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Trade Unions in Poland: Current situation, organisation and challenges

March 2012
Trade Unions in Poland
Current Situation, Organisation and Challenges
Trade unions in Poland face a number of major challenges. Above all, they have to
limit the effects of globalisation and market liberalisation on employment. Their
scope of action is signicantly impaired by the post-communist legacy, however.
The trade unions are severely fragmented: on the one hand, because of their enter-
prise-level organisation and, on the other hand, because of their ideological trench-
The main level of negotiation for Polish trade unions is the enterprise: there are
hardly any industry-wide agreements. At the national level, the three major trade
union confederations try to exert inuence especially on legislation, for example,
directly in the area of labour law, but also with regard to social and labour market
Currently, the trade unions are calling for an increase in the minimum wage, restric-
tions on civil law employment and the amendment of the trade union act. Medium-
term challenges include trade union organisation in the service sector and in large
private companies, attracting new members and also rejuvenating union organisa-
tion and union ofcials.
1. The Polish Trade Union Landscape: Fragmented and Dualistic ..................2
2. The Long Road to Interest Representation ..................................4
3. Political Endeavours after the Renunciation of Party Politics ...................8
4. In the Face of Global and Transformation-related Challenges .................10
5. Summary .............................................................11
1. The Polish Trade Union Landscape:
Fragmented and Dualistic
The collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern
Europe happened over twenty years ago. Solidarność
as an opposition movement of workers and intellectu-
als helped to bring down the system with its protests
and today stands as a symbol of the peaceful revolution
of 1989. Solidarność took part in the round table talks
as a legalised reform party and unexpectedly formed
the new government after the rst free elections. Since
that time, Solidarność has wrestled with the problem of
whether it is a civil society movement, a political party
or a trade union.
Although it has been decided to withdraw from party
politics the loss of an anchoring in civil society has seri-
ously impaired the legitimacy of the trade unions over-
all. The 1990s were characterised by confrontation
between Solidarność and OPZZ, the confederation set
up by the Communist powers-that-be in the 1980s in
response to the trade unions initiated by Solidarność.
Only since the middle of the past decade have relations
between the two trade union camps relaxed. As a re-
sult, in 2006 Solidarność nally consented to OPZZ's
membership of the European Trade Union Confedera-
tion (ETUC).
The trade unions themselves account for their long-stand-
ing differences in terms of Poland's history and ideologi-
cal warfare. Solidarność considers itself to be the heir of
the opposition reform movement and points to OPZZ's
long-term conformity to the system and its closeness to
the former communist rulers. OPZZ, in contrast, claims
to be the representative of the post-Communist left-
wing workers' movement and regards Solidarność as
an organisation with close links to both the rightwing
conservative camp and the Catholic Church. As a con-
sequence of these differences Forum FZZ was formed
in 2002: its trade unions resolutely assert their political
Where do the trade unions stand now, seven years after
EU accession and the conclusion of the post-Communist
transformation linked to it? Roughly speaking, there
are around 25,000 individual trade unions in Poland.
Three-quarters of all company unions belong to one of
the three trade union confederations: NSZZ Solidarność,
OPZZ or Forum FZZ.
The Polish trade union system has a dual structure. That
means that collective bargaining is conducted predomi-
nantly at company level. At sectoral level, however, poli-
tical power is concentrated in the three confederations.
Here the trade unions try both by dialogue with the em-
ployers and the government in the Tripartite Commis-
sion and via other political channels to inuence social
legislation and social policy. At branch level, the trade
unions are weakly represented and signicant collective
bargaining is rare.
In Poland, trade unions are organised at company level.
Only employees of a company can be members of a
trade union, that is, a so-called company trade union. To
establish a trade union needs at least ten employees at a
company. Since Poland's economic structure is strongly
characterised by small and micro enterprises – 96 per
cent of all rms have fewer than ten employees and 40
per cent of all employees work at small companies a
majority of workers cannot organise themselves in trade
unions. On top of that, unemployment currently stands
at 10 per cent, there are 2 million students and the pro-
portion of solo self-employed is growing (23 per cent
of all workers),1 who are also denied trade union mem-
bership. It is against this background that the low level
of trade union organisation – at present, 16 per cent of
employees – across the country must be assessed.
Although trade union membership has fallen drama-
tically in absolute terms, the ratio between organised
workers and those who could be organised represents
a level of organisation of almost 50 per cent. In some
branches, organisational strength is indeed at this level:
particularly strongly organised are teachers (39 per
cent), steel workers (40 per cent), pilots (52 per cent),
nurses (58 per cent), railway workers (80 per cent), pos-
tal workers (60 per cent) and miners (almost 100 per
cent).2 Strongest are the public sector trade unions and
(former) state-owned companies; one-quarter of all
trade union members are teachers. Particularly weak are
the trade unions in the service sector and in trade and
* I would like to thank Jan Czarzasty, Juliusz Gardawski, Julia Kubisa,
Dominka Pyzowska, Barbara Surdykowska, Karolina Stegemann and
Silke van Dyk for their valuable support and discussions in the prepara-
tion of this report.
1. Eurostat.
2. These are approximate values based on trade unions' own gures and
branch analyses by EIRO, available at:
eiro/2011/country/poland.htm (last accessed on 12.8.2011).
