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The anatomy of the Polish workers' protests

  • Dział: English news

This article strives to reinterpret the history of the Polish workers' movement of the last few decades. This attempt comes with a conviction about the sociological significance of historical and historiosophic analysis, especially in view of the presently fashionable thesis of the "end of history": a thesis, formulated in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama, according to which the final victory of capitalism has already taken place. My analysis endeavours to prove that the year 1989 had not marked a turning point in the history of the contemporary workers' movement. In my view, to explain the problems relating to the work­ers' movement in a suitable fashion, one needs to analyse much older trends. I shall begin my analysis from the year 1970.

The turning point - the year 1970

The years 1968 to 1973 were the years of a global turning point, when great social revolutions questioned the order established by the superpowers in Yalta, and undermined the traditions of the existing anti-system movement, especially the so-called old left-wing, because of the disappointment that both of them brought. Riots broke out in Poland, first in March 1968 with students' protest, and in December 1970 the country was paralyzed by a strike and by a clash between workers and the militia in coast-al cities.

To understand this process better we need to move even further back. The events of 1956 forced the government of Communist Poland to invest more money in production of consumer goods to increase the standard of living in the years 1957-1958, so that after 1956 average citizens could feel that their standard of living had gone up. "The financial means needed for the implementation of pay rises were acquired by reducing the part of national income allocated for future accumulation, and by taking foreign loans for consumer purposes."1 For example, in the Poznań region, where a bloody suppression of a workers' uprising took place in June 1956, salaries increased by 20% by October 1957. "In real terms earnings rose fast until 1959 when they exceeded levels from 1955 by 3i%."2 Although the dynamics of growth of industrial production in the years 1961-1965 remained high (the average country growth was 50.9%), the increase in salaries in real terms was suddenly halted. During the next five years earnings grew by 8% (despite official plans to reach 20%). The years 1965-1970 were even worse. Finally the process ended up in the next outburst of social discontent (in 1970).

After the bloody events on the coast, the authorities officially acknowledged that these events "were the result of growing social dissatisfaction with the stagnation of earnings and the growing tension on the consumer mar­ket, the growing problem of housing, and the negligence in social policy"3. Personnel changes in the apparatus of power in December 1970 did not calm the atmosphere. Winter 1971 saw more strikes, only the announcement that prices would be frozen until 1974 put an end to the workers' protests.

The new government with Gierek and Jaroszewicz as leaders thought that it was possible to ensure further intensive industrialization of the country combined with the increased standard of living and growth of consumption. A great increase in earnings was planned for the years 1971-1975. "After the first three years of the realization of the plan, the average pay increased by 24%. The rise in standard of living was clearly felt by the average citizen."4 But the period of Giereks prosperity did not last long. Together with the whole world economy, Poland underwent a major change and stagnated. The second half of the 19705 saw more workers' protests, which were a harbinger of the event in 1980.

Between real socialism and real capitalism

Around 1970 the first budget surplus appeared on the world s financial market, following increased profits from the sales of oil, the price of which went up, as did prices of all other products. Two major trends appeared. Countries such as Poland, whose income depended on revenues from the export of raw materials, experienced a decrease in income because prices of imported goods went up at the same time. Problems concerning balance of payments appeared. At the same time the financial surplus earned on oil sales went to German and American banks, which were actively seeking to give credit to countries struggling to balance payments. "The countries took out loans but then it turned out that it would be difficult to pay them of, because the accumulated credit grew to impossible levels."5

In 1976 Polish debt to capitalist countries was twice as high as the value of one-year income from goods exported to these countries, when a safe borderline is considered to be a debt equal to the value of one-year export. To pressurise Poland into paying off the loans, Western banks and countries insisted on restructuring, which usually led to the withdrawal of subsidies for food articles by the government and to increases in prices. Finally, in 1980, Poland owed its Western creditors 24 billion dollars, and the credit continued to grow. In the years 1971-1987 Polish government borrowed 47.5 bil­lion dollars, and the "sum total of the interest rates and principal instalments reached at that time a sum of 50.6 billion dollars"6. Therefore Poland repaid three billion dollars more than was the sum total of the borrowed money.

