Migration, industry and struggles in Poland, 1956-2005

An analysis of Poland, its economy, its social and political history and how it has been shaped by workers' struggles past and present.

Submitted by Steven. on November 24, 2006

Behind the Border
It is only a one hour journey from Berlin to the German-Polish border, the supermarkets in Berlin offer Polish food, immigrants from Poland are part of daily life in the German capital - nevertheless there are not many direct contacts (apart from perhaps the punk scene). The ‘iron curtain’ is slow to dissolve, due to languages and the geographical location.

Poland is by far the largest of the new EU countries - with 39 million people (about 14 million of them are ‘economically active’) and a size of 312,680 square kilometres. In the history of this country, the workers’ struggles contributed directly to the collapse of ‘real socialism’. We begin with a short review of the recent history.

In June 1956, parallel to the uprising in Hungary, demonstrations and strikes emerged which would become known as the ‘Polish Summer’. The trigger for these protests were the state order to raise the official targets for work performance in industry and agriculture, along with an increase in prices. Initially the government suppressed the protests with violence, but in a surprise moment of concession it accepted nearly all the demands, announced an end to the collectivisation of the agriculture and established workers’ councils.

In 1968 the international student movement also reached Poland. In order to drive a wedge between workers and students, the government instigated an anti-Semitic campaign against left wing intellectuals. As a consequence about 15,000 Jewish people were forced into emigration. The student protests petered out in isolation, but by 1970 there was already a new strike wave emerging of miners and shipyard workers, in response to another government attempt to increase prices. Again, after initial violent oppression the government accepted most of the demands. In the 70s the government took out huge loans from the west (from Germany amongst other countries) in order to achieve their own ambitious accumulation targets and to satisfy the demands for consumption of the workers. Despite these loans, the real wages decreased. 1976 saw new workers unrest in the Ursus plant in Warsaw and in Radom. Illegal opposition structures were formed, such as strike committees and political groups like the ‘Committee to Defend the Workers’ (KOR), which was influenced by Trotskyism. The Catholic church also functioned more and more as a mouthpiece to announce social needs.

After another strike wave in 1980, during which the ‘Strike Committee’ (MSK, a cross company group) was formed, the government did not take violent measures but negotiated with the MSK, which later on became the independent union Solidarnosc. The strikes continued and the economic crisis aggravated. In 1981, under the pressure of the Soviet Union, the government declared a state of marshal law and criminalised the Solidarnosc, which by that point had over 10 million members. These measures put an end to the strikes but politically they deeply divided the society. The drastic reduction of commodities on offer resulted in empty shelves in the shops and forced the consumption of the working class into small agricultural subsistence and a booming black market.

With a new generation of workers the strikes reappeared in the mining regions in 1988, which were joined by 76,000 people all over the country. The government asked the illegal Solidarnosc to come back to the negotiating table, knowing that the union was the only power capable of getting the situation under control. The famous Round Table lead directly to the participation of Solidarnosc-officials and church-friendly intellectuals in the government. New strikes erupted against the 300-500 percent price increases, but the political demands were abandoned after the state party PVAP left the government.

The shift in internal politics was accompanied by a change in foreign policy, an opening towards the west. The economic growth slowed down, the foreign debts grew and the lack of confidence in the productivity of Polish workers hampered the attempt to re-orientate foreign trading away from the Soviet Bloc and towards the west. There on increasing problems supplying necessary goods. The wage increases gained through the struggle were eaten up by galloping inflation.

An IMF-dictated ‘shock therapy’ targeted the wage-price-spiral and was later copied in other countries. The deregulation of all prices resulted in a hyperinflation und therefore effectively wiped out any private savings. The cuts of all state subsidies lead to self-management of the companies (‘wild privatisation’) and to re-distribution of peasant property. By 1992 the industrial production was half what it had been in 1988. The foreign debts did not shrink - something the shock therapy had allegedly aimed at. By 2001 it had increased by a further 72 billion US-Dollars.

The acceptance of the Solidarnosc prevented large scale workers struggles in the first half of the 90s, which resulted in inflation and decreasing wages pushing people into small trading businesses or black market structures, which appeared in the 80s, and work migration.

Like in all the other eastern bloc countries after 1989, the core of the ‘transformation’ was the sell-off of state owned companies to western investors. Huge concerns in the metal sector, banks, telecommunication and the state owned airline LOT were on offer for potential buyers. By 1997 the privatisation was more or less completed. Investors were attracted by the state’s previous input and tax free development zones. A tax on wage increases was meant to push wage increases in the state owned companies below the inflation rate.

In a first step the mines were squeezed dry (in order be able to provide cheap energy to the major companies, so that they could be renovated and would appear profitable when they were sold on the market). Then the power of the miners was crushed (by today 300,000 miners of state owned companies have been sacked).

A hundred years ago a Polish labour force was already being exploited en masse in the mines and factories of western Europe and North America, and the Prussian Junker preferred Polish seasonal workers on their plantations, workers, who were regularly deported by the royal foreign police. Seasonal workers still work in Western Europe, but after 1989 there were also a lot of skilled workers going abroad. At the moment the work migration in the high skilled sectors is receding again, mainly due to rising wages in Poland, but overall work migration continues. While Polish workers go to work abroad, e.g. on the construction site in Berlin or on the fields in the Pfalz, where nothing would work without them, they are at the same time being substituted by workers from the Ukraine working for even less money on sites and fields in Poland. People from Asia are beginning to enter the small trade market, mainly in the eastern parts of Poland.

