Poland: wildcat strike at PKS-Lomza


In Poland bus drivers held a one day wildcat strike against the appointment of a new director who wants the workers to purchase the company.

On Thursday November 22, a wildcat occupational strike was held in the bus company PKS-Lomza. 200 of the 250 workers there went on strike. 50 workers who are part of the Solidarity union were surprised by the action and didn't support it.

The workers protested against the dismissal of the director Adam Wykowski on Wednesday night. Workers striking on behalf of a fired director?

This is a fairly common thing in Poland, especially in state-owned enterprises where directors may represent one side or another regarding the issue of privatization.

The person who had replaced Wykowski, Wojciech Zalewski, was the leader of a group of workers who had been urging and organizing the creation of a "workers' company" (spolka pracownicza in Polish). The striking workers were against Zalewski whereas the unionists from Solidarity support this form of organization.

Wykowski left his post after one day and has now retired from the bus company after 25 years of work there.

The situation is rather complicated and seems at times to be contradictory but this perhaps reflects the reality that the rank and file workers are indeed confused about their options and are being pressured by different sides in the workplace, causing many to change their position.

There were originally three options to be considered: to sell the company to an outside investor, to make it into a "workers' company", (meaning that the workers invest capital and then "lease" the company by taking a loan and paying off their shares for a period of time) or to "commericalize" it (meaning that it would be owned by the State Treasury and transformed into a joint-stock company, and later the stocks may be sold - which in practice could, if the State Treasury decides not to hold the majority stake, lead to a roundabout way of implementing the first privatization scenario).

The authorities first wanted to sell PKS to the French company Connex, which bought up some bus companies in other towns on Poland. The workers struck against this option and it was benched. The workers were frightened that such a privatization would lead to reductions in the workforce, as it had in some other cities in Poland. Typically, companies like Connex sign some agreement not to fire people for at least two years, then they fire them. Having ruled out this option, the workers were given those other two to consider.

Union leaders were and are divided on the issue. Solidarity wants a workers' company whereas Solidarity 80 wants the commericalization.

(Soldarity 80 is a separate union formed years ago by Solidarity activists who were in opposition to Lech Walesa.)

In June 2006, workers voted in a referendum to form a workers' company but after they learned of the financial conditions, some of them changed their minds. A single share would cost 5 thousand zloties (about 2000 USD) a fortune for people who make about 1000 zloties a month. Then of course the workers would have to take a bank loan and pay off the value of the assets. The amount they would need to pay for the assets is 6.6 million zloties. For 250 workers, that's about 26,000 zloties a piece, over 10,000 USD. Workers' companies of course allow workers to acquire as many stocks as they can afford meaning that a few workers who somehow have a little more money, in particular the former management, who are included as workers in these schemes, tend to buy much larger stakes and wind up controlling the company.

Many workers thus reconsidered their positions. Union activists from Solidarity 80 wrote to the Voivodship and demanded that a new referendum be held since they wanted to vote on commercialization.

Shortly afterwards, three unionists from Solidarity 80 were fired by then-director Aleksiejczuk. He blamed them for "causing ferment" in the company. Workers started to complain that they were being pressured to support the formation of the workers' company and could be fired if they didn't.

In the meanwhile, Zalewski, whose appointment as director prompted Thursday's strike, kept agitating for creating a workers company and gathered signatures, just barely failing to obtain a majority. So between June 2006, when a majority supported the formation of a workers' company, and March 2007 when Zalewski gathered signatures, quite a few people changed their minds.

The workers rebelled against the means of Aleksiejczuk and had him ousted and replaced by Adam Wykowski.

The local authorities did not agree to allow the workers to organize another referendum. Instead they hired a consulting firm.

The head of the Voivodship was clearly in favour of creating a workers' company but, despite this, somehow it was decided that the firm would be commercialized. Of course, since then the government has changed and is now run by people who are staunch supporters of divesting the State Treasury of most of its holdings. This perhaps explains the appointment of Zalewski. The workers understood this to mean that the local government, or perhaps the government in general, would go back on its plans for commercialization. It is still highly unclear what will ultimately be done with the bus company and whether or not the workers won't change their minds again if it turns out that the State Treasury now intends to sell off its shares to investors like Connex.