What's wrong with the unions (pt.1)

Last year Poland raised the retirement age to 67 and this year got rid of the guaranteed 8-hour day. Up til now, the main unions have responded with barely a peep. This lack of union militancy has no doubt given the green light to the neoliberal government to push ahead with such anti-worker measures. Now, as the workers demand some response, one wonders if this will be too little, too late. What are the factors that have lead to this situation? They are complex, ranging from the specifics of the local social conditions to the institutions of trade union collaboration. The following is the first in a series of articles on the situation of the unions in Poland.

Submitted by akai on July 5, 2013

Union Jobs: The Road to Stagnation, Hierarchy and Collaboration

The first topic to be examined plays an important role in shaping the trade union movement. The phenomenon is known as „etaty zwiazkowe”. This is hard to translate, but can be roughly understood as „union jobs”. This is a mechanism which leads to cadres of workers who are totally or partially exempt from working. (In Spain, such a unionist would be known as a „liberado”. In Poland we could call it an „etatowy zwiazkowiec”.)

In Poland there is quite a well-developed cadre of unionists exempt from work. This is a result of laws which allow for a union representative to be totally exempt from work if the union has 150 members in the workplace. What is more, unionists are entitled to time exempt from work, for „union business” when there are fewer members of the union. So if the union has 40 members, the union representative is entitled to 10 hours free from work, 80 members to 20 hours, etc. etc. The unionist is still paid for this time, as if working.

One reading this without knowing more about the context might just assume it is a good deal for unionists. Perhaps it is a good deal if you only take into account the individuals who are lucky enough to get it. However its effects on the union movement are extremely negative.

Such „union jobs” have led to several characteristic problems. The first is the development of professional cadres which centralize union life and do not rotate. Such professional unionists are often thought to care more for their cushy positions than any labor struggles – and in many situations, that is the case. A professional unionist is not very eager to hand over the job. And they centralize union work in other ways.

Over the course of any year, one can encounter various union actions. sometimes these actions are entirely made up of professional activists, without the affected workers involved. One example was a couple of years ago in Warsaw, when there was a protest of „LOT Airline workers”. At the protest one could observe that there were only a couple of LOT trade union representatives present. The ones representing the workers. The rest of the protesters came from other unions and were also trade union representatives. These people have time off of work, so they can go to such demonstrations. (And their unions can even expect it.) When I asked a union representative about where the LOT workers actually were during the protest, I got an incredible look and was told that they were working as they should be.

Such scenes are all too common in Poland. Professional cadres go out and represent the workers. They in fact take their place. The workers themselves are not expected to be active in such situations, even though they relate to their own matters.

With such habits, some workers begin to look towards the workers' representatives as the ones that not only represent them (and usually with far too many discretionary powers), but also as the ones which speak up for them (or not). With such agents to act in their place, the workers themselves remain behind the scenes.

There are numerous reasons why we as anarchosyndicalist oppose such models of unionism. The first is that we believe in developing the horizontal and active nature of unions and such models only serve to hierarchize the unions and promote passivity. There are more reasons, some of which relate to the specifics of union corruption and collaboration, as they have developed in this country.

About corruption, we can easily see how the reputation of the professional unionists has done a lot to damage the image of unionists. Besides the notion that these unionists care more about their priveleges than any struggle, there is also a long tradition of corruption related to such jobs. Some of these types of corruption are peculiar to the Polish circumstances. For example, a union is entitled to secrecy concerning its members and does not have to provide a list to employers. Union members are known in the case where dues at deducted from the payroll – but a union may elect that the members pay dues directly. In such a case, there is no real way to verify the amount of union members. An employer would have to go to court to verify the numbers, but would do this only in the case where it has reasonable grounds to believe the numbers have been seriously inflated. So there is room for manipulation. Another fact is that a worker can belong to 2 or 3 different unions at one time. There is no rule against it. In a famous situation a few years ago in a group of coal mines, there turned out to be more union members than employees. But if a unionist wants to get a union job, they can ask people to sign onto his or her union, even if they are in another, even waiving the dues or asking for a symbolic grosz.

The main unions do not officially condone such methods. After all, they depend on dues for money for their bosses, headquarters, etc. It is also highly compromising if they get caught. But Poland is a country of union pluralism, with thousands of registered unions. Some of these exist as an alternative to the mainstream unions but undoubtedly some were set up mainly for the benefit of the union representatives.