The trade union act of 1991 initially guaranteed com-
pany trade unions comprehensive protection rights,
laid down that costs arising for company trade unions
must be borne by the company and ensured active trade
unionists protection against dismissal on operational
grounds. In 2002, however, these rights were curtailed
and now only between one and three of the found-
ing members of a trade union enjoy special protection
against dismissal.3 The trade unions are currently ght-
ing to improve the legal situation. An additional reason
for this is the recent scandal concerning dismissals and
failures to extend existing contracts of trade unionists by
the discount chain Biedronka.
On average, trade union members are 41 years of age,
non-union members around three years younger.4 Among
the under 24s, unionisation is below 1 per cent and among
the under 35s it is 8 per cent.5 When considering these
gures, however, it is important to bear in mind that the
unemployment rate is particularly high among the under
24s, at 26 per cent6 and that half of all high school grad-
uates are in college. As already mentioned, both these
groups are denied trade union representation in Poland.
3. Stegemann, Karolina (2011): Gewerkschaften und kollektives Arbeits-
recht in Polen. Wechselbeziehungen im geschichtlichen Kontext, Nomos
Verlag, p. 392.
4. Centrum Badania Oponii Społecznej (CBOS) (2009), Członkostwo
w Związkach Zawodowych. Naruszenia praw pracowniczych i »Szara
Strefa« w Zatrudnieniu, BS/6/2009.
5. Bukowski, Maciek (ed.) (2010): Employment in Poland 2009. Entrepre-
neurship for Work, Warsaw.
6. See:
Trade union ofcials are, on average, 50 years of age:
for the independent trade unions the average age of of-
cials is 46, 47 at Forum FZZ, 47.5 at Solidarność and
50 at OPZZ. The proportion of women among those in
positions of responsibility is between 19 and 37 per cent,
depending on the union.7 The trade unions are trying to
combat this aging among ofcials by means of rejuve-
nation initiatives. At OPZZ around half of all its ofcials
are now under 35 years of age. A Youth Committee has
also been set up with the aim of introducing young trade
union members to leadership responsibilities in trade
union structures. The OPZZ currently provides the chair
of the Youth Committee of the European Trade Union
Confederation and for three years there has been a re-
presentative for sexual minorities, which in homophobic
Poland is exceptional.8
In August 2011, Forum FZZ, together with the Demo-
cratic Student Alliance (DZS), launched the campaign
»Commission Contract Generation« (EIRO Online),
which advocates improvements in the labour market si-
tuation of young people. The campaign calls for paid
internships, abolition of the use of civil law agreements
as employment contracts,9 a legal reduction in working
7. CBOS (2009).
8. See European Commission (2007): Eurobarometer Special. Discrimina-
tion in the EU, Eurobarometer Special 263 / Wave 65.4 – TNS Opinion &
Social; as well as the Polish campaign against homophobia, available at:
9. Employment relationships not regulated by labour law that dene ser-
vices to be performed in a »contract for work or services« (Werkvertrag).
At present, around 23 per cent of all Poles are in civil law employment
relationships as so-called »dependent solo self-employed« or contract
Trade union confederation Number of member
Chair Number of
Level of education /
training of members
NSZZ Solidarność
(Niezalezny Samorzadny Zwiazek
Zawodowy »Solidarność«),
founded in 1980, unied trade union
8,292 company trade
unions, 37 regional
federations, 16 branch
Piotr Duda 649,000 39 % unskilled and
34 % skilled;
27 % highly qualied
(Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie
Związków Zawodowych), founded
in 1984, confederation of company
branch trade unions
79 branch federations
from eight branches
(exact number of individual
company trade unions
Jan Guz 550,000 24 % unskilled and
35 % skilled;
41 % highly qualied
Forum FZZ
(Forum Związków Zawodowych),
founded in 2002, federation of
company branch trade unions
75 branch trade unions
from eight branches
(exact number of individual
company trade unions
Tadeusz Chwałka 420,000 12 % unskilled and
31 % skilled;
58 % highly qualied
Source: Author's compilation, based on trade union websites and Gardawski (2009)
Table 1: Overview of trade unions in Poland
hours and an increase in the minimum wage to 68 per
cent of the average wage.10 Only Solidarność has so far
set up a specic department to recruit new and younger
Another challenge for the trade unions is the increase in
other forms of worker representation, especially due to
works councils, introduced on the basis of EU Directive
2002/14/EU on employees' information and consulta-
tion. Although works councils have been developed
on the model of the German works councils they do
not have comparable codetermination rights. There
are works councils in only 9 per cent of Polish compa-
nies covered by the terms of the EU Directive. What is
the reason for this? Hitherto, works councils could be
appointed predominantly by the representative trade
unions and thus their personnel were identical. Since
2010, however, works councils have had to be directly
elected by the workforce, as a consequence of which
the trade unions fear a loss of inuence. Furthermore,
works councils are often elected at the instigation of
the management and take up an intermediary commu-
nicative position between management and workforce.
If one compares the effects of company trade unions
and of works councils on working conditions it turns out
that in companies with trade unions the proportion of
atypical employment is lower and more is done for the
employees in the areas of further training, health protec-
tion and work-life balance.11 Another shortcoming in the
implementation of the EU Directive is the specication
of a minimum number of 50 employees for the forma-
tion of a works council in the enterprise. The problem
of employees' interest representation in small companies
therefore remains unsolved.
By contrast, the trade unions do not feel threatened by
the introduction of the European Works Council (EWC).