Revolution of 1980 - the loop of debts and protests

The growing economic difficulties and problems with re-paying the debts led to the next lowering of standards of living, which subsequently brought about the growing protests of the working class. As it was indicated by an historian, "in the years 1978-1979 discipline and efficiency of work substantially lowered". According to the estimations of that time, in Poznań the average worker had been absent from work for at least one month during one year7. Additionally the frustration caused by the growing social inequalities was increasing.

In April 1980 a delegation of Western bankers visited Poland, as they did other indebted countries, to discuss the conditions of the repayments of the loans. "Fortune" magazine wrote that during these conversations the bank­ers demanded a limitation of the subsidies on base food articles to achieve a faster repayment of credits8. In his book, The Polish revolution Timothy Garton Ash claimed that there is no doubt that the precipitant cause of the revolution was to be found in the realm of political economy. "1979 had seen the first actual (officially admitted) de-cline in National Income in the history of Peoples Poland. As western creditors at last became chary, the new Prime Minister, Edward Babiuch, announced a hair-raising plan to eliminate Poland’s trade deficit (1.3-1.5 billion dollars) by the end of the year. This would involve an estimated 25 per cent increase in exports, while supplies to the domes-tic market would have to be cut by 15 per cent in the last quarter of 1980. Some increase in food prices was now unavoidable."9 The revolution of 1980 prevented the government s and Western creditors' attempts to maximise the payments of the loans by minimising consumption. Despite the fact that nominal income increased by 61% from 1979 to I98o-i98i10, the government was not able to answer in a positive way the wave of social demands due to the tragic situation of supplies of the internal market. Empty shop shelves and inflation led to the gradual de-crease of standards of living after August 1980. The work-ers' movement postulated the need to take control over the economy. Garton Ash states that the support for the programme of the workers' self-management was massive: "95 per cent of the respondents in factories employ-ing morę than 1,000 people were in favour of the new self-government structures, and 68 per cent of the whole sample thought Solidarity should start building them at once"11.

When finally the bill on the worker' self-government had to be passed, the government decided to use physical power not to let the workers take over factories. After the introduction of martial law on 13* December 1981, and the bloody treatment of the rebellion of some facto­ries and the outlawing of Solidarity, the authorities introduced limited workers' self-government, which, similarly to the workers' councils after 1956, never really represented the workers.

Western creditors received the martial law with satisfaction. "The Wall Street Journal" wrote on 2ist December 1981: "President Reagan may condemn the events in Poland, but many American bankers think that authoritarian rule of the type of the ussr is the best guarantee that we would get back the money we had lent Poland"12. Analysing the Americans' attitude to the events in Poland, Garton Ash states that: "In practice, however, the Reagan administrations response to the Polish crisis [... ] was embarrassed, confused, and half-hearted in the crucial field of economic policy. [... ] [Solidarity’s] programme had a strong egalitarian thrust; it was unequivocally in favour of the welfare state; a majority of the Solidarity members opposed the privatization of the heavy industry. The popularity of the campaign for workers' control in Polish in­dustry was enough to give many western conservatives pause"13. Actually Reagan could not have presented openly his concept of economical reform in Poland, because it was drastically different from what the Polish workers wanted. He could do it only after 1985, when the alienated elites of the dissolved workers' movement made a decision to change their programme, despite having persevered in their opposition between 1982 and 1984. In September 1985 the Provisional Coordinating Commission of the underground Solidarity approved economic postulates that gave up the idea of the workers' self-governments in favour of the free market. One of the postulates was: "We must ruthlessly and consistently put into practice the rules of bankruptcy of unprofitable companies".

