Can Solidarity Rebound?

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. In 2011, the Republic of Poland awarded him with the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit, one of its highest civilian honors, for his contributions to Poland’s democratic transformation and role in providing support to Solidarity Underground during Martial Law.

In the West, Poland’s Solidarity trade union remains a symbol of the triumph of workers, united in defense of their fundamental rights, against the might of communist dictatorship.

Its remarkable rise in 1980 after nationwide strikes, its nearly ten-year struggle for freedom after the government tried to crush it using  martial law, and its 1989 electoral victory that led to the collapse of communism throughout the region — all of this has become the stuff of historical legend. The story of Solidarity after 1989, however, is less well known. It is the story of how free trade unionism was nearly destroyed by extreme “free market” policies carried out in the name of democratic reform.

Twenty-five years ago, on June 4, 1989, more than 90 percent of Polish society participated in semi-free elections, part of a negotiated Roundtable Agreement between the communist government and Solidarity leaders. The election delivered a crushing blow to the communist regime. Solidarity candidates gained overwhelming victories in all contested seats while the communist party failed even to obtain the necessary quorum for their uncontested seats. The resulting political crisis brought into office the first non-communist government since the Soviet reoccupation of Poland in 1944. It was a stunning breakthrough that propelled the downfall of communist governments across the Soviet bloc, and later, the break-up of the Soviet Union itself.

Solidarity’s election victory, however, evolved into a nightmare for the trade union, which up until that time had served as an umbrella for anti-communist democrats of all political persuasions, including those with no particular allegiance to the labor movement. At the behest of the political leadership, Solidarity candidates ran under the name “Citizens’ Committees of Lech Walesa," but there was no accountability to Solidarity’s trade union structures. By then, most of Solidarity’s political leaders were convinced that “shock therapy” was necessary to reform Poland’s post-communist economy. These policies were designed to immerse the nation in the “free market” in swift and brutal fashion—ending government subsidies, allowing prices to fluctuate, freezing wages, and selling off key pieces of Poland’s state-owned industrial base, often at bargain-basement prices.

The rewards of these policies—associated in the West with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—fell unevenly among the Polish population. Members of the communist elite, already established in positions of power, and some Solidarity political leaders did particularly well, many making millions from their new business ventures. Adam Michnik, the most celebrated of Solidarity’s intellectual advisors, and a small circle of other “owners” were given the right to run the Solidarity’s daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette), which mushroomed into a media empire and became a leading proponent of “economic liberalism” and a strident opponent of the trade union. In the end, though, “shock therapy” exacted high costs, including lack of transparency, the misappropriation of national assets, and extreme hardship for many Polish workers.

Many political and intellectual leaders who had been associated with Solidarity (including Lech Walesa) came to see the trade union—the largest base for the broad Solidarity movement—as an obstacle to the creation of the new, free market Poland. As in the West, weakening trade unions and empowering employers became central tenets of politicians’ free-market vision.  Unsurprisingly, Solidarity’s membership numbers began a steady decline. Mass closures of industrial enterprises, high unemployment (persistently more than 20 percent), the dismantling of the state welfare system, the revocation of economic subsidies, and steady attacks on workers’ rights—all played a role in the erosion of trade union strength.

In 2007, the victory of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) gave further impetus to the weakening of unions. The 2010 death in a plane crash of President Lech Kaczynski, Solidarity’s last significant political ally, only added to Solidarity’s woes. Kaczynski’s successor created a veto-free path for PO policies. Legislation was passed effectively ending the 8-hour day and 40-hour workweek. The government also increased the mandatory retirement age to 67, reduced discrimination protections (resulting in the dismissal of many older workers nearing retirement), weakened enforcement of legal requirements for trade union representation, and ignored the joint employer-trade union recommendations of the Tripartite Commission (Solidarity left the Commission in protest). Finally, the PO government promoted the widespread adoption of individual employment contracts—known informally as “garbage contracts."

