Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Despite government control, Polish unions pack some punch. But though unions are tough on government, they avoid politics

For an hour and a half, the Polish union leader attacked his government's economic policy. ``Housing,'' ``environmental protection,'' and other ``social benefits,'' are ``much lower and much worse'' than in other communist countries, he asserted. ``Bureaucracy,'' ``incompetence,'' and ``profiteers'' are destroying the economy.

Such a blistering broadside had not been heard at a Polish labor conference since the heyday of the now-banned independent trade-union movement Solidarity. But the speaker was no Solidarity leader. He was Alfred Miodowicz, chairman of the government-established All-Poland Trade Unions Alliance, the union movement that replaced Solidarity after it was outlawed in the martial-law period (December 1981-July 1983).

About these ads

As Mr. Miodowicz's striking frankness at last month's Trade Unions Conference illustrates, Poland still does not fit into the straitjacket of communist orthodoxy.

Instead of pliant party-controlled unions, the authorities have had to accept one with real, if limited, bite. The goal: to gain the support of Polish workers, many of whom continue to regard their new representatives with deep distrust.

``We must act like a real trade union to win worker confidence,'' explains Andrzej Sudol, head of the Unions Alliances' International Section in an interview. ``Unlike other trade unions in socialist countries, we cannot let central headquarters direct us.''

Recent negotiations illustrate his tactics. Although government economic policy aims to hold down wages and pensions, union pressure last year forced pension rises of up to 100 percent and average wage hikes of some 22 percent. The union also is pressing the government to divert investment away from heavy industry toward apartment construction and to slow the price rises of basic commodities such as meat. These demands slow the government's attempt to institute its market-oriented economic reform.

``These new unions are even more difficult to deal with than Solidarity,'' complains a close adviser to Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski. ``No Solidarity leader attacked public policy so directly.''

That claim, of course, is an exaggeration.

Both government and union officials insist that the new organizations will steer clear of political issues.

About these ads

The Geneva-based International Labor Organization, from which Warsaw withdrew in 1984, has criticized abuse of union freedoms in Poland.

``The new unions are tough on the government,'' explains one Western diplomat, ``but they work within the government's parameters. To them, the Communist Party is sacrosanct.''

Under the new trade unions' charter, adopted in October 1982, stringent conditions were set to prevent any future Polish union from attaining national power. In contrast to Solidarity, which owed much of its strength to a strong regional structure, the new unions are divided into more than 4,000 separate units along individual craft lines. The right to strike was permitted, but only after exhausting elaborate arbitration procedures.

Only a few day-long protest actions, mainly by miners, have taken place since the lifting of martial law. An even more serious blemish against trade-union independence concerns its leader, Miodowicz.

After carefully cultivating the image of a working-class representative - a former steelworker and Solidarity member, he scorns ties and jackets in favor of a black leather jacket - Miodowicz was elected this past summer to the Communist Party's ruling Politburo.

His promotion was seen as a return to the pre-Solidarity tradition of having a Politburo member run the trade unions on the party's behalf. In his defense, Miodowicz argued that he represented the first trade union official ever to join the Politburo. Before, he said Politburo members were sent to the unions.

Not all union members are convinced by this argument.

At the Trade Union Congress, a third of the delegates voted against Miodowicz's reelection.

Several union leaders even demanded that the union's constitution be changed in order to make it impossible for senior officials to hold top party or state posts.

These internal divisions reflect continued worker distrust.

According to official statistics, the unions have 6.5 million members, an impressive figure, but still short of Solidarity's 10 million.

A government poll released last month showed that only 16.6 percent of workers fully supported the unions and that only 17.4 percent thought they were truly independent of management.

Union prestige remains lowest in the volatile large factories. At the Ursus Tractor Factory just outside of Warsaw, union leader Janusz Zaron admitted that only 35 percent of the workers had joined. Solidarity leader Zbigniew Bujak comes from the Ursus factory, and under his leadership, the organization once commanded the support of 80 percent of the workers.

Now that Solidarity is banned, ``it's hard to replace Bujak,'' acknowleges Mr. Zaron. ``The workers here have high expectations, perhaps too high expectations, for their unions.''

Solidarity leaders are divided on how to take advantage of these expectations. Although they officially continue to urge a boycott of the new unions, calling on workers to set up social aid committees independent of the unions, some believe the new unions could evolve into positive organizations.

``The new unions have won a certain independence,'' explains Bronislaw Geremek, a top-ranking Solidarity adviser, ``and we're asking ourselves whether it wouldn't be better to infiltrate these unions.''

Under this strategy, Mr. Geremek counts on Solidarity members to join the unions, win leadership posts, and then use union powers to wring concessions from the government.

``Thanks to Solidarity, the workers learned that unions must be combative, that they must defend workers' rights against the government,'' Geremek says. ``The government may yet regret trying to revive the devil of unionism.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.