Lodz/Poland: From the household appliance industry’s promised land, 2005

Lodz/Poland: From the household appliance industry’s promised land, 2005

Wildcat Germany on the consumer electronics industry and conditions for workers in Lodz, Poland, following an attack on a foreman after the death of a worker.

Translated from Wildcat 75, December 2005
Masked men attack a manager from the Indesit kitchen stove factory and cut his face with a razor knife: This story from Lodz went through the Polish press in October. The attack came one day before the funeral of a young worker whose head had been crushed by a two-ton sheet metal press in the neighbouring refrigerator factory which also belongs to the Indesit corporation. The automatic stop mechanism had been removed from the machine in order to prevent the line from being stopped all the time. In the link above, we print excerpts from a reportage from the daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza. [1]

The reportage shows graphically what a Western corporation’s brand-new large factory in Eastern Europe looks like for the workers: hiring predominantly through temporary work agencies, low wages [2] for which skilled workers do not want to work, a correspondingly high turnover, brutal norms which are achieved by avoiding security regulations and endless - partly unpaid - overtime. A factory command which is almost exclusively organised through pressure.

The media as well as the police have immediately made a connection between the fatal work accident and the attack on the manager - a connection which is refused by local leftists. An article for the Nowy Robotnik also criticises that “there is no political consciousness in the plant. We haven’t met any charismatic people who would take up the task of organising a union or a strike in the plant.” [3]

Similar complaints can be heard from factory leftists in many Western European plants. But most workers neither form unions nor attack their managers but work overtime. At Indesit in Lodz they seem to do it with a deep alienation towards the factory and growing hate of their bosses. It was exactly this impression - the lack of mediation between workers and management in one of the new centres on which capital says it plans to base its future - which we found interesting when we heard of the attack, and this reportage has only reinforced the impression.

Lodz, Polands second-largest city with 770,000 inhabitants, was considered the “Manchester of the East” since the 1860s, it was one of the centres of the Russian Revolution of 1905, and it was a centre of the textile industry through the 1980s. Most textile factories have closed down since the collapse of the Eastern European markets. [4] At 16.8 per cent, unemployment in Lodz is only slightly lower than the national average of 18 per cent, but significantly higher than in other big cities like Warsaw (6.3), Poznan (6.7), or Cracow (7.4 per cent). Accordingly, the city advertises the fact that local manufacturing wages are at only 85 per cent of the Polish average. [5]

The city administration had the consulting firm McKinsey devise a “strategy” which among other things proposes a focus on the household appliance industry which is currently leaving Western Europe. [6] With some success: In the last few years, the big names of the industry have settled here. There are 1700 people working just in the two Indesit plants which were opened in 1999 and 2004. This makes Indesit one of the biggest employers in the city. Bosch-Siemens has been active since 1998 and is currently making 700,000 washing machines and dryers a year with 450 workers - at conditions similar to Indesit: gross hourly wages of 6 Zloty and norms at Western levels. Suppliers like Mecalit, Coko, Wirthwein, Prettl, DSWI, Drahtzug Stein, or E.G.O. have also moved to Lodz. In the reportage, an Indesit manager says: “We have already invested over 100 million Euros in Lodz and we are still investing. We are not going away.” It remains to be seen whether the “strategy” will work out for the corporations as well and whether the local working class will turn out to be not just cheap but also cooperative.

[1] The reportage has appeared on 17 Oct 2005 in Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest bourgeois daily in Poland. We have abbreviated the German translation to about half the original length and re-arranged some parts. The full German translation can be found at www.wildcat-www.de.

[2] The reportage talks of 4.20 Zloty per hour. According to the Nowy Robotnik, gross hourly wages for workers hired through a temporary work agency are slightly above 6 Zloty per hour. The exchange rate is at approximately 4 Zloty to 1 Euro.

[3] Malgorzata Michalska in Nowy Robotnik Nr. 21 (25), http://nr.freshsite.pl/?nr=25&id=577.

[4] For example, the textile factory Uniontex still employed 14,000 workers in the 1970s. In 2003, an occupation strike was organised against the final closure of the plant - against the big unions Solidarność and OPZZ. After the end of the strike, a self-managed cooperative with 130 employees was founded in the factory.

[5] Unemployment data from the Polish statistical office (http://www.stat.gov.pl). Investment data from the site of the Lodz Special Economic Zone (http://www.sse.lodz.pl) and from the Polish press (local news eg. at http://wirtualna.lodz.pl).

[6] See the article and the interview about the Bosch-Siemens plant in Berlin-Spandau in Wildcat 74 - “The only thing they can expect from us ... (is a kick in the arse!). A washing machine factory closes down.” [translation in this edition of the newsletter]- and also the current conflict at the AEG plant in Nürnberg.

[prol-position news #4, 12/2005] www.prol-position.net. Edited by libcom for accuracy.


Jan 8 2010 09:13

Despite the fact that I think the attack on the manager and the threats made on management on the internet (which one person was later arrested for) are clear signs of consciousness and discontent, the agency workers' time of revolt was short lived and never development into any organized action to improve their working condition.