On the contrary, they very much appreciate the inu-
ence of the EWC on labour relations in Polish compa-
nies. Overall, there are already around 500 EWCs in
Poland,12 whose access to information at group level
10. Trawinska, Marta (2011): Unions and students act to help young
workers, European Industrial Relations Observatory Online, PL1106039I
(last accessed on 12.8.2011).
11. Jasiecki, Krzysztof / Przybysz, Dariusz / Trappmann, Vera (forthcoming):
Industrial relations in Poland, Hungary and Germany compared, in: Bluhm,
Katharina / Marten, Bernd / Trappmann, Vera (eds), Business leaders and
new varieties of capitalism in post-communist Europe, Routledge.
12. European Works Councils database, ETUI-REHS, March 2008, http:// (last accessed on 4.8.2011).
often strengthens the trade union negotiating position
in relation to local management. Effective and active
cooperation is limited by lack of resources, funds and
competences on the part of EWC members, however.
Lack of knowledge of English in particular still hinders
international cooperation.
2. The Long Road to
Interest Representation
Collective Bargaining Law and Labour Law
With the reform of the collective bargaining act in 1993
and the labour act in 1996 the trade unions success-
fully reshaped the legal basis of their work.13 The central
factor was the introduction of free collective bargaining
and the withdrawal of the state from detailed regula-
tion of labour relations by means of a simplied labour
code and limitation to minimum standards. In particular,
the trade unions were able to negotiate a number of
benecial regulations to mitigate the social costs of the
economic transformation: employees' claims in the case
of insolvency, disability pensions and early retirement for
relevant occupational groups, especially in regions with
higher unemployment. These instruments were used to
excess, which led to a reduction in social tensions, but
also rendered large parts of the population inactive, as
a result of which Poland today has the lowest employ-
ment rate in the EU, at 51 per cent. The state budget is
heavily burdened by excessive pension payments. Cur-
rently, there is a struggle to revoke these special regula-
tions for some occupational groups.
Further progress has been made for workers since the
mid-1990s: health and safety at work was adapted to
the standards of the International Labour Ofce (ILO);
companies with more than ve employees were obliged
to introduce a wage system, minimum holidays were
increased from 14 to 18 days a year and the number
of successive xed-term contracts per worker in a given
rm was limited. Only in relation to the working week
were the trade unions unable to enforce their demands.
Since 2001 they have only been reduced from 42 hours
to 40.
13. On the application of collective bargaining and labour law see the
well-grounded analyses by Stegemann (2011) and also Krzywdzinski,
Martin (2008): Arbeits- und Sozialpolitik in Polen. Interessenvermittlung
und politischer Tausch in einem umkämpften Politikfeld, Wiesbaden.
At the beginning of the 2000s the tide turned, and since
then the employers' side has asserted its demands more
robustly. Thus there has been deregulation and exibili-
sation of labour law. First, the legislator relaxed employ-
ment protection in companies with fewer than 20 em-
ployees (also, compensation payments were abolished
in the case of collective redundancies). Second, the thresh-
old for the mandatory instruction of a schedule of rates
in companies not covered by collective agreements was
raised from ve to 20 employees. Third, the use of xed-
term contracts and subcontracted work was made easier.
And fourth, some employer payments were lowered,
such as overtime. At the urging of the European Union in
2008-2009 there were far-reaching amendments to EU
directives dealing with labour law – now in favour of the
employees – especially in the areas of health and safety,
antidiscrimination, equal treatment, legal protection of
pregnant and nursing mothers and parental leave.
Despite the new legal basis for collective labour relations
to date it has not been possible to embed collective
agreements nationwide. There is also a major problem in
Poland with regard to implementing existing legislation
on free collective bargaining. The same applies in many
areas of social policy. Although 30 per cent of all em-
ployees work in companies with trade union represen-
tation collective agreements rarely apply and the trend
is pointing sharply downwards. Although this affects
predominantly industry-wide collective agreements
there is also a problem with company agreements. The
result is that only one in three employees is covered by
a collective agreement. The spectrum varies by branch:
in the retail trade, approximately only 3 per cent of em-
ployees are covered by a collective agreement, while in
the metal industry it is 70 per cent and in aviation 80 per
cent. Polish labour law, that is, suffers from an imbal-
ance due to overregulation on one side and a plethora
of vague formulations on the other, which enable the
employers' side, time and again, to dilute standards.
In principle, all trade unions are entitled to engage in
collective bargaining at the enterprise level – but with
a handicap: before they negotiate with the employer
they have to achieve unanimity with regard to their de-
mands. This is difcult to manage in Poland's extremely
pluralistic trade union system: in many companies, 20 or
more company trade unions have to reach agreement.
The dissent of only one of these unions is sufcient to
prevent a wage settlement. Number one as far as the
number of trade unions in an enterprise is concerned
is the biggest coal company Kompania Weglowa, with
177 individual trade unions for its 63,000 employees,
but even the Polish Post has an impressive 47 individual
trade unions for its 100,000 employees.14
The right to conclude collective agreements in cases of
conict pertains only to representative trade unions.
Trade unions are representative when they represent at
least 300,000 members industry-wide as a federation or
confederation, or if they are members of a representative
association at enterprise level and organise at least 7 per
cent of the workforce. Enterprise trade unions that do
not belong to a representative association must organise
10 per cent of the workforce. The trade unions are cur-
rently calling for this to be raised to 20 per cent in order
to simplify negotiations. But even if only the representa-
tive trade unions sit at the negotiating table many, many
different positions and demands have to be mediated. It
often costs trade unionists a great deal of time and ef-
fort to negotiate these forced compromises which would
be better spent on negotiations with the employer.