The beginning of the so-called "pro-capitalist transformation" - the year 1985

Between 1982 and 1985 "the government, using the protection of martial law, raised the prices, lowered the consumption, and reintroduced the former working hours in the mining industry, which resulted in the increase of the coal output"14. Thanks to the growth in exports it was possible to improve the balance of payments (and, by the way, "Polish coal" helped Margaret Thatcher to crush the strike of British miners). As a result of these steps the supply on the internal market increased, but it was still very far from a normal economic situation. In 1986, after the complete pacifying of the workers' movement, Poland - according to Jacek Tittenbrun - "entered a new stage of deepening dependency on Western capital, becoming a member of the main institution of finances, namely the International Monetary Fund". Even before Poland joined the imf the government "raised the prices of some of the goods, devaluated the złoty, and eliminated some subsidies"15. At the beginning of 1987 the government spokesman claimed that Poland was planning to introduce all of imf s instructions, and the "Financial Times" wrote about the government s actions: "They are adequate to the requirements of the imf and the Western creditors"16; however, they were not welcomed warmly by the workers. The sys-thematically introduced price increases caused common discontent. In 1988 there were two waves of strikes (April-May-August). In September 1988 "Le Monde" wrote about the outbreak of social discontent as a reaction to the version "established with the help of the imf and the World Bank" of a return to real prices, which scenario soon "turned out to be impossible to realize" in view of the "shock of the sudden rise of the prices of goods, communication, services, in short of the inflation of the amount of 6o%"17. The underground structures of Solidarity, which reworked its ideology and actually accepted the reforms of the imf, were not interested in fuelling so­cial unrest. The confrontational theses that Solidarity promoted previously were replaced by a proposal of bringing about an agreement with the authorities. But it was important for the opposition to ensure that it was not hap­pening without the society s knowledge. This is why the strikes in 1988, very limited in scope (actually there were no more than 30), were quickly used for political purposes (and nowadays they had been mythologized).

Against "pro-capitalist transformation" -strikes of the years 1992-1993

Despite the oppositions success in the first parliamentary election, the wave of strikes in-creased due to the worsening of the standards of living. In 1990, 250 strikes broke out, and 305 in 1991. The culmination of the workers' fight was in the years 1992-1993, when 6,351 and 7,443 strikes were recorded. In 1994 there were still 429 strikes, and their number fell in the next year to 42, and to 21 in 199618.

One of the sociological analyses of that time indicated that "The data concerning the strikes [in 1992-1993] suggest the protest actions increase with the decrease of social approval of privatization and trust for the post-Solidarity political elites"19.The fall of the standard of living was so dramatic that even official government documents discussed this topic. "In the first years after the trans-formation", we read at the webpage of the Ministry of Employment and Social Policy, "the economic reforms met with socially drastic phenomena such as industrial recession, unemployment, cuts in wages, and lowering of the standards of living. The workers - especially of the big state companies - thanks to whom Communism was overthrown, violently harmed by the results of transformation, started organizing mass protests."20 Under the pressure of the wave of social discontent in the summer of 1991 the government suggested that the trade unions sign social agreements, the most important of which was the Pact on state companies. It was signed in February 1993. Unfortunately, the bill did not guarantee the workers sufficient control over their companies. Many years later, one of the authors of the Pact, Jacek Kuroń, said: "During parliamentary voting we let old and new bureaucracies eliminate from the Pact [on compa­nies] the most important element - the representation of workers in the supervisory boards of the companies. As a result, we built with our own hands not a civil or­der, but a hierocratic system in a capitalist-quasi democratic style"21.1993 also saw the vanishing of a bill on employee share ownership, which actually closed the way to the direct granting of property right to workers. In the political dimension, the protests of 1992-1993 led to the overthrowing of the government of Hanna Suchocka, and in view of the political changes the protests gradually ceased. It was also influenced by the job market; for ex-ample the unemployment level was 16.7% in 1994, falling to 10.7% in 1998.

Globalization and the collapse of neoliberal reforms

As demonstrated in the cases discussed above, the peri­od of relative calm on the social scene did not last long. At the moment when it seemed that capitalism in its neolib­eral version triumphed, and history actually reached its end, the system was shocked by new crises and conflicts, which also affected Poland. In 1995 an economic reces­sion broke out in Mexico (a year after it joined the North American economic zone nafta). To save American investors, the imf loaned a gigantic sum of 17.7 billion dollars. The consequences’ for the Mexican economy were dramatic; in the course of a few months 15 thousand com­panies went bankrupt, three million people lost their jobs, and purchasing power fell by one third. After Mexico, the crisis moved to Asia, Russia, and other countries of Latin America (Argentina in 2001). The consequences of these crises in the second half of the 19908 reached Poland where, after a brief improvement, living standards worsened again.

