Wildcat's account of a successful strike of bus drivers in Poland against privatisation to Veolia and instead for a majority worker-owned company.
After 17 days the bus drivers in the South Polish city of Kielce have surprisingly won their strike. The sale of the communal bus company MPK planned by the city's mayor was stopped and MPK given to the workers instead. The strike had been preceded by months of confrontation. One day before the end of the strike, one of MPK's operation yards had been brutally evicted by private security guards and then recaptured by the striking bus drivers on the next morning.
MPK employs 630 people, including 380 drivers, one of who is a woman. The 160 buses are old and keep breaking down. For years, the company has been incurring losses, according to the workers not least because some years ago the city divided up the company into the actual bus company (MPK) and a traffic planning authority (ZTM). ZTM is supposed to manage the public traffic "market" by organising tender procedures, issuing requirements and writing timetables. In reality it only controls the MPK and pushes it into debt with unfavourable conditions.
A collective agreement conflict has been going on for two years. The last wage increase was six years ago. Five years ago, Solidarnosc and the two smaller unions in the company agreed to lower wages by relinquishing bonuses and extra pay in order to "save the company". After 30 years of service, drivers earn about 1,600 Zl net, newly employed drivers earn less than 900 Zl net. Most workers are between 40 and 50 years old. According to drivers, few young people apply. Over the last few years, many have resigned and gone to England or Ireland or have become truck drivers. Now Solidarnosc is asking 500 Zl more for everyone.
Apart from wages, workers also demand improved working conditions: According to the drivers, ZTM's timetables are unrealistic which means that on the one hand buses are never on time and on the other hand drivers have practically no breaks between tours. Drivers also complain that the bus which took drivers home after the last tour has been cancelled; which means that some of those who can't afford a private car have to make long walks home at night.
Last year the issue of privatisation was added to the agenda. Before his re-election last year with 72 per cent of votes, Kielce's autocratic mayor Lubawski had promised not to sell MPK, but after the election he put all his weight behind selling it to the French Veolia corporation (which also operates train and bus lines in Germany under the name of Connex). The unions were not against privatisation as such but demanded a "social package" with five years of job protection, high compensations for lay-offs and wage increases. Veolia wanted to guarantee only job protection, and only for employees with unlimited contracts.
The conflict began to escalate when the mayor announced that the Veolia deal would go ahead.
4 June: 480 employees participate in a strike ballot organised by Solidarnosc (without the other unions). 450 vote for strike.
19 June: The city signs a preliminary contract with Veolia. At the same time it tries to increase the pressure: ZTM organises a new call for tenders for the next ten years. Veolia says its will only sign the final contract if MPK wins the tender. The tender is tailor-made for the Veolia deal because it calls for high investments. In press interviews, the mayor says that MPK does not stand a chance against its many competitors. His bluff is called when MPK finally wins the tender in early August: There had been no other competitors at all.
21 June: MPK workers demonstrate in front of city hall and then enter the building and molest city councillors.
22 June: Warning strike from 4 to 8 a.m. Only 6 out of 160 buses go out into the streets. MPK management and mayor call the strike illegal because warning strikes may only last 2 hours. ZTM imposes a 300,000 Zl fine on MPK and threatens to cancel the carriage contract with MPK in case of further strikes. MPK management charge the 300,000 Zl to the account of MPK's Solidarnosc leader. The mayor threatens to immediately liquidate MPK and contract out the bus traffic to another carrier in case of further strikes.
28 June: Another 4 hour warning strike - but from 0 to 4 a.m., ie. outside traffic hours. No reaction from management and mayor.
Late June to mid July: Several rounds of negotiations of the social package between unions and Veolia. No result.
2 August: MPK drivers collectively donate blood which means they may take the rest of the day off.
10 August: Solidarnosc announces an unlimited strike starting on August 14. The mayor threatens to liquidate MPK immediately.
14 August: Not a single bus goes out into the streets. 200 drivers stand in front of the operation yard and refuse to let managers enter. The workers' assembly votes for an unlimited strike and elects a strike committee. The mayor refuses to talk to the strike committee because he deems the strike illegal.
15 August: A catholic Mass on the premises of the operation yard. It has been difficult to find a priest because the bishop - the mayor's brother-in-law - has prohibited his priests from saying Mass in MPK.
18 August: The city and Veolia have hired 80 replacement buses with drivers from other cities. The buses are supposed to park in the Pakosz operation yard, the smaller one of MPK's two operation yards, but cannot enter because 150 workers block the gate. In the end, the strike-breaker buses park on a lawn outside town.
19 August: Veolia's strike-breaker buses service the city's most important bus lines.
22 August: 17 members of the strike committee are terminated without notice. Unknown persons throw bricks at a strike-breaker bus.
23 August: City police write tickets because strikers have set up a small table for collecting signatures in the city centre without permission. The mayor and the Solidarnosc leader meet without a result. MPK's president complains that workers have settled down in front of his office with bricks and cement.
25 August: Another strike-breaker bus is pelted with bricks.
28 August: Loud and angry MPK workers' protest in front of ZTM's downtown offices. ZTM claims that four new companies have assumed Kielce's bus traffic starting on 1 September. ZTM triumphantly claims that Veolia already has 40 applications from drivers, Polski Ekspress even has 60, but these figures smell of bluff again.
