The North Korea of Polish Economy


We have yet another show under the motto: “onslaught of coal miners on Warsaw”, as well as conspicuous (and, let’s remember, punishible by law!) threats of an imminent feast of destruction nearby the Polish Parliament and in other places. Reaction of authorities? Typical. Politicians are widely known for their “flexible spines”, but, as elections approach, that softness reaches a jelly-like state. Pledges of the former Prime Minister Tusk to transfer the cost of the ineffective Polish coal-mining system to the (public!) power plants – an opportunistic and very costly idea for us, tax-payers, as well as the plan to fight against “unfair competition” announced in the expose by the new Prime Minister Kopacz – all these leaves us with very bleak perspectives for the future.

Each subsequent government turns a blind eye to the miners’ unruliness (and then feels surprised by the erosion of trust in the legal system!) and continues to expand the already very high funding of a sector doomed to radically decrease the scale of its activity. However, let me begin with a more flagrant issue. The coal miners’ labor unions act in a way resembling the style predominant in North Korea, where the leaders of this ill-fated state, threatening to use nuclear weapons or to incite local wars etc., through their blackmailing are usually able to gain some financial support for their ruinous economy, which cannot provide sustenance to its nation, but can nevertheless afford bombs. Our own “North Koreans” from Upper Silesia are doing exactly the same (but they don’t have a nuclear bomb, fortunately!), resorting to blackmail in order to obtain additional funding, granted at the expense of their own society.

And what about the economic aspect of this coal mining predicament? Let’s state it blatantly: the situation is crystal clear and it’s obviously unfavorable. And it’s not about Russian coal. First of all, a n y coal sold on international markets is cheaper than the coal extracted from the national coal mines of Upper Silesia. More importantly, the competitiveness of import is the e f f e c t, not the cause.

Polish coal is not competitive, because its cost is ratcheting up – due to very high and still rising costs of labor, as well as the increasingly difficult conditions in which our coal is obtained. The reason for these high costs is the successive increase of the coal miners’ wages, successfully negotiated in the so called “good years” of the previous decade. However, those good years had little to do with the increase of the efficiency of Polish coal-miners, bur rather with the decade-long increase of the prices of petroleum. As everyone knows, the price of coal on international markets is being „pulled” (up or down) by the price of the essential fossil fuel: petroleum.

Let’s not deceive ourselves and let’s be realistic. The price of petroleum will keep on decreasing for the next 20 years or so. In the previous cycle of resources the prices at the turn of the 1970’s and the 1980’s reached the level of more than 90 (current) dollars, and in the first half of 1999 they reached the level of 12 (current) dollars per barrel. I’m not claiming the scale of changes will be identical, but the d i r e c t i o n of changes surely will be. As of today around 40% of coal mines are not bringing any profits and this number will continue increasing. If we keep caving in to blackmail, we will be placing a larger financial burden on the shoulders of tax-payers.

We have to find the courage to say: NO! I can’t say it’s high time for that, since that moment is long overdue. Nowadays coal mining is playing a small part in our economy and for economic (Polish and global) reasons its role will keep on becoming less significant. The act of closing down the permanently unproductive coal mines will not endanger the economy.
As for political threats voiced by the coal miners – they will not have a large impact. After all, the whole sector employs less than 100 thousand workers. Even if we take into account their families, their votes will not be able to determine the outcome of elections. If I recall correctly, during the previous discussion about the role played by coal Leszek Balcerowicz was running for office from nowhere else but Upper Silesia, and he won the local elections in 1997 by a large margin. Therefore, when it comes to politics, there is no reason to be afraid.

What remains is the social problem. Certainly difficult, but sometimes it must be stated firmly that the time of living at someone else’s expense has come to an end, or, in any case, many benefits will need to be cut. Besides, today’s coal miner is not the proverbial “man with a shovel”, but a well-qualified craftsman. They will certainly be able to find a job. The only thing that is coming to an end are the unmerited benefits. And union activists? I don’t have much regret for those North Koreans…


Translation: Marzena Szymańska