The Tripartite Commission
Negotiations between trade unions and employers at the
national level take place in the Tripartite Commission. It
was set up at the beginning of the 1990s to help to ease
social tensions after the so-called »extraordinary politics«
of economic reform in post-Communist Poland. Continual
strike waves demonstrated the workers' displeasure even
with the so-called »protective shield« that Solidarność
had spread out over the far-reaching market economic
reforms. The Commission was provided with consultation
rights concerning labour, social and economic policy and
the right to recommend wage rises in companies.15 How-
ever, the Commission was not always able to function
effectively: time and again, in the 1990s individual actors
boycotted the Commission – sometimes the OPZZ, some-
times Solidarność, sometimes the employers – in favour
of seeking to gain inuence via Parliament.
14. Rode, Clemens (2008): Die aktuelle Situation der Gewerkschaften in
Polen, Polen-Analysen 36/2008, pp. 2-6.
15. Hitherto, the government had, for example, laid down maximum
rates for wage increases and punished violations with penalty taxes. Now
wage growth in state-owned companies was to be determined with the
participation of trade unions and employers together with the govern-
ment and recommendations put forward for wage development in pri-
vate companies.
Like political conicts, negotiations in the Tripartite
Commission were polarised and aggressive. Dialogue
was not a priority, but rather asserting one's own po-
sition.16 Although there has been no direct confronta-
tion between the trade union confederations since the
mid-2000s the Commission remains ineffectual. Today
it is primarily the state that stays out of the tripartite
dialogue, which does not strengthen bilateral dialogue
but rather weakens the position of the employees. Cru-
cial to this development is the fact that if agreement is
not reached the Commission's decision-making power
devolves upon the government. As long as extreme li-
beral parties are in power statism will have a dire ef-
fect on the employees since the trade union side in the
Commission is ultimately unable to counter anti-labour
This throws up two key questions. Where is the
broad-based support for these parties coming from?17
And how can trade unions represent workers' inte-
rests more effectively? The success of the (economic)
liberal parties in Poland can be attributed fundamen-
tally to the Communist and post-Communist legacy.
The promises of the market economy, the dream of
economic advancement and individual benets have
given rise to a certain forbearance with regard to the
socioeconomic conditions brought about by liberal
policies. As one Solidarność trade unionist explains it:
»if you've ever had to queue in the street overnight for
toilet paper you can never be a Marxist« (July 2011).
Furthermore, the transformation years were charac-
terised by extremely unstable political conditions:
since 1989 there have been 18 changes of govern-
ment. Poland also has to combat the problem of poli-
tical corruption.18 The liberal government under Tusk
is now focusing on pragmatism »free of political zeal
and ideological obduracy«,19 is oriented towards post-
Communist reform beyond the old trench warfare and
thus meets the desire of many voters for political sta-
16. Gardawski, Juliusz (2003): Koniktowy pluralizm polskich związków
zawodowych (The conict pluralism of Polish trade unions), Friedrich-
Ebert-Stiftung, Warsaw, cited in: Stegemann (2011).
17. At present, the government coalition comprises the Civic Platform
(Platform Obywatelska) and the Polish People's Party (Polskie Stronnictwo
Ludowe, PSL).
18. See CBOS (2010): Związki zawodowe i naruszenia praw pracowhi-
czych, BS/109/2010.
19. Majcherek, Janusz A. (2011): Die Bürgerplattform (PO) vor den Parla-
mentswahlen, Polen-Analysen 91/2011, pp. 2-7.
Current Trade Union Demands
Against a background of 13 per cent unemployment
due to the crisis, unusually high ination of 5.5 per cent,
rising food prices and a budget decit of 7.9 per cent of
GDP (as of mid-2011) the major trade union confedera-
tions are demanding improvements in four areas: an in-
crease in the minimum wage, regulation and curtailment
of civil law contracts and xed-term employment, and
reform of the pension system.
Minimum Wage
The level of the minimum wage is set by law and at present
stands at 1,368 złoty (PLN), around 330 euros. The trade
unions are calling for it to be raised to 50 per cent of the
average wage, which is currently 3,366 złoty or 810 euros.
The trade union struggle for higher wages has a chequered
history in Poland. Two years ago, in the wake of the anti-
crisis package, employers' organisations and trade unions
agreed bilaterally on an increase in the minimum wage
to 50 per cent of the average wage. The proposal was
not taken up by the government, however. The govern-
ment is currently offering 1,500 złoty (360 euros), around
41 per cent of the average wage and 300 złoty less than
what Solidarność is demanding. Piotr Duda, chairman of
Solidarność since 2010, put this at the top of his agenda,
gathered 300,000 signatures for a legislative initiative to
raise the minimum wage and started an effective media
campaign with rallies and demonstrations. Amazingly,
Solidarność has not cooperated with the other two confe-
derations, although they are largely in agreement on the
wage issue and the differences between their demands
are negligible. This is not the rst time that Solidarność has
followed its own path. In 2007, it concluded an indepen-
dent agreement with the government after the employers
had not met union demands in the Tripartite Commission.
In the current instance, this solo course can be explained
primarily on the basis of internal reasons: the new leader
needs a successful project to consolidate his position in the
organisation and in the eyes of the public.
