Unions’ Protests? They’re Not So Bad!

This year, in September, Warsaw witnessed perhaps the biggest trade unions’ protest for a very long time. Three largest of the national trade unions occupied the streets for nearly three days. This group of over one hundred thousand people expressed their views in a spontaneous, but also peaceful way. It has probably been the biggest event in the capital of Poland since Euro 2012.

„Event” is perhaps the proper term here. Of course, the street protest was a very important part of trade unions’ actions – but it was also three days of debates (with the supporters of workers’ demands – but still, there was more talking based on content rather than shouting anti-governmental slogans) and other events that marked these days as a great manifestation of a huge part of society which demanded to respect a specific vision of social responsibility of the state. Certainly, it is incredibly important for these people to deal with ideological differences between them – so that leftist-socialists could stand alongside national-Catholics.

The biggest fault of many people who affiliate themselves with liberal ideas – which are also the most important values to myself – is underestimating the situation. We won’t see the point if we just say it’s „chutzpah” and we deny reject single argument of protesters.

Indeed, there’s a lot to reject and to criticize. When trade unions demand the withdrawal from pension reform,[i] they certainly don’t care about demographical and financial aspects – it’s only about gaining people’s support against unpopular reforms. Of course, many of trade unions’ demands are naive and could be dangerous if they were realized.

However, it’s not fair to say that only trade unions are naive, and that other sides of social dialogue on labour in Poland always think more reasonably. Jeremi Mordasewicz, for example, who is an active member of employers’ organizations side in social dialogue, said that the protesters themselves are „dangerous to the competitiveness.” Well, it wouldn’t be shocking if it was said by some politician in People’s Republic of China. In Europe, it’s a totally unacceptable point of view for everyone who perceives democracy as a true value, and a way for giving every person a chance to be heard.

Certainly, unionists’ demands can be described as a sign of people’s fears during the era of economic crisis. Some of these fears are strongly exaggerated. When it comes to the pension reform, for instance, the current ones seem to be quite moderate when we look at the financial situation, and demographic prognosis for the Polish population. Another example of this exaggeration is the so-called „liquidation of the eight-hour day”[ii].

Another postulate, however, is something that can’t simply be rejected as imprudent. In fact, civil-law agreements are used in Poland too frequently in the circumstances that clearly require an employment contract. We can’t believe, however, the numbers given by trade unions that included temporary employment contracts. In fact, we can say that people should have a choice of the form of contract. However, today – especially with relatively high unemployment rate – it’s the employer that is in the position to choose the form of contract. And it’s certainly unfair when he chooses the one that gives less protection to the employee, so the only choice the latter has is either „you’re taking this job [that shouldn’t even be a job, according to a form of agreement] or you can end up on the street.” In my opinion, the situation should change to the proposal that Palikot Movement (now Your Movement, a social-liberal Polish parliamentary party) made in September, and whose basic ideas include: clearer definition of employment; successive fixed-term contract, which means employment contract for an indefinite period; and the same about any steady relationship between the employer and the employee, regardless of the form of contract, if the job has been performed for at least 24 months. Also, the trade unions would be reformed – the so-called union’s job position – a job position which every employer has to fund for the leader of local union’s structures to help him or her do their duties towards workers, would be limited from full-time to part-time, while the remaining time would be dedicated to the duties towards the employer. The period when one is entitled to hold this position would also be reduced to maximum two terms or ten years in a row. In exchange, worker’s right to protest would be extended, e.g. by allowing workers of state agencies to walk out.

Then, we come to the issue of the minimum wage. In fact, it has been raised in Poland in recent years rapidly, from 934 PLN in 2007 to 1,600 PLN in 2013. The differences between the government’s and trade unions’ propositions differ only by small numbers. However, we face another kind of problem here – the minimum wage itself is not the result of negotiations between employer’s possibilities and employee’s demands – the decision is usually in the hands of the government’s side, which doesn’t really need the negotiations and complicated social dialogue. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to satisfy any of the groups of interest.

Another problem is some kind of dogma very common amongst liberal-thinkers that any rise in the minimum wage is dangerous, and so people will lose their jobs immediately if we do it. In fact, it’s a necessary tool in the liberal-market economy that allows less-privileged people to stay above the living wage. It’s certainly important to the egalité, the primary value of leftist protesters, and to the fraternité, emphasized by right-wing demonstrators. But we cannot also forget how important the basic standards of living are to the true implementation of liberté – which certainly can’t be of good use for those people who are not able to meet their fundamental needs. Some people could of course try and defend the idea of liberty as the right to maximisation of profits and the right to cut other people of their aspirations – but I think the Maslow’s hierarchy of need is such a simple, yet comprehensive, model of relations between the basic needs and higher aspirations, that I don’t need to describe this further more.

As for the very fundamental idea of the minimum wage and its increase in the current circumstances, we can distinguish between two main ideas. The first one is based on the assumption that the minimum wage shouldn’t be higher, as the Polish economy is not productive enough. On the other hand, some experts claim that a higher consumption level is necessary to achieving economic growth, and raising the minimum wage is a necessary means to reaching both objectives.