Since this article was written, Indesit has had both a strategy of expanding production in Poland and threatening dismissals due to "low demand". The threatened dismissals have largely been a way to neutralize workers. In the meanwhile, Indesit wants to move jobs from italy to Poland where the workforce is largely non-unionized, many working through agencies for all or part of their career at Indesit.

For all of the authors' reasonable criticism of the role of unions, it still should be pointed out that the non-unionized and more precarious workforce are not more likely to take any action than the unionized workforce; such incidents like at Indesit are quite rare.

Finally, footnote four is really typical small capitalist mythology in regard to Uniontex; it is quite disheartening to see this constantly repeated. In July 2003, the future liquidation of Uniontex was announced and 90% of the workers were to be dismissed starting in Sept. In September, 4 people came up with the idea to form a worker-management firm - a form of buyout/privatization; these 4 people included union heads - Jerzy Kula the head of Solidarity, Sławomir Kaczmarek, second in charge of Solidarity there - basically the four were not "rank and file workers". They decided to set up the privatization with Jerzy Jaworski and Janusz Zielinski - former managers.

They got a loan of 3 million zloty from the Ministry of the Economy to buy machinery from the bankruptcy receiver and this initiative was supported by the local government.

Some former workers were "hired" - and being paid 600 zloties. Later, other workers, who were never former employees, were hired from the employment office on low wages as part of a special program to give jobs to the unemployed. This was normal wage labour relations.

Since this type of firm is a capitalist shareholder firm and nothing more, and since shares could be bought and sold, etc., in 2004, the old management decided to raise the share capital and bought themselves bigger shares, taking a larger control of the enterprise than the workers.

Well, duh. If workers want to play being capitalists and set up a typical capitalist venture, they have to understand that whoever has more capital will rule.

Although I know what percentage of shares were initially owned by workers and which percentage by former management, it is not clear how the shares were divided. There is no requirement that share capital from the workers be provided equally: for example, in such companies 60 workers can equally own 60% of the shares, having 1 percent each, or 6 workers can own 60% of the shares, having 10% each.

The former unionist were eventually fired from the "worker-controlled factory".

I find it quite disturbing that this is presented as an initiative of the rank and file workers when, it is just typical of Solidarity union activists, who lobbied for many such privatizations in Poland and when such companies - there are about 1500 functioning in Poland - are 99% of the time typical capitalist enterprises fucking other workers. In more than one instance, during a labour conflict we found that the employers were actually a "worker run business".

Jan 8 2010 09:37
Finally, footnote four is really typical small capitalist mythology in regard to Uniontex; it is quite disheartening to see this constantly repeated.
This was normal wage labour relations.

to be honest i can´t see any "typical small capitalist mytology" in that footnote. it doesn´t imply that relations in the factory were non-capitalist.

Jan 8 2010 10:33

no, I can't see that either. Prol-Position are against co-operatives and "self-management" under capitalism, so them saying a co-op was set up isn't implying it is a the "good" thing for workers at all, just a simple statement of what occurred.

Jan 8 2010 17:53

I didn't say that the authors implied this is a good thing but I object to two words being used and will comment on the "mythology". "Self-management" and "cooperative" are words which are understood quite differently and can be understood in a positive context by many. But in this situation, there was no "self-management" - there was in fact management - the same as the old management. There was also no "cooperative" - in Polish this is clear that the form of business structure there did not correspond to the word "cooperative".

The "mythology" I refer to is the fact that in Poland and elsewhere, this form of worker buyout was being referred to as a self-managed cooperative in the uncritical sense and we were told lots of myths about this event. (In Poland this myth was shattered soon enough when there was the repression of the unionists in Uniontex) The same was true about another famous case - Jugoremedia in Serbia. (If you would like me to prove that both these cases were made into some mythology, I can provide links not only in the countries it happened, but from around the world. Then we can compare this to the facts.)

My assumption is that some people who would read this have a basic understanding of the different types of cooperatives and the criticism of cooperatives working in capitalism and may also know the groups' position. These people, like the people who commented, will understand this note in one way. Others will not because they are not aware that terms like "self-management" and "cooperative' have wildly different meanings. Maybe I didn't express myself clearly, but I don't think these words should be used in the situation where they can be so misunderstood, especially in the case where they were grossly misunderstood locally and where locally, those who actually support small-time capitalism present such forms of business as not "real" capitalism.

I think it would have been longer but more correct to say that after the strike, a group of unionists and management received a loan, purchased some of the equipment, founded a firm which some workers had shares in and attempted to revive the business, hiring some of the former workers.

Jan 8 2010 18:02

thanks for the clarification and further information then.

I don't think that there is a significant distinction between their terms and the way you describe it - most large worker cooperatives hire and exploit other wage labourers who aren't in the Co-op, because that's the only way they can compete in the capitalist marketplace. This is one of the many reasons why Co-op's are no better than normal capitalist businesses, and why "self-management" in a capitalist market means nothing.

I appreciate, however, that many anarchists and socialists do not understand this, and think that there is something "progressive" about them, and that they may misunderstand the footnote.

Jan 8 2010 18:32

Yes, that's my point.