Employment under Civil Law Contracts
The second major issue is so-called civil law employ-
ment. Civil law contracts are not subject to labour law
and thus the trade unions have hitherto had no inu-
ence over working conditions regulated on this basis. At
the same time, the number of such contracts has risen
meteorically: more and more companies and sectors are
trying to circumvent labour law by adopting this kind
of contract in order to exibilise employment and cut
wage costs.20 The main trade union confederations are
currently trying to enable these »solo self-employed« to
become organised, primarily through their redenition
as persons with the same status as employees and thus
a change in the trade union law. At present, only em-
ployees of a company are entitled to become members
of a trade union. The trade unions regard this as a vio-
lation of the ILO Conventions on freedom of association
and the right to collective agreements (ILO Conventions
87 and 98) and are calling for the amendment of the
law so that the interests of these groups of employees
can be represented. Solidarność led a complaint about
this with the ILO in July 2011. How far the demand for
representation will go and what protective provisions of
labour law should also apply to persons in employment-
like relationships (working time regulations, holiday en-
titlements, maternity protection) remains unclear. The
only thing that is certain is that after the parliamentary
elections in October 2011 a Solidarność proposal on re-
gulating the status of persons in employment-like rela-
tionships was introduced.
Fixed-term Employment Relationships
The trade unions' third target is xed-term employ-
ment, which they would like to see curtailed. In Poland,
this is governed by so-called »garbage contracts«. Po-
land, indeed, has the highest level of xed-term em-
ployment in the EU, at 31 per cent. As of the end of
2011 a special regulation within the framework of the
anti-crisis package still applied, to the effect that xed-
term contracts can be continuously renewed within 24
months. The trade unions are calling for the restora-
tion in 2012 of the regulation in force before the cri-
sis: this laid down that the third successive xed-term
contract must result in a permanent contract. However,
the trade unions also want an amendment that limits
xed-term employment with one employer to a maxi-
mum 18-24 months.
20. According to EWCS data the self-employed in Poland work an ave-
rage 56 hours a week (European Foundation for the Improvement of
Living and Working Conditions (EIRO), Fourth European Working Condi-
tions Survey, Dublin 2007).
Pension Reform
The most extensive reform package is in the area of pen-
sion policy. In order to consolidate the public nances the
government has already partially reversed the pension
reform of 1999. Since April 2011, employees have paid,
instead of 7.3 per cent, only 2.3 per cent into the private
capital fund, the rest going into the state pension scheme.
This regulation is expected to remain in place until 2017,
when the contribution to the private pillar rises to 3.5 per
cent. Critics regard this as a short-term attempt to put
the state budget back on its feet without addressing the
long-term problems of pensions. Well-known liberal re-
former and former president of the Polish National Bank
Leszek Balcerowicz has even talked of a »pension tax«.21
Long-standing contentious issues include the raising and
alignment of the retirement age for men and women
at present this stands at 60 years for women and 65
years for men and special regulations for specic oc-
cupational groups. Soldiers, police ofcers, railway em-
ployees, mine workers and teachers benet from signi-
cantly earlier pensions. The national average de facto
retirement age is 59 years of age for men and 58 years of
age for women. After the difcult amendment of the re-
tirement age in the pension reform of 1998 the problem
was postponed and transitional rules – so-called bridging
pensions – were adopted until 2008. Since then, indivi-
dual trade unions have fought to maintain the privileges,
by means of both citizens' legislative initiatives and mi-
litant confrontation. This struggle has sometimes taken
on bizarre forms, for example, when trade union leaders
occupied meeting rooms all night in order force the
prime minister into talks. The miners in particular have
had at least partial success: they can now retire, regard-
less of age, after 25 years. Among uniformed employees
– police, army and re service – agreement was reached
on a raising of the retirement age to at least 55 years after
25 years' service in return for higher pensions. Teachers
can now retire only after 30 years' service instead of the
previous 25 years. Another cost-saving measure is to
make it easier to get work after retirement (…) and to
set off wage earnings against pension payments.
The trade unions lack a balanced and sustainable con-
cept, however. Their members belong to a large extent
among the beneciaries of the current pension system as
21. Gazeta Wyborcza, 1.2.2011, p. 5.
public sector employees, particular occupational groups
and older workers. It remains unclear how the trade
unions imagine they can pull off the balancing act bet-
ween protecting their members' interests and solidarity-
based old-age provision for all.
How Things Stand at the Moment
The current major issues of the Polish trade unions –
minimum wage, pensions, xed-term employment and
civil law contracts – do not all concern their members
directly, but are directed rather at exercising political in-
uence over the economic environment in Poland. These
issues also provide the trade unions with a public arena
in which they can act more visibly than as small company
trade unions.
In comparison to the 1990s, a gradual shift in the
trade unions' position is emerging: their market-creat-
ing, market-oriented course has been superseded by a
more strongly market-corrective course. At the enter-
prise level, the trade unions have long been engaged
in tasks »determined by the system«, such as socially
cushioning enterprise privatisation. In practice, this
was often to the advantage of the companies con-
cerned and at the expense of long-term employment
prospects. However, even at company level trade
unions are turning away from compromise – which
during the transition they considered indispensible –
towards doing more to protect workers' interests. The
dominance of system-logic over member-logic,22 as
well as trade unions' political entanglements led to a
considerable loss of legitimacy among their members
and the general public, which they are now trying to
This reorientation requires organisational transforma-
tion and a change in attitude on the part of trade unio-
nists. There are some signs of such change already: for
example, the campaign announced by Solidarność
»Europe 2020« – against the phenomenon of the »work-
ing poor« and poverty in Poland. Also to be understood
within this framework is the answer given by a young
man when asked why he works for OPZZ: that he would
like to do something for the socially excluded because
»the heart lies on the left«.
