Another Union Protest without Workers, Another Missed Opportunity

Another Union Protest without Workers, Another Missed Opportunity

Late on July 13 I received by personal email an invitation from "workers of TPSA" to join a picket in front of the French Embassy the next day. (TPSA is owned by France Telecom.)

Having a number of contacts with rank and file workers at the company, I assumed this explained the invitation and, without making any phone calls to check, I managed to get there during my break at work.

Approaching the embassy I could immediately see what kind of demo this was: one without workers. The banners, flags and gadgets were a signal for anybody who knows the reality of the Polish trade union movement: such demos are the preserve of professionals - shop stewards and other trade union representatives who are freed from their professional duties and may leave work on "delegations" for trade union activity. We could see people from as far away as Rzeszow and from many commissions of Solidarity - a few of them even from telecommunications. About 100 people picketed the embassy; maybe a quarter were from telecommunications. Maybe 2-3 from the TPSA in Warsaw.

I would have asked "where are the workers" - except I already know the answer. At work. A "responsible" trade union and good "social partner" would not call its members to abandon their posts and go out onto the streets.

Critical as I am of such methods, there are certainly legitimate reasons for the unionists to be protesting. Such as the transfer 5000 customer service workers to an external company. From there, they will be insourced to work in TPSA.

This is not the first time TPSA has come up with such an idea. Years ago we were in contact with and supported the protests of IT workers who were transfered in a similar way to the notorious firm EDS (now HP Enterprise Services). Their job security and compensation immediately went down the toilet and they were now forced to do the job in more precarious conditions and a worse working environment. (The boss at EDS at the time was Jacek S., who later went on to union busting at Lionbridge.) Their protests did no good as the unions ultimately signed them away "for the greater good of the company". There were then many other workers who saw their jobs transferred. Many continued to work even in the same building, at the same desks, with the same co-workers and same duties - just now they were contracted employees.

Since I was there, I spoke with the unionists about the situation and the protest. I noted that it was a holiday in France and the unionists said they knew. "The Embassy is closed. Nobody is there. Why here, now, today?" I questioned. The fact that nobody was there did not bother the unionists, who said the whole thing was symbolic anyway and that they would leave a letter to Sarkozy, asking for his intervention, with the security guard.

Besides the small discussion on whether or not Sarkozy would give a shit, I asked why, if the embassy was closed anyway, they couldn't have the demo at 6PM so that the workers could actually attend it. The answer? It was inconvenient for the paid activists, some of whom had to travel long distances to get back home.

The question about whether or not it made more sense to have 100 workers, including rank and file union members, from the HQ 10 minutes away, instead of bringing professionals 3,4,5, even 6 hours into Warsaw seemed very exotic to the union boss who apparently got annoyed with my questions and implications. "This is what they PAY US FOR!" he shouted in response.

After work I called somebody from TPSA to relate the story. This person is actively interested in the situation in the firm and is trying to encourage her co-workers to take action against mobbing. This was the first she had heard of the demo. "You can go home and watch the "TPSA workers' demo" on TV," I suggested. "See if you can find your local union reps." Later on I was informed that there was something else interesting on TV: the French-Polish Chamber of Commerce's gala ball for the 14th of July. One of the main sponsors? TPSA. My friend was utterly disgusted to see the management of the firm sipping champagne while the company was telling the workers about the need to tighten their belts.

"Had I known, we might have tried to crash the party," said my friend. Of course in such a hostile environment, where people are fired for any pretext, I wonder if the small group of angry workers at TPSA really would have done it. We would have certainly encouraged such an action and gone along with all our party toys. But the unions?

Some of them serve no other purpose than to be the stand-ins for the workers, to make ineffectual actions instead of going for some confrontation. Not all the time - but it looks to be this way at TPSA.