movement in the United States. In autumn, we organized a discussion panel with worker activists from Spain, Sweden, Greece, France, Germany and the United States at the Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theater of the Eighth Day), thereby developing our international contacts.
In 2013, an important film "Special Zones of Exploitation" was released (see the film with English, German, Italian, Spanish, and Slovak subtitles). We organized a series of screenings and discussions in Poland and abroad (including Italy, England, France, Lithuania and Germany).
We also supported the protests of care workers and parents of disabled people struggling for an increase of their benefits. The IP-section in Warsaw participated in their demonstrations, and in our bulletin we published several articles on their situation and the protests of families of members who live with disabilities. At the end of the year, we also started an exchange with supermarket and orphanages workers.
Compared to previous years, Inicjatywa Pracownicza was more active in nationwide activities in 2013. Many IP sections were active at their workplaces or locally as intensely as before. Overall, in the past year we saw increased interest in our activity, which is certainly related to the nationwide wave of protests. Still, compared to other countries in Europe, Poland seems to remain a relative "strike desert". We hope that last year's positive trend will help to change that situation.