22. See Krzwydzinski (2008).
3. Political Endeavours after the
Renunciation of Party Politics
Trade unions in Poland are strongly politicised. Ideolo-
gically, they cover virtually the whole political spectrum.
Solidarność is so mewhe re bet ween centre -right and right ,
which is reected in parliamentary elections by a large
vote for the national-conservative Law and Justice party
(Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS). Members of Forum FZZ
are generally in the political centre, which means a large
number of votes for Donald Tusk's conservative-liberal
Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO). Only the
OPZZ is ideologically on the left or centre-left and at elec-
tions most of its members vote for the Democratic Left
Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej – SLD). The inde-
pendent trade unions are rather centre-left, although their
members predominantly vote for the Civic Platform.23
In the 1990s, the trade unions sought their own party-
political and parliamentary representation in order to
play a part in government. Many political parties have
emerged from trade union contexts, for example, Elec-
toral Action Solidarność (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność
AWS) or the Democratic Left Alliance. Characteristic of
this period was the separation into two political camps
of the post-Communist left and the post-Solidarność
right, within both of which there were representati-
ves of trade union positions. Cooperation between
trade union representatives from the different political
camps was almost impossible. Government participation
on the part of the trade unions therefore led not to a
strengthening of trade union positions but to the sub-
ordination of trade union demands to the exigencies of
political coalition-making. This did enormous damage to
trade union legitimacy, at a time when the situation of
many workers was deteriorating. Since the 2001 parlia-
mentary elections most trade union ofcials have by
necessity reined in their party political activities. Only a
few now sit in parliament.
Proximity to a political party is especially apparent in the
case of Solidarność: some trade unionists – even though
no longer of the rst rank – still represent the PiS in the
Sejm and sometimes trade union meetings were used in
support of election campaigns. This is due in no small de-
gree to the close ties between former Solidarność chair-
23. See Gardawski, Juliusz (2009): Dialog spoleczny w Polsce. Teoria,
historia, praktyka, Warsaw, p. 338.
man Janusz Śniadek and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński.
Śniadek, however, having failed to win re-election as
chair resigned his trade union mandate and now is a PiS
candidate. Piotr Duda, the new chairman, has openly an-
nounced that he wants dialogue with all parties. What
position Solidarność will in fact take up remains to be
seen. It is entirely possible that this is a genuine change
of direction, as many trade unionists and observers hope.
Turning away from the PiS would not only constitute a
political opening-up but also amount to a renunciation
of historical polarisation and greater concentration on
representing workers. This is how Duda himself sees it:
»My election as head of the National Commission is in
reality a call to transform our trade union. We are a won-
derful organisation and have an extraordinary history –
but we cannot live in the past. The trade union faces any
number of tasks that it has to deal with and problems
that have to be solved. It cannot keep looking back.«24
The OPZZ also has members active in the SLD. The OPZZ
does not regard these close ties as problematic. On the
contrary, it assumes that under the anti-trade union Tusk
government it can be the spokesman for trade union
concerns, also at the political level. It is indeed true that
under Tusk bilateral agreements between the trade
unions and the employers in the Tripartite Commission
have often been ignored or not implemented. The mi-
nimum wage is one example, but the government has
also implemented only some of the social partners' bila-
teral agreements from the anti-crisis law. The chairman
of OPZZ put it like this: »the government has no respect
for our trade unions« (Jan Guz, July 2011).
Bowing out of trying to play a part in government policy-
making and from party politics seems to have been a key
condition for building up cooperation between the trade
unions. Joint opposition to government policy has brought
the confederations closer together: »having a common
enemy is a bond between us« (Guz, July 2011). In order to
realise their aims the trade unions are therefore seeking to
form a broad coalition, but also involving labour-friendly
parties and new actors, such as NGOs. However, these
civil society coalitions are still in their infancy.
The trade unions' activities in the political arena are ex-
panding signicantly. First and foremost, they are lobby-
ing, with direct talks with responsible ministers, the pre-
24. Tygodnik Solidarność, No. 44 (1151), 29 October 2010.
sident and the prime minister, as well as getting involved
in the public debate. Citizens' legislative initiatives en-
able them to get their concerns directly into parliament:
legislative initiatives attracting more than 150,000 sig-
natures can be submitted to parliament, bypassing the
government and the employers. Should this prove un-
successful, the trade unions can appeal to the Labour
Court against government legislation or even try to call
the Polish government to account for its policies at the
EU level.
The past four years have been characterised in particular
by protests and strikes. This is remarkable given that for
years participation in protests and industrial action has
been generally low. In Poland, strikes are not always di-
rected towards settling a wage dispute, but are regarded
as a legitimate means of calling for a change of direc-
tion in social policy or the reinforcement of democratic
rights.25 The strikes of recent years were frequently eco-
nomic in origin, especially concerning wage rises or re-
dundancies. In 2008, there were around 13,000 strikes
in Poland. The trade union of nurses and midwives
(OZZPiP) and the teachers' trade union (ZNP) have had
most success in mobilising their members,26 but also the
trade unions in mining, transport, manufacturing and
postal services.27 Particularly noteworthy are the increas-
ing strikes for higher wages in individual private compa-
nies. This may be a sign that the era of cooperative poli-
tics is over and that the trade unions will stand up for the
workers' interests more robustly. The nurses were par-
ticularly successful and through their actions includ-
ing hunger strikes and a four-week sit-in in front of par-
liament – obtained a 30 per cent pay rise. This show of
strength was unable to prevent the health service from
being privatised and labour contracts liberalised, how-
ever, despite further protests and strikes, so that labour
contracts are now to be converted into contract labour
agreements (interview July 2011).