Indeed, there’s a way to set higher wages without much harm to company’s interests. Biedronka, the largest chain of no-frills supermarkets, set up the minimum wage of PLN 2,000, which is far higher than the minimum standards set by Polish government. Certainly, they’re not afraid they could lose their profits by more generous revenue sharing with their employees.

Perhaps a reform of the minimum wage could be a more effective solution. It could include two fundamental ideas. The first one is about setting minimum wage not on the national, but regional level. In this way, the standards for poorer regions (with lower minimum standards of living) would be different than those for the better-developed ones. Preferably, every Polish metropolis should have a different minimum wage than the rest of the region. This way, we would be able to set the minimum wage standards that are both affordable for employers, and give employees opportunity to live above the living standard. We would definitely run the risk of having a situation when someone registers their company in a place with lower standards, while doing activities in another region, but I believe that risk could be avoided by appropriate and clear regulations.

Another substantial change could be provided by some form of progressive minimum wage – which could mean two separate rates: one for small and medium enterprises, and another one for corporations. The first one would be equal to the minimum wage, while the second one would be much higher. The basic reason behind this is that smaller enterprises are usually the ones which could be really affected by minimum wage raise, which is the reason why it can’t be set according to the standards proposed by trade unions, which are usually present in corporations. Also, the inequalities in earnings amongst corporation employees are usually more noticeable than in small enterprises. The least „productive” employees are in fact those who can be easily replaced – and they usually get paid the lowest rates. It doesn’t mean their work is unnecessary, or that they don’t work for the common benefits of the whole company – for „productive” and „unproductive” employees alike. It seems fair to let them gain better benefits from the company’s revenue.

One more thing is worth emphasising – before unions’ representatives decided to leave Trilateral Commission, the central institution of social dialogue between trade unions and employers’ organizations, they put forward their own proposition regarding the method of calculating minimum age. The basic idea was to associate the raise in the minimum wage with the average monthly salary. We can talk whether it’s a really useful method, however, it should have been at least considered. Meanwhile, the government just rejected it without any further explanations.

Finally, it’s also important to reflect on the lack of social dialogue. Many people, in liberal environments especially, explain the situation as the consequences of irresponsible union actions. In fact, it’s a bit more complicated. Polish government can’t deal with the necessity of social dialogue. Even ACTA-related protests didn’t change the situation much. We have problems organizing a well-balanced, equal dialogue, even in such an institution as the Trilateral Commission, which has a strong legal position and very good conditions to be a place of true dialogue.

Even introducing amendments to the Labour Code wouldn’t lead to street protests, as changing the law was not the main reason behind them. It was more about „skipping” social dialogue. We can try and defend the legislation, but the way government handled this was totally unacceptable for the standards of 21st-century democratic state. For every true democrat it should be a serious problem – even if we can agree with this specific legislation, what would we say faced with „another ACTA” – harmful legislation, prepared without proper information and without consultations?

The same kind of arguments could be applied to the referendum about the pension reform. 2.5 million signatures had been collected, but the parliament never even considered the proposition. We can debate whether it’s wise to discuss such a large-scale citizen’s initiative in a referendum. This was the reason behind the „Citizens decide” initiative involvement in the protests. They demanded introducing legislation that would give citizens’ initiative a stronger position.

Therefore, we could describe these September events, either as worker’s protests, or the sign of weakness of social dialogue. Both factors are, in fact, important to strengthening democracy in Poland.

Of course – it’s hard to avoid any conflicts, even if we implement the best possible model of social dialogue. However, we can’t blame trade unions for everything, even if we don’t necessarily agree with all their positions.

It would certainly be dangerous to implement all of their demands, including the radical version of direct democracy. But it’s also not really smart to just call these people „lazy-bones” and all their demands „idiotic”. In fact, ignoring these people and their demands seems to be even worse. Social security should be in fact an important value for us – not even if we are liberals, but because we are liberals. It’s especially meaningful to the countries of former Eastern Bloc – with a permanent deficit, with a common belief that social services are nothing but a fiscal burden, with another dogma: that citizens shouldn’t be involved in the legislative process.

In fact, all these problems are strongly related with one another. It was clearly visible on the streets of Warsaw.

I’ve got no illusions – this time, from Warsaw there came no message, neither to the Polish society, nor to liberal environments, nor to other countries of Europe. I’m absolutely sure, however, it was not the last event of this character. Tomorrow it can be Prague, Budapest, or maybe another capital. Maybe it’s time to reconsider some of our attitudes and perceptions of reality? It would help us a lot if we re-considered smoking this cigarette at the gas station before we lit it up – and if we had already done this, perhaps it would be wise to figure out a way to get out of this situation…

                 The idea is to raise the retirement age, which is currently set at the age of 61 for women and 65 for men, to 67 years of age for every citizen – as well as the liquidation of specific privileges for some groups, many of them introduced during the Socialist era.

[ii]      Which in practice means the implementation of regulations allowing the employer to double overtime hours during the next 12 months, instead of 4 months – but only after getting the acceptance of the worker’s representatives.