On 15 September, one month ahead of Polish elections, public sector workers marched to the Prime Minister’s office. The Trade Unions’ Forum and All-Poland’s Trade-Union Confederation had joined in a Protest Committee to say no to low wages and inadequate state response to inflation in the public sector and beyond.
What pushed them to the streets is the “lack of implementation by the Government of the Republic of Poland of the demands for indexation of wages on inflation in the state budget sphere with an average annual wage growth rate by at least 20% as of July 1, 2023 and by at least 24% as of January 1, 2024” – writes the “Committee of the March of Anger”. This is the name of the protesters’ committee, and the anger amongst state employees is real.
Due to the low salaries offered in the entire public sphere, there is a permanent shortage of people wishing to work in this sector. This applies to schools, local and central administration, public transport associations and cultural institutions. All these places are often considered a job “for a start”, until one can find a better-paid position. In the transportation sector, local governments struggle so much to deal with shortage of qualified drivers that they would have been at a loss without foreigners filling the vacancies.
To change that, the government declared at the end of August that the final public salary increases for 2024 would be 12.3% higher than those offerred this year (6.6%). However, only teachers, whose salaries are regulated by separate laws, can actually expect raises of this magnitude. How about officials, culture workers, or even security forces or the military? According to the draft budget legislation for 2024, the base amounts used to calculate wages will rise by 6.6% rather than 12.3%. Therefore, there is no assurance that everyone employed by the government will effectively get the promised raises.
And even the teachers are far from being happy with this “generosity”.
“We have compared the education minimum salary, which will only grow by 12.3% next year, and the economic minimum wage, which will rise by 20%. If we relate teachers’ salary to the minimum wage, it is is falling“, Vice President of the Polish Teachers’ Union Krzysztof Baszczyński explained in a comment to Business Insider.
“Our salaries should be comparable to the average salary. It is challenging to work for such pay and find new employees who are eager to work at schools if the national average for July is one thousand higher than the average teacher salary. We want to alter the compensation structure so that wages in education would automatically rise along with the national average. We are currently dependent on politicians in charge of setting the maximum base amount“, Baszczyński sums up.
Since 2020, cumulative inflation in Poland has amounted to almost 40%.
“Meanwhile, the average gross salary in the national economy and the minimum wage also increased by almost 40%. Only public sector salaries are practically stagnant. So yes, the increases proposed by the government are insufficient“, President of the KNSZZ “Ad Rem” trade union Urszula Łobodzińska tells me. She is one of the leaders of the March of Anger Committee.
The trade unionists are also sick and tired of the electoral campaign led by the political parties.
“There is little interest in the sector’s budget among opposition parties. Only one formation committed to increasing public sector wages by 20%. The largest opposition party once mentioned raising our wages, but when it actually co-formed the government, they froze our salaries for 7 years“, another activist comments.
By protesting before the elections, he tells me, employees want to force parliamentary candidates to clearly state their plan regarding budget allocations, and therefore how they want the state to operate on a daily basis.
Some of the unions have preferred to cooperate with the government, weary of the strikes just before the elections. However, even with this restriction, the current loud and unified response of the unions is something extraordinary in the Polish public sphere.
How does cooperation between labour organisations look like?
“We have established a protest committee of trade unions of the public sphere associated with two trade union headquarters, i.e. the Trade Unions Forum and the All-Poland Trade Unions Confederation. We are constantly in touch. And we divided the tasks. In the media, some groups try to talk about others. This is really encouraging“, tells me one leader of the committee.
However, the unity is not complete.
“Groups that recently received pay increases or are in talks with the government did not join. Unfortunately, this is how the current government in Poland works. Divide and rule is their basic principle“, adds Urszula Łobodzińska.
“Solidarity”, the biggest trade union in Poland, and the most centralised, does not participate in the organisation of the protest.
“Their national authorities did not officially join the committee. However, individual Solidarity trade union organisations have contacted us and announced their participation in the march, which makes us very happy“, the president of KNSZZ “Ad Rem” tells me.
As we can read further in the statement issued by the unions:
The Committee calls on all public employees for full mobilisation and mass participation in the protest, and appeals to other trade unions operating in the broadly-understood budget sphere and in public finance sector units to support the demands for pay rises and actively participate in the protest action. The Committee also calls on all trade unions representing other sectors of the economy to support the demands of the Protest Committee and actively participate in the protest in solidarity.
Impacting the electoral campaign
The activists want to appeal again to Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister who so far has not been particularly attentive to the financial workers’ protests.
“This is the last moment to meet the legitimate demands of employees who serve the state and Polish citizens on a daily basis. Without fairly remunerated employees of the broadly-understood budget sphere and public finance sector units, an efficient state does not exist! Acting on behalf of hundreds of thousands of employees, we expect immediate response and fulfilment of demands“, they summed up.
This march might make a considerable impact on the electoral campaign. The state broke the social contract with public sector employees a long time ago. It expects them to work responsibly, entrusts them with key areas of its functioning, expects further development and engagement, but denies the right to strike to certain groups – and does not adequately reward their efforts.
The public sector has been underfunded for many years and, according to polls, a lot of people seem to be aware of this inadequacy. However, as it usually goes in Poland, everyone is opposed to rising taxes.
The only party addressing this problem structurally is the New Left, which yet has got no chance to be in a position to create a majority. At best, they might influence a future government led by the Civic Platform and Donald Tusk. Will they – else, the state’s sense of elementary responsibility – also push the Law and Justice party to making a real reform of the public sector funding? This would require more steps away from the Polish state’s neoliberal philosophy, but it is not impossible.
This article was first published on the website of Cross-Border Talks.