On one level, these free-market policies have worked as intended: Per capita income has risen sharply and Poland is one of the fastest-growing economies among post-communist countries and, indeed, in all of Europe. On the other hand, these achievements mask fundamental weaknesses: unemployment remains high (13 percent), real wages have stagnated, and income inequality and poverty rates are at all-time highs. Poland’s education and health care systems are also in seemingly permanent crisis, investment has slowed, and many vital economic assets have been sold off to foreign-owned wealth funds (including Poland’s traditional national security threat, Russia).

Many young people, seeing no hope for an economic future in their own country, are voting with their feet. Two million Poles, largely in the 18-30 age range, have emigrated abroad in the past ten years, most of them (according to recent polling) never to return to live in Poland. Many of those who stay are deciding not to have children. Poland’s fertility rate in 2010-11 was 1.3 percent (matching the lowest rate in Europe), well under the “replacement” rate for any population. (In contrast, the fertility rate of Poles who have left their homeland rises sharply to 2.6 percent.) These twin trends create a demographic time bomb for the future.

These developments, and growing opposition to the government’s policies, have stirred a weakened Solidarity trade union to fight back. In the spring of 2013, it launched a petition drive demanding a referendum on the pension age: 2.5 million people, 5 percent of Poland’s population, signed. The parliament ignored the petition—violating a constitutional requirement to act. Accordingly, Solidarity announced a four-day nationwide protest for early September. It was joined by the OPZZ federation (the former communist structure) and a newer trade union group called The Forum. Demands included reducing the retirement age, raising the minimum wage, restoring social spending for health care and education, respecting the recommendations of the Tripartite Commission, and ending the fire sale of industrial enterprises. On the last day of the protest, as many as 150,000 people demonstrated in support of these demands, the largest such demonstration since 1989. Opinion surveys showed that nearly 60 percent of Poles supported the protesters and their demands for change.

This positive public response is encouraging, but there is no sure path forward. Trade union representation remains at historically low levels. Together, Solidarity and OPZZ represent no more than 10 percent of the workforce and, given their history and differing political orientations, there is little likelihood that the two rivals will strengthen through merger. Solidarity has purposely not aligned with any political party, in light of its past, bitter experiences. Still, both federations did join in the protests, becoming allies in pursuit of a common agenda. Both have clearly staked an oppositional stance towards the anti-union policies of the Civic Platform government, which shows no signs of changing its policies.

The petition campaign against raising the retirement age and the four-day protest in September have generated increased public support for Solidarity (and for trade unions generally). More importantly, young Poles, the biggest losers under current government policies, joined the protests in large numbers. They do not see any political party speaking for them and are looking  to trade unions for help. Whether or not this sentiment translates into a stronger labor movement is unclear. There are practical obstacles to a union revival. For example, the current labor code favors employers by requiring consensus among all unions at the workplace. So, although Solidarity and OPZZ unions can generally work in concert at the enterprise or workplace level, employers can easily create a phony union to disrupt consensus and undermine union representational rights. Further, “garbage contracts” are becoming a more and more widespread practice of employers seeking to avoid collective bargaining.

Although much of the established media have attacked the protests—some accusing the Solidarity trade union of trying to stage a coup—the press today is more diverse and balanced than in past, and overall coverage has been relatively balanced.

Meanwhile, the ruling party’s favorability ratings are on the decline heading into the 2014 elections, and the opposition party—PiS (Law and Order), led by Lech Kaczynski’s twin brother —which is comparatively sympathetic to Solidarity, has been gaining in the polls.

Since 1989, political leaders have tried to divorce the Solidarity trade union from the mass movement Solidarity that took back the country from communism. But, for all the distance in time and the loss of members, for many Poles the Solidarity trade union remains the embodiment of the workers movement that originally arose from the August 1980 strikes, a movement whose first and greatest success was securing the right of workers to form free trade unions and speak and act on their own behalf. For the first time in a generation, there are signs that Solidarity may succeed in restoring these principles, which lie at the heart of its trade union heritage.

- Eric Chenoweth