Women workers fight back against austerity in Poland

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logo of Women with Initative

In 2012, Poland and Ukraine are going to host Euro2012, the European Football Championship. For that reason hundreds of millions of euro from the national and local budgets have been spent on subsidizing infrastructural projects like football stadiums and highways. According to financial experts, these expenditures will never be reimbursed, and many city budgets are already on the verge of bankruptcy.

Submitted by Maria Z. on April 2, 2012

As a result, politicians have cut money from education, childcare and public institutions. All over Poland, schools and kindergartens are being closed down or are getting more expensive, the rents in municipal housing is going up, and hospitals and other public property are being privatized. Meanwhile, the prices of gas, electricity, water, and medicine have increased rapidly.

Women are going to bear the costs of expensive football games and economic crisis. Polish women earn less than men, are typically the first to be fired, and wages for workers in feminized sectors – such as public and healthcare workers – are frozen. It is already more difficult for women to find a decent job than men, and since the government is going to prolong the retirement age, women will spend an additional seven years working long hours with precarious and unstable contracts for a minimal wage of 300 euros a month. In Poland, like in other Eastern European countries, the percentage of unstable, fixed-term labour contract employment is among the highest in Europe – almost 30 per cent.

Budget cuts and privatization are primarily hitting public and care institutions, where women work and which they rely on. There is a huge lack of adequate infrastructure, such as nurseries and day-care facilities, as only 2 percent of children below the age of three are sent to childcare institutions in the country. We observe the political nature of the care shortage. (Note: When we say “care” or “care work” we are referring to any waged or unwaged activity, run at public institution or at home, which does not produce any commodity but provides conditions for reproduction of the working class. We focus here on childcare, but this also includes housework, paid housework and elderly care).

In neoliberal discourse – which is obligatory for the Polish political class since the capitalist transformation of 1989 – care is considered to be just a cost. In 2010, in Poznań, the city in western Poland, 750 million złoty from the local budget was spent on a football stadium, 22 million złoty was spent on city promotion, and only 15 million złoty was spent on nurseries for kids below the age of three, despite a huge need for childcare. In 2010, 1,600 children at that age couldn't be placed in public kindergarten in the city – and private kindergarten costs as much as the minimum wage workers make. In Warsaw, 1,915 million złoty was spent on a football stadium, city promotion costs 60 million zloty, while subsidies to kindergarten were decreased by 4,5 million and will reach less than 60 million złoty. In this sense, local government policies in Poland continue to operate under a patriarchal model of city management, these policies deepen the unequal division of work among sexes.

While women are going to pay off the debt after Euro2012 by taking care of children for free, or almost for free; politicians and investors are going to drink champagne while sitting in a stadium V.I.P. section. The massage is clear: men are invited for games, women to the kitchen! Without subsidies, care work is going to be the private duty of female workers, not the responsibility of the entire community. The state is pushing women back to the private sphere, as it the end someone will have to do the care work. Women will stay home with kids and they will ask grandmothers for help while care-takers will earn starvation wages, and single parents (mostly women) will get no support at all. There will not be a way to escape the gender trap: those who try to escape poverty and decide to emigrate to Western Europe will work as domestic workers or take care of the elderly. This is a growing trend, as almost 3 million Polish citizens heave left the country since 2004, when Poland joined the European Union. Half of them are women.

These politics have led to a growing resistance. When proletarian households suffer from social spending cuts and the the state withdraws from its responsibility to support care work, this is no longer a private problem for individual families. In 2011 and 2012 there have been protests against the increasing costs of living and against closures of schools and kindergartens. Parents are getting together with teachers to express their anger. For instance, in the town of Biskupice a nursery was occupied for nearly three weeks by approximately 100 parents, who stood outside the nursery during the day so the workers could take care of the children, and stayed in the building overnight.