Setting up a small union is one way to create new opportunities for union representatives, although others might see this as a way to decentralize who gets „union hours” off, so that this isn't limited to the largest unions. However the system also allows ways to centralize who gets time off and, essentially, who becomes a professional unionist. Some of these mechanisms are pointed out in an article recently published by the Workers' Initiative Union, which quite explicitly instructs its appointed representatives about how to work the system. In it we read that a representative of an intercompany union can take on the hours of the representatives of the actual workplaces; if there are a total of 80 workers in several workplaces, a chosen representative can work half-time. So it is also possible that somebody with no people at his or her workplace be in the inter-company union, be elected „representative” and get hours off to represent the others. The above-mentioned union also shows that various members of the unions central organs can get time off, including such people as the editor of the union newspaper.

These sort of schemes go very much against what we, as anarchosyndicalists, are trying to achieve. Rather than creating professional and immovable cadres which centralize work and receive benefits for it (remuneration, or jobs without work), a radical base union must encourage participation of the widest amount of members, rotation of tasks and group accountability. The trappings of the representative system do quite the opposite.

One might ask then, how is it that in a country like Poland, where the government has been attacking the working class for years and has been able to push through such measures as raising the retirement age without a struggle, is it possible that such a system is maintained?
The answer is that this is maintained because it ensures the bosses get to deal with cadres of fat union professionals who try to keep their positions and aren't too likely to rock the boat. And this is a small price to pay for the social peace it has lead to.

That is not to say that all union reps are in complete collaboration with the bosses. But it is a significant portion, clearly the majority. Those who dare go against the bosses are often harrassed in various ways – including making it difficult to take union hours. Unionists who really intend to struggle or who speak up too loudly are persecuted in various ways, mostly fired under false pretexts. The ones who just want to keep their job, know what they need to do: keep quiet. And get time off work to pretend to carry out „union activity”.

The nature of this unwritten pact with the bosses is obvious but it was highlighted in the last few days by some recent developments.

The mainstream unions are making gestures, as if they are ready to get up off their knees. The amendments of the Labor Code and Act on Trade Unions which eliminate the guaranteed 8-hour working day were planned and adopted with no real opposition by the unions. Instead of mass protests and strikes, we had only the weakest symbolic action. But after this, the membership of Poland's biggest union, Solidarity, voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to hold a general strike. A nationwide general strike has not been held in Poland since the transformation, so it would be a rare event for labor. However the union bosses have not approved or set a date for the strike. It is playing cat and mouse, at one point proposing they might hold a large protest on a Sunday in September, at other times threatening a larger strike with the other unions. Despite this half-assed hesitant stance, the possibility of a general strike happening in Poland in September looks quite real at this time, with other unions expressing interest.

The response of many members of the government has been to liken the unions to terrorists and to start a black PR campaign. Union leaders are called „bandits” and one member of government practically begged to finally be allowed to write an anti-union bill. So the expectation of the governments towards the unions can be seen by all. They have made it clear that if the unions talk about a strike, the result will be a new law which will liquidate the union jobs.

Union jobs were fine, as long as the union reps were quiet and sold out the workers. As soon as the unions plan to take some action (even just some symbolic one-day strike), the unwritten code of collaboration is broken and the unions can expect retaliation.

For some of the unions, the end of union jobs is seen as the most serious blow they can suffer. In the context of the labor movement they created, it is indeed a serious blow. The workers are not self-organized and motivated, people become „devoted activists” by taking on rep jobs and maybe devoting some of the time they would have spent working to going to the union pickets or writing something for the union newspaper. The union bureaucracy cannot imagine the rank and file organizing themselves and fighting for the sake of fighting, running the unions by themselves.

It is hard to see the possible end of this system in a positive light given the fact that it would be done in retaliation for the threat of a strike. But what's more is that getting rid of this system would in fact be a serious blow, as the workers are not used to doing things by themselves. They have long been accustomed to this rotten hierarchical system, to moving like sheep behind some leaders. There are of course some exceptions, but the general landscape of the union movement looks that way.

In the next part of this series, a look at the Social Partnership between the government, business and unions and the way unions have been affected by the capitalist logic.