The report of the Central Statistical Office (gus), concerning the income of Polish families in 2003, stated that in the years 1997-2003 there was a tendency to spread poverty. "It is especially alarming in case of the possible threat of utter poverty, the limit of which is the min­imum of existence. Growing poverty in recent years has been accompanied by an improvement in the aver-age material situation of the Poles, generated by high in-comes, which may suggest that there is a growing inequality in income level and standard of living in Polish society" Although earnings rose on average, the growth only affected certain social groups - the great majority of people felt stagnation at that time, or even a decrease of salaries in real terms. For example, workers at the H. Cegielski - Poznań sa factory earned in 1999 almost 12% above the average pay in the country, but three years later almost 13% below it. During this time their nominal wage fell from 2,037 złoty per month (in 1999) to 1,979 złoty (in 2002).

New Polish revolution - 2002/2003

The direct cause of the workers' riots in 2002 and 2003 was high unemployment and the catastrophic situation of many industrial plants which were on the verge of bankruptcy Additionally, the government policy, under pres-sure from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, made plans of thousands of redundancies in the steel and mining industries, and a change in labour legislation that would be disadvantageous for the workers.

The first and one of the most important signals that Polish workers would no longer accept the policies of the capitalist elites was the strike of the Szczecin shipyard workers, who organized themselves outside the trade unions, and for a few months in 2002 ran a protest in defence of their work places. The wave of discontent spread through the whole country and through many different professions. Several times a week there were demonstrations, blockades, strikes. Miners, steelworkers, medical service employees, heavy industry workers, and automotive industry workers all took to the streets. Large trade unions in Silesia and in the railways threatened to organize a gener­al strike. There was a substantial public response to strikes at Wagon in Ostrowiec, Tonsil in Września, Bison-Bial in Białystok, and Uniontex in Łódź. On 26 April 2002 in Warsaw 70 thousand workers demanded the end of the redundancy policy, an adherence to the labour legislation, the timely payment of salaries, and the reintroduction of unemployment benefits and pre-retirement pensions. On nth September of the same year, 10 thousand miners organized a violent protest in Warsaw. During the fights 62 policemen were wounded, several of them seriously. 22 protesters were given medical help, but the exact number of wounded miners is not known. But the most important event for the public opinion and the elites were the events in Ożarów, where five-day riots erupted in November 2002 following 200 days of protests.

In the years 2002-2004 there were only 27 strikes (according to gus), but as many as 6.5 thousand demonstrations, where the majority were road blockades or building occupations. As an overview of 1992-2002 indicates, forms of protest radically changed during the decade. However, on average the workers' riots of 2002 and 2003 generally improved their situation. Under pressure from the pro­tests the government was convinced that it was necessary to change its approach to the workers' problems. In 2003 the government decided to allocate twice as much money to companies in difficulties as it did in the previous years. The 28 billion złoty of state subsidies managed to keep the hundred thousand of workplaces which the protesters de­manded. In the shipyard industry, according to different sources, there might have been 30 to 60 thousand redundancies. Trade unions protested against the reductions in mining which could have reached 35 thousand people. State subsidies went to big companies, and to small businessmen, all in all about 85 thousand subjects! "A huge amount of public money has been thrown down the drain", stated the headline in "Gazeta Wyborcza" on 24* November 2004. But in facf the subsidies helped, the situ­ation on the job market was no longer getting worse, and in 2004 it even improved. There was also the upturn in the economic situation of the steel and mining industries. After the protests, social criticism of the political and economic system as a whole increased. According to a survey by the Public Opinion Research Centre (COBS), in 2002 and 2003 over 70% of Poles had a negative opin­ion on the functioning of the economy (the highest level of discontent since 1993). During the course of 2004 positive opinions grew in number, although the support for the main issues of the present economic system, such as privatization, lowered significantly. In the years 1990-1991 only 8-9% of respondents viewed privatization as negative for the Polish economy; in 1995-1996 the percentage was about 20%; in 2000-2001 it reached 33-35%, and 43% in 2003. At that time the number of opponents of privatization was greater than that of its supporters.


