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From The Socialist newspaper, 17 October 2007

Workers' struggle and political instability sends Polish government into meltdown

THE POLISH government has imploded. The ruling Law and Justice Party has decided to end the long drawn out demise of its coalition. Elections are scheduled for 21 October.

Karl Debbaut, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

Law and Justice, headed by the president Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin brother, prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, swept to power two years ago on an 'anti-communist', 'anti-corruption' platform. They raced ahead of the neo-liberal Civic Platform by making populist promises and declaring that they were in favour of building a 'social' Poland and opposing privatisations.

They subsequently formed a coalition with Self-Defence, a populist party with its main base in the countryside headed by Andrej Lepper and the ultra-Catholic, reactionary League of Polish Families.

Internationally this coalition hit the headlines when Law and Justice witch-hunted anyone with ties to the former pre-1989 Stalinist regime and attacked the behaviour of the other coalition parties. The League of Polish Families, which has now lost almost all of its support, attracted ridicule for such acts as seeking an investigation of Teletubbies, a children's TV programme, because one of the characters 'might be homosexual'.

Economic growth

The Polish economy has been growing over the last two years and is probably the reason why, what was dubbed "the accidental coalition" in the international press, lasted for as long as two years. Average growth per quarter was between 5.5% and 7.4%.

This growth has allowed the government to postpone the neo-liberal projects it had on the table. The privatisation of the mining industry and the further destruction of the steel industry have halted for the moment due to rising exports to Asia and China in particular.

Money from the European Union (EU) has helped agribusiness in the countryside and the boom of meat and agricultural exports to the German market has been greater than expected. Commentators predict that a further 67 billion from 'Brussels' will flow into Poland.

However, this does not mean that the present, or the future, looks rosy for millions of Polish workers and youth. Unemployment has remained stable at 15%, with 25% for the under 25s. In some of the more remote regions of Poland, unemployment stands at 30%.

This high unemployment persists even when a wave of emigration, of young people especially, has created shortages of skilled workers on the labour market. The Gdansk shipyard cannot find any welders and the Polish government has started a campaign to bring plumbers back to Poland. This campaign is centred on nationalist values instead of offering better wages and living conditions to bring people back.

The government's search for immigrant labour in Belarus ended in embarrassment when it was revealed that Belarus workers in the health sector and construction workers are on higher wages than in Poland.

There is also a growing disquiet in capitalist circles about the upward pressures on wages and the growing militancy of public-sector workers. By importing cheap labour the bosses hope to protect the high profits business makes in Poland and keep wage rises in check. Although wages rose in the last 12 months by 12.5%, wages in the public sector have lagged behind and low pay and widespread poverty persist.

A recent survey shocked the public when it became clear that, for one out of every three children in Poland, lunch served by the school canteen is the only meal in a day.

'Satanic nurses'

In June 2006 nurses were involved in a nationwide protest and strike movement. The aim of the movement was to make an agreed 30% wage rise permanent and thus avoid a sudden drop of 30% in their wages. 20,000 health workers took part in a 'White March' in Warsaw. One of the main slogans was: "We want to work here not emigrate".

When the prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, refused to meet them they set up a tent village outside his offices. The village kept growing until there were hundreds of little white tents. Steel workers, miners and ordinary Warsaw residents came by to express their support and solidarity, bringing donations and gifts such as food and drink to support the struggle.

The movement rocked the government and when some of the nurses started a hunger strike the prime minister declared that the strike was inspired by 'Satans' and that the nurses were not on hunger strike but "merely skipping lunch".

Other public-sector workers have since joined the strike wave in Poland. One of the most notable strikes was one by bus drivers in Kielce against the privatisation of the local public transport. The workers went on strike for 17 days defeating attempts by the council to bring in scab labour by occupying the depot. Workers chased away the private security guards hired by the council.

Eventually the council had to count on the quislings of the trade union bureaucracy. The council agreed not to sell the company to private contractors but sold shares to the trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) and to individual workers instead.

This is a partial victory but also a highly risky strategy for the workers themselves. To help close the deal the Solidarnosc leaders called in the help of the local priest who acted as a mediator in the strike.

"History does not put bread on the table"

The political instability in Poland, like in other East European countries, flows from the disastrous social situation created by the reintroduction of capitalism. As a result we have seen a succession of weak governments losing authority and support as they introduce ever more neo-liberal reform.

You can understand the sentiment of Karol Guzikiewickz, the local trade union leader at the Gdansk shipyard, when he says: "History does not put bread on the table". The Gdansk shipyards are hailed as the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union in 1980 and the movement of the workers against Stalinism. Solidarity began by posing the question of workers' democracy and real socialism. However, elements in it that favoured capitalist restoration gained the upper hand.

Today, of the 17,000 workers employed at the shipyard in the 1980s only 3,500 remain. The EU is demanding the privatisation of the shipyard and the closure of two of the three 'slipways', where ships are constructed.

What after the elections?

Law and Justice and the Civic Platform party are neck-and-neck in the opinion polls. It is most likely than no-one will be able to form a stable government. On the left it seems unlikely that the Democratic Left Alliance can make a comeback. It has made an alliance with a split, also neo-liberal, from Civic Platform and is in favour of speeding up privatisation.

The Polish Labour Party (PPP) has got a base in Silesia and a direct connection to workers through the trade union August '80. However, its support across the country is limited and it still has to struggle to build its structures and influence to be able to play a national role.

The next leaders of a coalition will want to make decisions like the privatisation of the Gdansk shipyard, supported by both main parties but not carried out because it would be extremely unpopular and further privatisation of the coal mines.

The trade union leaders of OPZZ (the former Stalinist union federation) and Solidarnosc have declared that they agree with privatisation on the condition that another referendum is organised and the workers vote in favour of privatising. In the last referendum on privatising the mining industry 97% of the miners voted against it.

The rising tide in militancy is a sign that Polish workers are eager to fight for their share of wealth created. To effectively struggle they will need to not only move on the trade union front but also engage in politics by building a democratic, fighting workers' party flying the banner of workers' rights, international solidarity and democratic socialism.

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In The Socialist 17 October 2007:

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Socialist Party Marxist analysis

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