Political protest was stepped up in the parliamentary
election year of 2011. In a number of cities Solidarność
trade unions organised demonstrations against the dete-
rioration of living standards, the rising cost of living and
25. See Stegemann (2011), p. 500. Although political strikes are banned
in Poland, politico-economic strikes are tolerated, based on the role of
the strike in 1980-81 in Poland's development towards democracy.
26. See also ILO Statistics, available at: (last ac-
cessed on 4.8.2011).
27. Ibid.
the lack of wage rises. There were emphatic demands
for an increase in the minimum wage, tax reductions on
petrol, the devotion of more resources to combating un-
employment and the slowing down of the privatisation
of state-owned companies and the attendant job losses.
On the day before Poland's EU presidency commenced
Solidarność members demonstrated with the slogan
»your power – our poverty«. Further major demonstra-
tions are planned, also in cooperation with other trade
On the other hand, the popularity of trade unions is at
a low ebb. They have a negative image on account of
their strong politicisation in the 1990s. Furthermore,
media reporting tends to be anti-trade union. However,
the most recent surveys show that 38 per cent of Poles
believe that trade unions benet the country
28 and over
65 per cent think that without trade unions the situation
of workers would be even worse.29 By contrast, trade
union activities at enterprise level are rated as poor: 44
per cent of Poles think that although the trade unions
have tried they have often failed; only 14 per cent rated
negotiations at enterprise level positively.30 This is consis-
tent with the well-known scepticism among trade union
members: 57 per cent of Solidarność members and 49
per cent of OPZZ members thought at the end of the
1990s that no trade union represents their interests and
revealed themselves to be pessimistic about their ability
to represent workers' interests at enterprise level.31
4. In the Face of Global and
Transformation-related Challenges
However, they face substantive and organisational
tasks, including halting their dwindling membership
and attracting new members. This requires above all the
development of the private sector. Solidarność has es-
tablished an Organising department »Trade Union Devel-
opment« and has already had some success in the retail
trade and the security industry. In the past four years
the confederation's professional organising campaigns,
28. See CBOS (2010), p. 4.
29. See Gardawski Juliusz (ed.) (2009): Polacy pracujący a kryzys fordyzmu,
Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warsaw.
30. See CBOS (2010), p. 3.
31. See. Gardawski, Juliusz / Gaciarz, Barbara / Mokrzyszewski, Andrzej /
Pańków, Włodzimierz (1999): Rozpad bastionu. Zwiazki zawodowe a
gospodarce prywatyzowanej, Warsaw, p.137.
managed by union headquarters, have gained almost
50,000 new members. Solidarność has already taken on
40 organisers across the country. The goals of the orga-
nising campaigns are to develop previously union-free
areas and to strengthen trade unions with a low level of
organisation in multinational companies, such as in the
retail trade and in the food industry.
The OPZZ does not have its own organising depart-
ment, but a member trade union – the Confederation
of Labour (Konfederacja Pracy) – is dedicated to organis-
ing precarious employees in the service sector. Besides
these new approaches to increasing membership, how-
ever, traditional recruitment cannot be neglected, since
it has been shown that especially older trade unionists
frequently do not recruit new members at company level
for fear that they could compete for top positions.32
Recruiting new members gives rise to complex questions
within the trade unions: from an organisational perspec-
tive, is it worth trying to mobilise precarious workers,
which is personnel and cost intensive? Such workers do
not bring the trade unions much by way of contributions
and, because of their xed-term contracts and high job
turnover, are soon lost again and rarely take part in pro-
test actions for fear of losing their jobs. Does it make
more sense to continue to recruit from traditional sour-
ces, such as workers in the automobile industry or in
the white goods industry, where young activists are in
many respects even more militant than the trade unio-
nists themselves?33
Another problem is trade union funding: 60 per cent of
contributions remain with company-level organisations
and are partly used to provide members with social be-
nets, so that organisations at national and branch level
have insufcient resources to be able to take on experts
or conduct campaigns. Solidarność’s two most successful
organising campaigns, for example, were not nanced
exclusively from trade union funds, but with funds from
the EU and with the support of US trade unions.
In terms of collective bargaining, the biggest challenge
is to reinforce autonomous dialogue between employers
and trade unions, without the participation of the govern-
32. See Rode (2008).
33. On this see the research results of Krzywdzinski, Martin (2009): Organi-
satorischer Wandel von Gewerkschaften in postkommunistischen Ländern.
Der Fall der Solidarność, in: Industrielle Beziehungen, 16(1): pp. 25-45.
ment. To this end, rst the principle of employer represen-
tativeness must be revised. At present, anyone can count
as an employer who has the right to take on employees
or make them redundant and to lay down working con-
ditions. However, only a tenth of employers are represen-
ted in one of the federations. Since wage negotiations in
Poland take place predominantly at company level em-
ployers scarcely have an incentive to organise in employ-
ers' associations. Closely linked to promoting dialogue is
the promotion of industry-wide collective agreements.
