The Exciting Opportunity to Organize Precarious Workers in Poland

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Professor Jan Czarzasty Warsaw School of Economics

Krakow   Towards the end of the Organizers’ Forum delegations’ meeting with Professor Jan Czarzasty at the Warsaw School of Economics, he mentioned something almost offhandedly about a recent Supreme Court decision in Poland. It seems that the Polish constitution has always been crystal clear that all workers, barring none, have the right to organize and form unions. Given the history leading to this current constitution and the role of workers and unions in making it happen that is hardly surprising.

What was surprising was to hear that in fact despite the unambiguous language, there were in fact numerous workers – he estimated that the number could be as high as 40% of the workforce – that were routinely denied the right to organize because they were self-employed or subcontractors or working on what they call “civil contracts” which are common for temporary and contingent workers, rather than giving full employment contracts. Finally, a case had proceeded to the Supreme Constitutional Court on this matter, and the court in recent months had ruled decisively that, yes, indeed, all such workers had the right to organize unions.

In Poland, when some existing practice is found unconstitutional by the court then the government has one year in order to create regulations that comply with the decisions, so there has not been a rush to organize such precarious workers, and many, including most of the union organizers we visited with in Warsaw, were doubtful that there would be significant organizing in this sector even when the rules are clarified.  One commented that he had been told when organizing cleaners and security workers that the “fees were too low,” which was so unbelievable to me that I had to stop and ask the translator to repeat his comments for me because I thought I had heard that the problem was that their “feet were too long!”

Of course the problem that they will have to wrestle with, as we have had to confront in the US, Canada, India and other countries is as much the question of “who is the employer” as “how to organize the workers. ” How does a union force the employers to consolidate sufficiently into some body, association, or legal regime to allow bargaining or some improvement on the questions of hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment? A public regulatory regime that at least works on paper in India for domestic workers, hawkers, dockworkers, and others would be a step forward.

The simple union registration formula where ten members can constitute an organization and begin enrollment and action would seem made for mass organizing of such workers. The taxi drivers early morning strike in Warsaw this week as our delegation jumped on buses to make our train to Krakow is a good indication that supposedly “self-employed” workers are interested in organizing and ready to make something happen.

What an amazing organizing opportunity, if unions will seize it, it looks like workers might be ready.

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