The workers' protests in Poland arę characterized by a cyclical appearance (1970-1971,1980-1981,1992-1993, 2002-2003). The courses of social conflicts, as well as the counter-reactions of the subsequent governments to the social crises of the last few decades were very similar. Regarding the problem in the context of emancipation effort, one might say that the nature of the system was and remained unchangeable. One of the basic factors that fuelled the conflicts was the discrepancy between the accumulation of the capital and the standard of living. The analysis of the cyclical nature of social conflicts indicates that the year 1989 was not a turning point of any kind, and the fact that it is being emphasized as important only has ideological grounds. The transformation of the system was not initiated by the post-Solidarity elites following the Round Table Talks, but much earlier, when the underground structures of the union abandoned the programme of radical social emancipation, and the ancient regime in 1986 concluded an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and learned to accept to adjust to its requirements. Perhaps it begun even earli­er, when Solidarity decided to make the country depend­ent on international capital, receiving billions of dollars in loans. In fact, in the course of all these years we have dealt with the dictate of the same accumulation regime. The political changes (which are often reached due to growing social conflict) seem to be a simple reaction of the system to social crises. From the point of view of the emancipa­tion movement, it is a superficial solution, which however manages to protect and keep the system of government. After all, political changes do not mean changes in the nature of the system itself, or of the unjust relations of production, but they involve only the changes in the ideologi­cal and political superstructure.

One might state with much certainty that the next workers' riots will take place around 2012. Nowadays there are no symptoms of the future crisis, but when we observe the nature of the system, we might conclude that it is still characterized by the same internal contradictions which may lead to a social crisis in the future.

Jarosław Urbański



1   E. Makowski, Ruch robotniczy w Wielkopolsce. Zarys dziejów do 1981 roku, Poznań 198**, p. 254*.

2   Ibid.

3   700 lat ruchu robotniczego w Polsce. Kalendarium wydarzeń, ed. Z Szczygielski, Warszawa

1976, p. 355-i*  E. Makowski, Ruch robotniczy w Wielkopolsce, op.cit., p. 268.

5  l. Wallerstein, Globalizacja czy epoka przejściowa?, "Lewą Nogą" 2001, no. 13, p. m&.

6 J. Tittenbrun, Upadek socjalizmu realnego w Polsce, Poznań 1992, p. 53

7   Cf: E. Makowski, Ruch robotniczy w Wielkopolsce, op.cit., p. 268.

8 Cf: D. Zaremba, Dług - historia słabo znana, "Nowy Robotnik" 200*4., no. k.

9  T. Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution. Solidarity 1980-1982, London 1983, p. 33-

styka/napiecia_polityczne_2005in9.pdf. n T. Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution, op.cit., p.i88.

12 Quoted after: D. Zaremba, Dług - historia słabo znana, op.cit.

13 T. Garton Ash, The Polish revolution, op.cit., p. 31^. ul W. Kuczyński, Zadłużenie a napięcia polityczne, op.cit.

15 J. Tittenbrun, Upadek socjalizmu realnego w Polsce, op.cit., p. 55-

16 Ibid., p. 56.

17 Ibid., p. 60.

18 Cf: Rocznik Statystyczny 1997, Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warszawa 1998, p. 139.

19 A. Buchner-Jeziorska, Konflikt pracy w Polsce okresu transformacji, "Przegląd Socjologiczny" 199^, vol. XLIII.

, The Ministryof Employmentand Social Policy, http://www. php?gid=tł7i4..

21 puoted after: K.T. Toeplitz, Czy koniec epoki Michnika?, "Le Monde diplomatigue" 2006, no. 2.

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