Admittedly, this demand is not shared unconditionally by
all trade unions: on the one hand, many company-level
trade unions fear that they will lose their position of do-
minance, and on the other hand, the tendency towards
decentralisation to the company level and the weakening
of centralised agreements is familiar, for example, in Ger-
many. Sparse coverage of collective agreements is a major
problem – however, it remains to be seen what the best
way might be to attain nationwide coverage.
There are also a number of specic challenges: no effec-
tive mechanisms against overdue or delayed wage pay-
ments have yet been agreed and implemented. Health
and safety at the enterprise level also requires attention:
many workplace accidents are not even reported by the
company concerned, employees keep quiet about such
accidents for fear of losing their job and employers reward
this by paying bonuses for »accident-free« operations.
The biggest social policy challenges arise from the fol-
lowing, as indicated by the analysis in Section 2: rais-
ing the minimum wage, better protection of atypical
and precarious workers, entitlement to representation
and protection for contract workers, pension reform and
high unemployment among 15-24 year-olds.
The trade unions' social policy objectives also require
some organisational changes: rst, the pronounced plu-
ralism at enterprise level must be curbed, industry-wide
trade union structures must be formed and cooperation
between individual trade unions must be improved, in
particular between the confederations operating in the
political arena. Cooperative intentions are rarely put into
practice, however. All too often, due to competition for
potential members, actions on the political stage are
carried out alone for the sake of media coverage. The
fact that a campaign such as »Commission Contract
Generation« is not carried out jointly by all three trade
union confederations diminishes its effectiveness.
This is regrettable because in particular the younger
trade unionists have left their ideological differences
behind them. One of the younger secretaries said: »I'm
working for the future, for the future and the present«
(July 2011). The consistent rejuvenation policy seems to
be the right approach. This requires young trade union
secretaries, targeted organising campaigns among
young workers and self-employed, effective publicity
and image-building and educational activities in schools.
Many young people still associate Polish trade unions
exclusively with Solidarność as the historical force that
brought down socialism. The fact the trade unions are
organisations that represent workers' interests must be
systematically explained. Vocabulary and media of com-
munication must also change in order to reach younger
people. Another important development could be
Solidarność’s plan to move its head ofce from Gdansk
to Warsaw, a tangible sign that a new era is dawning for
trade unionism.34
5. Summary
Current developments indicate an exciting period in Po-
lish trade unionism. Poland has caught up considerably
in economic terms and by EU comparison has weathered
the nancial crisis well. Furthermore, Polish workers are in
demand throughout the EU. This provides the trade uni-
ons with an opportunity to demand higher wages, aim-
ing long term at the Western European average. How-
ever, Poles are disappointed with the quality of demo-
cracy and complain about government inefciency, their
own lack of inuence on government and the latter's
lack of transparency.35 Dissatisfaction with general living
standards and precarious employment is also growing.
But will the trade unions be able to channel this disaffec-
tion? Will they be able to present themselves as credible
representatives of workers' interests? Will their current
demands for an increase in the minimum wage and their
claims to represent contract workers earn the trust of
the people affected? Will they be able to build bridges to
other social forces that are also calling for more solidarity
among Poles? It remains to be seen. Even whether the
trade unions overcome enterprise-level pluralism and
can reconcile their political polarisation remains open.
34. The move was announced by Duda at the last national conference in
autumn 2010, although no one seems prepared to say when.
35. See Garsztecki, Stefan (2011): Polens Linke und alternative Milieus:
Ansätze für ein Revirement der polnischen Sozialdemokraten?
It partly depends on how much power the young trade
unionists are able to exercise, who are less under the
shadow of the transformation period. The trade unions
currently face the difcult task of bidding farewell to
interest-driven politics along the ideological axes Ca-
tholic / secular and oppositi on / conformist and ins tead
pursuing interest-driven politics in accordance with the
conict between labour and capital.36 To this end they
need to broaden their approach, based hitherto on busi-
ness unionism and a predominant orientation towards
older skilled workers and collective identities in order to
reinforce a stance based on criticism of the system. As
we have seen, there are already signs of this: in particu-
lar, their ability to engage in conict has increased. How
can the trade unions assert their willingness to engage
in conict against internal and external opposition? For
this purpose, new approaches are needed.
36. On this, see the thesis of David Ost that the trade unions' neoliberal
orientation has contributed to their marginalisation: Ost, David (2005):
The defeat of solidarity. Anger and politics in postcommunist Europe,
Ithaca; or the case study on the steel industry by Vera Trappmann: Fallen
heroes in global capitalism. Workers and the restructuring of the Polish
steel industry, Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming).
About the author
Vera Trappmann is assistant professor of macrosociology and
European societies at the University of Magdeburg. Her main
research and teaching interests include industrial relations and
social and labour policy. At present, she is researching corpo -
rate social responsibility and enterprise restructuring in the
wake of the nancial market crisis. She is particularly interested
in eastern Europe.
Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung | Central and Eastern Europe
Hiroshimastr. 28 | 10785 Berlin | Germany
Dr. Ernst Hillebrand, Head, Central and Eastern Europe
Phone: ++49-30-269-35-7726 | Fax: ++49-30-269-35-9250
To order publications:
The views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those
of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
This publication is printed on paper from sustainable forestry.
ISBN 978-3-86498-083-1
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