29 August 1.19 a.m.: There are about 30 workers occupying the Pakosz operation yard. Most of them sleep in buses or private cars. Suddenly two buses arrive in front of the gate. About 70 security guards in riot gear jump out. The run onto the operation yard, pull sleeping workers out of buses and cars and chase them off the premises - hitting some of them with truncheons. Workers compare this action with police actions during 1980s martial law. The mayor says he ordered the action in order to prevent flammable fluids from catching fire. According to the workers, there are no fuel tanks on the premises. The security guards tell the press they were supposed to prevent a "terrorist arson attack on a bus". More likely, the operation yard and the buses which are parked there were to be handed to the strike-breakers.
8 a.m.: In a co-ordinated action, over a hundred workers storm the operation yard through the main gate and through two other entrances (a side gate and a hole in the fence on the back of the premises). The security guards are completely taken by surprise and flee to the office shack after brief and futile resistance. Meanwhile large numbers of police have been brought in but they only watch and tell the workers to use "no violence". Afterwards, the president of the security company hired for the attack complains to the press that nothing like this has ever happened to him before: to have the police stand aside without supporting him. Nationwide public opinion turns against Kielce's mayor: unions and left-wing groups issue protests, even politicians and media criticise him. National newspapers which have hardly paid any attention to the strike so far turn it into their lead story for the next day. Broadcasting vans with satellite dishes pull up in front of the Pakosz operation yard.
10 a.m.: The voivod holds a press conference and attacks the mayor from behind: "There is still a chance that all MPK workers can keep their jobs."
3 p.m.: The security guards leave the office shack under police protection and the workers' whistles. They enter their buses and leave.
Afternoon: Talks between the mayor and the strike committee. Afterwards, MPK's Solidarnosc leader smiles to the workers: "Everything is going in the right direction." According to him, the mayor has promised that last night's event will not repeated - with two bishops as witnesses.
30 August, 1.19 a.m.: On the operation yard in Pakosz, there are about 70 workers and some left-wing supporters who have come from other cities and have received a friendly welcome after short hesitation (this hadn't been entirely clear considering the cultural gap between 45 year-old catholic mustache wearers and 25 year old antifa dread-lock wearers). Some sleep in buses and cars but most are awake and stand around in groups on the premises, some wielding iron rods.
10 a.m.: Continued talks between mayor and strike committee.
12 a.m.: MPK's Solidarnosc leader has successfully ended talks with the mayor. He jumps out of the car and beams at his workers: "Everything is going in a very good direction." A press conference is being prepared on the outside while the workers meet to discuss and vote in one of the bus hangars. The result seems to be certain in advance.
2 p.m.: The mayor's, voivod's, bishop's and regional Solidarnosc leader's limousines pull up. MPK's president is missing because he has already resigned. Then the result is announced: The strike is over. MPK will not be sold to Veolia but transformed into a "workers' company". According to Polish privatisation law this means that 15 per cent of shares are given to the workers for free and that more shares up to a total of 60 or 70 per cent but at least 51 per cent are sold to them. There is no mention of the price or other details. The mayor takes back the sacking of the strike committee members and the liquidation of the MPK and exclusively contracts the city's bus traffic out to MPK. The workers shout their thanks after the end of the press conference.
A victory for the workers?1
It still remains to be seen what this result will mean for them. When I asked a member of the strike committee after the press conference about the wage increases the answer was: "We'll see about that later." The fear of lay-offs due to the Veolia deal is no longer an issue. However, the relation between ZTM and MPK is still an issue. So is the MPK's debt, the need for investment in new buses and general necessities which the self-managed company will now pass on to the workers. There are already some signs of the future atmosphere: MPK's Solidarnosc leader who now sees himself in a responsible position has proposed to treat half of the strike days as unpaid holidays.
Still, this result is a victory. The workers have fought, stuck together and forced the adversary to accept a result which he did not want. If everything had ended with the security guards' attack in the night of 29 August the workers would have had the entire nation's sympathy but they would not have prevailed. By recapturing the operation yard they won back the initiative. Then the mayor (the MPK's acting capitalist) would have had to evict the workers again, and they would have been prepared. He did not have the guts to do that.
On of the reasons was the fact that big politics had already attacked him from behind and withdrawn police protection from him. Poland is facing elections and the ruling PiS party is making a last-minute attempt at looking "social" compared to the the neoliberal opposition. On 29 August, prime minister Kaczyński met Solidarnosc and signed a social agreement. Without even informing the other unions or the employers, the minimum wage was raised by 200 Zl to 1,126, and public sector wages will also be raised. The agreement was explicitly designed to evoke the famous August 1980 agreement between Solidarnosc and the state! This would have been spoiled by a rough police attack on Solidarnosc activists. Instead Kaczyńki chose to rain on the mayor's parade. In the end, the workers will have to pay the bill anyway.
- 1 For libcom's criticism of worker cooperatives and self-management see here: http://libcom.org/library/bailouts-co-operatives-or-class-struggle-debate