Union Organizing in Poland

ACORN International International Labor Organizing Organizers Forum Organizing

20150117_eup502-aKrakow   We talked to a number of union organizers and academic experts on unions and labor markets while the Organizers’ Forum was visiting Warsaw. The simple conclusion was that there is not much of it going on. There are two primary labor federations, one the famous thirty-five year old Solidarnosc, relatively speaking a shadow of its former self with over 600,000 members compared to the twenty million during its heyday as a movement that brought down the government. The other federation, OPZZ, born of a spinoff of Solidarnosc when the government seized its assets is about the same size. The last, the Forum, is much smaller. The two primary federations are all related to various political parties.

We got a sense of the “rules of the road” for organizing unions from two organizers we met, one from UNI Global involved in organizing a packaging and printing company of about 500 workers near Warsaw, and the other with ITF, the transportation based global union federation, involved in organizing a union of dockworkers in Gdansk in a unit that might reach 5000 workers once it was finished. Both were experienced mid-30 year old organizers. One having worked for Unite in Scotland and the other a veteran organizer in Poland. Though they were clear that organizing was not a priority for the Polish labor movement, they were enthusiastic about their projects and hopeful of playing a part in the revitalization of an organizing culture in Polish unions over the coming decades.

A union can be chartered with as little ten members. They can also demand bargaining rights for all the workers with their union, though of course their strength would be minimal, so most do not. There is a lengthy process of allowable bargaining that can end in labor courts. A union in an unorganized plant bargains for all of the workers exclusively, not just for members, but, interestingly, since multiple unions are allowed in a workplace – any formation registering the ten minimal members – there is a requirement that all of the unions have to come to consensus on their demands. The professors told of a record of 74 unions in one company and frequently unions numbering in the double digits. The organizers described a preference for quiet, secret organizing and home visits in order to prevent employers from gumming up the process by organizing a union of supervisors for example that would dilute demands and attempt to block consensus on bargaining. There is protection for workers who are fired but it is a lengthy, bittersweet process.

Tactically, a union has the right to call a two-hour “warning” strike of sorts to put pressure on the employer. In the dockworkers case they were calling such an action soon and recruiting other allies to block the entrances for workers and truck deliveries to both send a message and protect their members at this early stage when they only had about 250 members. Interestingly, companies have to inform the unions when there is discipline of workers, and a union is required to report to the company its membership on a regular basis. Where the union has most of its membership on direct deposit dues rather than payroll deduction, the company is caught having to report on all workers to the union. Something more than a warning strike requires a majority vote of all of the workers, so that is the election that might be more widely contested.

Most of the organizing supported by global union federations, like those employing our friends was concentrated on multinationals, where there was felt to be some potential leverage on the employer. Talking to other union leaders and former organizing directors for large federations, their perspective on future organizing initiatives in Poland targeting domestic companies was grimmer, characterizing a lot of existing programs as service-based and politically oriented, rather than seeking to expand union density.

Both opportunities and challenges seem huge for Polish labor organizing.