In Poznań, female workers, local activists, and parents have been protesting against the increasing costs of public kindergartens for more than half year. Besides lower fees and higher wages, the coalition has demand more funding for childcare institutions from the city budget. For many months, they have been attending meetings in the town hall and putting pressure on councilors responsible for social policy and the budget. They have also been trying to garner support from other groups of workers, organizing open meetings and debates and staging pickets and other street actions. Kindergarten workers are demanding higher wages. They currently earn 300 to 350 euros per month, and their wages have not adjusted according to the inflation rate for many years. Nearly 150 of them have joined a militant Workers' Initiative trade union to enter the wage conflict with the bosses, which are the local government since the reform in 2011. Workers have written letters to the mayor demanding higher wages, and they have organized rallies and decided to enter a collective labor dispute, which might end with a simultaneous strike action in several nurseries.

An important part of this struggle is resistance against the privatization of nurseries. As kindergartens are being closed down all over Poland, the local government in Poznań wants to get rid of them by handing off these institutions to private foundations. Ironically, the authorities have called this process “socialization”, but it is in fact marketization and commercialization of the childcare sector in order to reduce costs. Thanks to the protests, the authorities had to give up their plan to give childcare institutions to profit-based foundations, and now only workers' cooperatives could take over and run them. The local governments might still transfer the burden of running no-profit facilities onto workers without providing them any protection, guarantee of employment, or regular subsidies. In response, workers have refused to run these facilities on the terms proposed by the city hall. Instead, at the beginning of 2012, together with union activists, they created a working group to research the possibilities of taking over the nurseries for the benefit of workers and parents, not the authorities.

What is special about the struggle for cheap access to childcare institutions and for higher wages of care-takers in Poland is that it is not limited to a conflict in a particular workplace. This struggle is trying to change the people are thinking about care overall. As we could see, care-workers are poorly paid and undervalued in Poland. These workers are hit by the crisis first, as they are employed by the local governments that are nearly bankrupt. However, there is a potential for the change as the field of care opens up the possibility of new allies and new forms of self-organization. It connects different groups: parents, children, grandparents; those who are formally employed together with unpaid workers, domestic workers, migrants; care-takers, teachers, doctors, nurses, and receivers of social benefits. As we observe in Poland, there is a crisis of traditional unionism (only approximately 10 percent of the workforce is unionized), and the lack of a strong independent workers' movement forces us to look for other ways towards self-organization. That means we also have to address the broader issues and change overall conditions of reproduction of the working class. Childcare workers can link resistance in workplaces with protests against national and local state policy, and demand a share in local budgets. This could lead us to a discussion about other forms of commons (resources that are owned in common or shared between or among communities populations) provided by the city that can;t bring in profits, such as public transport, municipal housing, and public parks.

To satisfy our social needs, we have to change the conditions in our workplaces, but also how the local and state budget is created. The aim is to create a society in which care will by a priority, not just another a cost, and in which it will be considered beyond the market and the state, and beyond the gender-based work division that put the double burden of low wage and undervalued reproductive work on women.

*Women with Initiative (Kobiety z Inicjatywą) is a working group within the Polish grass-roots militant trade union Workers' Initiative (Inicjatywa Pracownicza). The group was created in 2009 in order to focus on analyzing the problems of female unionists and specific situation of female workers in the Polish labor market. The group has been supporting protests and actions run by female workers (e.g. an occupational strike of seamstresses in the city of Opatow in 2010, annual International Women's Day demonstrations in Warsaw, a demonstration of nurses, nursery workers and others members of Workers' Initiative), and tries to strengthen the position of women within the workers' movement. To do so, Women with Initiative also conduct interviews with female unionists, run a column in the union bulletin, and organizes discussions. Members of the group take active part in resistance against higher fees and privatization of nurseries in Poznan. In order to improve exchange among women from local sections of Workers' Initiative the group is planning a national meeting of its female members in April 2012 in Warsaw. In June 2012, Women with Initiative will co-organize a demonstration during the Euro2012 football championships to protest against spending money on games while workers, especially female workers, pay the costs of the crisis.

This article summarized the brochure “New strategies and Analyses: Crises of Care. Challenge for the Militant Workers' Movement”, by the Women with Initiative.

For more information, visit the Workers' Initiative website: http://ozzip.pl/english
To contact Women with Initiative email [email protected].

The article was written by Women with Initiative from Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers' Initiative), and it was published in Industrial Worker - Issue #1743, March 2012, the official magazine of The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).