Next week Solidarity will organize its anniversary festival in Gdansk. It will be punctuated by such events as a huge mass in a grand cathedral and a ceremony dedicated to union-busting Ronald Reagan.
While the myths of Solidarity linger on in most parts of the world, we in Poland have already seen how they betrayed their original postulates, how they went into government and invited neo-liberal witch doctors such as Jeffrey Sachs to come and „fix” the economy and now how they have made poor compromises with the government. Over the years we have also seen something else: that on different occasions, Solidarity has simply abandoned some workers whose decision to struggle in the workplace has not been convenient to the union bosses for some reason. We present such a story.
A Tale of Two Supermarkets
In Poland there are many supermarket chains and in many of them, the working conditions leave a lot to be desired. Forced overtime, health and safety problems, poor salaries...
Solidarity started a campaign in which they boycott Lidl supermarkets. The fact is that they didn't organize too many actions there – only a couple. But they talk about the poor situation in Lidl quite often and let people know that they are fighting there.
Whether or not there is really a fight there is another question. Rather, not too much. But it is enough that it is Solidarity, which is a big name, and they can convince unionists around the world that there is some struggle, when in fact, the whole thing has been quiet for a long time and is mostly a media campaign.
Filled with imagination that Solidarity is a union which would support such a struggle in other supermarkets, a group of women in Dino supermarkets also joined. Unfortunately, what followed is rather disgraceful.
The union wanted to get more information about what the working conditions were like in other towns and used a Facebook account to spread information about the problems in the supermarket. Having no prior experience with this, a lot of people used their real names. 12 members of the union were fired, although some for interesting pretexts.
The question is what Solidarity did next.
The Solidarity regional boss got very busy discouraging any type of reaction to the firings. No protests. No noise. He went to negotiate with Dino supermarkets without the presence of the employees involved. And he made an agreement with them to return one of the unionists to work, but not the others. He spoke openly about this agreement with one of the other unionists and told her to stay quiet.
That is how Solidarity dealt with the firings of 12 people.
The woman who was told to stay quiet did not want to. She had seen a lot of violations of workers' rights in Dino and wanted to do something about it. So she joined a different union (ZSP), which will not sell out workers.
Once again, workers were wrongly convinced that if they joined Poland's biggest union, they would have better protection. We know this problem because there are people who would want to make some different unions at their workplace, but the average worker knows Solidarity and not much more. And Solidarity has some show campaigns which are meant to market their union to other workers. We consider the LIDL campaign to be something like this, because it has not done too much since a few protests at the start.
The situation with Dino became much worse. It is clear that the Solidarity woman who was taken back to work would be expected to act nice. Strange things started to „mysteriously” happen. Negative comments about the firm started to disappear from the Facebook page of the union. Emails sent by workers proving that the supermarket were violating their rights mysteriously disappeared. Information about what was wrong with the working conditions vanished into thin air.
Our colleague was of course thrown out of Solidarity, even though the reason given by them was not true. The Solidarity woman organized new elections. In Solidarity, members are not guaranteed the right to vote if they cannot come in to vote in person. So if you organize elections in one town, members from other places have to travel to vote. The results are predictable: more votes from the town the elections are organized in. People went to observe the elections and did not observe a quorom. A complaint was made in Solidarity that these new elections were not valid, but those who oversee these matters come from the Solidarity bureaucracy, who did not find any problems.
In the meanwhile, ZSP started a series of actions at Dino, coming in contact with many workers and finding out more about the working conditions. There were protests, some lawsuits against Dino and controls by the Labour Inspectorate. The latter found dozens of violations.
Solidarity all this time maintained a union in Dino. What did this union do? They wrote to the State Labour Inspectorate and told them not to mail the results of the controls to us, but to Solidarity. And they wrote to the supermarket that they kicked out the troublemaker. Solidarity then hired a PR man to deal with the image problems that arose with the Dino situation, because even some of their own members from other unions started to complain. The PR guy started by producing sexist cartoons to advertise Solidarity.
As a result of the actions, Dino had to pay some workers unpaid overtime and start paying overtime in general. They had to buy electric forklifts. Some violations were eliminated. The fired workers are still not back at work and may never be. But something was accomplished.
One might wonder about this all and why Solidarity was willing to make big noise about Lidl, but not about Dino. We have our theories, but cannot say for sure. There is the fact that Solidarity leaders have made remarks regarding the origin of Lidl's capital and that they have been known to make lots of similar remarks concerning foreign and local capital. Dino is local capital. Could it be that Dino was not treated like Lidl for some ideological reason?
We tend to think this could be. After all, we see what the working conditions are in both supermarkets. And simply put, the conditions in Dino were worse in many respects and every bad thing that happened in Lidl also was occuring in Dino. In terms of the working conditions, there is no good reason why Solidarity should not condemn Dino has much as Lidl.
But it did not and still does not.
One can also wonder whether the difference is with personal relationships. With absolutely no intention to depricate the work of the main unionist in Lidl, who was fired, when she was fired, she played ball and was treated well by Solidarity. Then again, maybe it helped to be the wife and daughter in law of big Solidarity bureaucrats.
There is no way to say what were the main reasons for Solidarity to act one way towards one of its unionists, who decided to organize in Lidl, and another way to a group of women who decided to organize in Dino. But when we see Solidarity trying to get international support for its Lidl campaign, which it doesn't actually carry out with any real enthusiasm here in Poland, we just think how they are able to use their myths to keep up their reputation. When in fact we see lots of things going wrong with Solidarity. Abandoning uncompromising unionists is one thing. Cooperating with the bosses against other unionists is another. That happened in a few cases, like at one Black White Red furniture factory where our colleague was fired. A Solidarity union from another factory stepped in to produce a letter claiming that there were no violations of workers' rights at that factory. This wasn't true, but surely the Solidarity bosses of that union earned some brownie points for trying to discredit people from other unions.
Our Criticisms and Conclusions
In Solidarity, like in many unions, a lot can depend on the local activists. We know and have known some Solidarity activists who fight and we can support the purpose of their struggles. Furthermore, we know that lots of workers join the union with honest intentions to struggle, so we stress we are not against these people. But Solidarity is a hierarchical union which has made very unfavourable deals with the state, agreeing to widdle away workers rights. It also refuses to call anything like a general strike, even when its members would like to have one. It has limited itself and the largest part of the organized working class to show protests.
Large parts of Solidarity, including much of its leadership, are in constant coalition with the church and have been conducting political coalitions with the conservative right. More recently there have been connections and even joint events with fascist groups.
The internal democracy of Solidarity leaves much to be desired, as we witnessed in the Dino case. Members are not given the right to vote from their location, opening up many possibilities to rig votes in favor of certain activists. Some local Solidarity bureaucrats seem quite willing to cover up irregularities when they occur. There is really no way rank and file members can effectively take action against the maldoings of the union hierarchy.
The conclusion we come to is that not only does might not make right, but also that might does not necessarily make might. Solidarity has convinced many workers that they will be safer and have more power joining Poland's biggest union, but this isn't true. What Solidarity has shown us is that in practice it encourages workers to „be safe” by not protesting their working conditions too loudly, by not fighting, by not striking – even when the retirement age is raised to 67, even when the 8-hour day is destroyed.
Solidarity is living off a legend and some false notions. But it is not a good option for any worker who really wants to do something against his or her exploitation.