Sunday, 8 May 2011

Trade Unionists not Hooligans

Just as a hooligan cannot pretend to be a football fan so a hooligan cannot pretend to be a trade-union activist.

These are the words of PM Donald Tusk following a violent confrontation between Miners' trade unionists and security workers last week outside of the headquarters of the mining company KGHM. Comparing the demonstrators to the hooligans that have recently blighted Polish football, Tusk has identified trade unionists as the new 'enemy within'.

In recent months a number of political commentators have warned of the 'threat' posed by trade unions. It is claimed that these trade unions have held the country to ransom with unreasonable demands and are led by overpaid bureaucrats that do not sufficiently represent their membership.

The fact remains that only around 13% of all those employed in Poland - around 1.3m people - are members of trade unions. These tend to be based within the remaining state industries, the public sector or former state monopolies that have been privatised.

Trade unions are virtually non-present within the new private companies that have arisen throughout the past 20 years. This means that the vast majority of Poles do not have the option to join a trade union - with research showing that nearly a half of those questioned state that they are not a member of a trade union because there are no trade unions where they work.

The absence of trade unions has resulted in Poland having the longest working hours in the OECD apart from South Korea and has left millions of workers on unstable short-term contracts. This has meant that those who are covered by trade unions have been signalled out by the government and its allies as having 'unfair privileges'.

The Miners are a perfect example of this. In relative terms miners in Poland earn well and enjoy a number of bonuses and early retirement rights. These are derived both from the ardious and dangerous work that they do and from the high status that they had during Communism. Also the strong trade unions in the sector has meant that Miners have been able to retain these rights.

Last week around a 1000 Miners organised a picket outside the offices of the KGHM Mining company in Lublin. For over 3 years these workers have been demanding a 300 zloty a month pay rise, which has been consistently refused by the owners of the company. The anger of the Miners can be understood as KGHM recorded a record profit in 2010 of over 4.5bn zloty. Furthermore, the board of directors voted themselves huge pay rises last year. The monthly salaries for the Presidents of the company rose from 40,000 to 75,000 zloty a month (i.e. an increase of 90%). This salary rise was also supported by the representatives of the State Treasury that sit on the board.

With profits and board salaries soaring and inflation exceeding 4%, the request for a 300 zloty pay rise seems far from excessive. It was the the unfairness of this situation that led to the outbreak of violence at the picket last week. However, rather than the government recognising the realities of the situation, it has opted to score cheap propaganda points through further demonising the trade unions.

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