The dead-lock situation of class struggle (from the failed increase of set work standards in 1956 to the side step into foreign debts in the 70s) slowed down the development of productivity, as in other socialist countries; for decades the Polish economy was only able to compete on the world market within certain limitations. Before the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the steels works in Stalowa Wola, Nowa Huta and Warsaw, the mines in Katowice and Jastrzebie, the ship engine factory in Poznan, the Ursus-tractor factory in Warsaw and the ship yards in Gedansk und Szczecin (only to name the biggest), provided the Soviet Bloc with capital intensive and manufactured goods and the west with raw materials and semi-finished products.

Today the main sectors are food production, metal- and machine construction, finance and insurances, media and telecommunication, construction and transport. They mainly supply the EU-market. Similar to the situation in the Ruhr region of German 40 years ago, in the Polish mining region of Upper Silesia the mining- and heavy industries are downsizing and the car industry is expanding. About 100,000 miners serve as a reserve labour force for the automobile industry and its suppliers.

After 1989 the main foreign investments were limited to investments in final assembly plants, in order to evade the import taxes on western cars, for example Deawoo took over the FSO car plant in Warsaw. This strategy seems to have found its limits. Meanwhile, other companies have followed the successful example of FIAT, which since 1992 produced the Panda and the Seicento in Poland for the international market, or of Opel, which have produced the Agila and the Astra in Polish factories since 1998. The FIAT and Opel plants, both situated in the Upper Silesian industrial region are brand new. In the same area near Bielsko-Biala a joint-venture of FIAT and GM produces engines for FIAT, Lancia, Opel and Suzuki.

Opel could select its 1,200 required workers out of 32,000 job applicants. During the late 90s the unemployment rate in Poland increased about 8 percent, today unemployment run to about 20 percent and the average monthly wage is about 500 Euros. The automobile companies state that the quality and productivity in the Polish plants are comparable to western European standard. The question will be if these plants will remain isolated islands worth 100 million Euros or if capital also manages to establish a compact productive network in Poland, as it has done in the developed in the region around Bratislava, Slovakia, about 30 km from Vienna.

The admittance of Poland into the EU in 2004 did not fundamentally change the conditions for investment, rather cemented the institutional framework and confirmed certain developments that had already been going on for a while. The flux of commodities between the countries shifts gradually. The positive trade balance that Germany could demonstrate in the trade relations with Poland about six or seven years ago, is shrinking at the same pace as the importance of separate markets.

About 60 percent of Polish land is used for agriculture. Like in all the other Soviet Bloc countries the large private estates were redistributed during the land and agricultural reforms after 1945. In Poland the collectivisation into production cooperatives could not be enforced against the will of the small peasants. A small peasantry remained throughout the socialist era. Even in 2004 about a quarter of all employees in Poland are working on one of the 2.1 million farms. These farms are mainly family businesses which work with large varieties of different crop and animals, partly due to the lowest usage of chemicals in Europe. A lot of these farms produce for their own subsistence or the local market. If production for subsistence is taken into account, about half of the Polish population makes a living from agriculture. Due to the large increase in unemployment over the last five or six years, the number of people working in agriculture is actually rising, whereas the number of those who have an additional income independent from farming shrinks. A lot of people only live on what they produce on their small farms.

As well as the big businesses, which have grown bit by bit to sizes of up to 1000 hectares, the number of big companies producing ‘organically’ is also increasing considerably. With an average land ownership of 45 Hectars they are bigger than the usual Polish farm and they are becoming more and more important for the supermarket chains.

Soon certain mono-cultures could have a devastating effect on the land. The huge size of usable land provides enormous potential for a capitalisation of agriculture. And not only because half of the German Christmas geese already speak their last words in Polish before ending up in the oven.

In the remaining state owned companies and big plants there still exists a combinative tradition and a collective memory of the struggles over the last decades, and the various unions are still present. Nation-wide strike waves doesn’t happen anymore. In contrast, so far the new and privatised sectors have been practically strike-free. Reports about the conditions in these sectors tell of intensive work, long working hours, unpunctual payment of wages, bullying and arbitrary dismissals. It will be important to see if struggles against these conditions emerge and what kind of practical answers the (young) workers find.

In some of the state owned companies the workers were able enforce, often against the big unions, that instead of the closure of the plant, production continued under their own control. As far as we know, e.g. in the case of companies in Szczecin, Poznan or Lodz, the hierarchical relations within the plants did not seem to have been overcome as, as for example, they did at Zanon in Argentina.

In 2002 we saw a series of waves of protests against the closures of state owned companies, against planned reforms of the labour laws and the welfare system. We don’t know much about the organisation of these struggles, if they were organised from below etc. One fact is that the unions and organisations such as the right-wing populist ‘peasant organisation’ Samoobrona (self-defence) managed to place themselves at the head of the protest. The party in power, the neoliberal orientated social democratic government, reacted with the retreat of some of the reform measures and with massive subsidies for the big companies threatened with closure. Like the former socialist governments their answer to the struggles is to pour money at them and thereby taking the wind out of their sails for the time being. This way of reacting will be difficult to maintain in the future, given that Poland’s entry into the EU also means that regulations to limit deficit spending will apply.

From Wildcat no. 72, January 2005
Taken from prol-position news #2, 5/2005