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Protests in Szczecin shipyards and the workers' situation in Poland

Over the last few years the situation of Polish workers has gotten much worse due to economic recession. As a result, wages have been cut and workers are forced to work in worse and worse conditions. Workers are being blackmailed; either they agree with the conditions dictated by the bosses or they lose their jobs. Employers most often explain themselves by saying that they have to adapt to free market conditions and so effiency, which already is rather high, has to be increased. They'll also tell you that there are many people ready to take your job.

Some companies which until recently were quite prosperous have been brought to the brink of bankruptcy. There are three reasons for this:

1. The owners are thinking about making a quick profit but this often doesn't work out.

2 The companies are taken over by big multinational corporations in order to take over consumer markets and brands. Then these companies are deliberately forced into bankruptcy in order to eliminate competition and production is transfered abroad. One example is the Laziska Steelworks (the only manufacturer of ferro-alloys in Poland and the second largest in the world). The steelworks was part of a holding company together with a power plant. After the privatization of the holding company, the part which controled the electric power plant was bought by the largest competitor steelworks - a Swedish company. Since then, the price of electricity has increased dramatically. (Huta Laziska accounts for 1% of the total energy consumption in Poland.) The steelworks became unprofitable. Thanks to workers' protests, they forced the energy supplier to lower its prices.

3. All the time Poland has to adapt to European Union economic standards. As a result, many industries which were prosperous are finding themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.

 

At the beginning of 2002, a wave of protests shook Poland - the largest in 10 years. There were pickets, demonstrations and strikes. One of the most famous strike is the occupation of the cable factory in Ozarow. The workers are protesting against the liquidation of the proposperous factory which was bought by a competitor. In Poland you can hear about miners who are protesting against government plans to restructure the mining industry which would lead to the closure of several mines; this would lead to thousands of job losses. Another government proposal which the miners are protesting against is the introduction of a six-day work week plus new effiency quotas. Workers from Daewoo Motor Poland were also forced to take to the street; the crisis in the firm led to its liquidation in Poland.

In the nearest future we can also expect protests from fishermen who are afraid of the job losses which will occur in that industry upon Poland's accesssion to the European Union.

These are just some of the protests going on in our country. Almost every day the media has information about strikes or protests around Poland. However, these protests rarely lead to victory for the workers. Most often workers from small companies are protesting and nobody pays attention to them. They are not strong enough to fight. In large firms workers often can organize to defend themselves but the problem is that they are isolated in their protests; they can't count on solidarity from workers from other firms. After a protest is finished, nothing much else happens. There are no solidarity strikes and even workers inside one industry often don't show each other solidarity. The clothing industry protests separately even though they have similiar problems like mines, shipyards and steel works. When the Gdynia Shipyards were on strike, the Szczecin Shipyards did nothing and you could even hear people happy that things were bad in the competitor firm. In effect, the strike in Gdynia was deemed illegal by the owners and the leaders of the strike given the sack. We think that among other things, the actions of the reformist trade unions (Solidarnosc, OPZZ and others) are to blame; over the years, workers became used to them settling matters on their behalf. Trade unions became auxiliary structures of political parties and those which fight for workers' rights are attacked both by the bosses and the big centralized unions.

For years society put a lot of hope in Solidarnosc but their hopes were buried with the fall of communism. All the ideals which Solidarnosc represented were betrayed and as a result there are very few people in Poland who trust any social movements. Nowadays, people hope that capitalism can be reformed, that there's such a thing as capitalism with a human face and that their standard of living will be raised. Another important feature of society today is that it is highly divided and there is no spirit of solidarity. Capitalism has led workers in Poland to compete and fight with each other instead of working together in solidarity and cooperating. For example in the ex Szczecin Shipyards, the workers of different shifts (brigades) were competing who will execute a bigger part of the plan, which led to the increase of daily work norms and the lowering of salaries.

According to the Polish political and economic elite, our country is still undergoing a transition period in which we are still adapting to the economy of capitalist countries. This means that social benefits have been cut, unemployment has risen to 19%, health services are in a tragic state, bureaucracy has increased, etc.. All these factors lead to a growth in social dissatisfaction and the working class has already lost hope that this system can be reformed and they see no hope for fixing the situation.

As anarcho-syndalicalists, we try to be wherever there are social and political struggles in we present out ideas of a stateless, classless society. We organize demonstrations, publish and distribute publications and take part in union protests, presenting direct action as the most effective form of struggle. Throughout the country there are groups of people connected with anarcho-syndicalism who spread the ideas of workers' self management whenever possible.

The Situation in the Szczecin Shipyards

In the last few months you could hear a lot about the situation in the shipyard industry and the effect that the fall of the Szczecin Shipyards has brought the Pomorze region. Many thousands of people work in this industry, either in the shipyards or some industry connected to it. The shipyard's holding company was the largest employer in the region.

Until recently, the Szczecin Shipyards was one of the world's leading ship builders and it produced over 20 ships per year. It was held up as an example of privatization in Poland. In 1999, 22 ships were built and a similar amount was built in previous years. The workers did OK for Polish standards. The salaries and work conditions were comparatively good. Nobody ever thought the Shipyards could go bankrupt.

A group of entrepeneurs managed to transfer the capital of the Shipyards to other firms through financial speculation and left the Shipyards in ruins. The new owners had formed The Industrial Group for this purpose. The new owners were connected to the power elite and the former President of the City of Szczecin was among them. It was designed from the beginning to take control over the Shipyards. The idea was to lead the shipyard out of the crisis which was caused by changes in the Polish economic system after 1989. At the beginning, the Shipyards functioned normally to a great extent but as it turned out, the takeover of the Shipyard would serve the new owners in their financial machinations. At first, the Shipyard was one big company but then it was divided into a dozen smaller firms who inherited the Shipyard's fortune. The Shipyard itself then had no money and only employed those contracted by the smaller firms. The Shipyard wound up having to pay for services that it once provided itself. Production costs rose due to all these machinations - this is what happens in privatization. This caused the Shipyard to be less profitable. Also bad contracts with clients and too short terms for ship manufacturing -which meant that gigantic compensations had to be paid for delays. Several million of dollars were paid. All of these mistakes were covered up until November 2001 when there wasn't enough money to pay the Shipyard workers. There also wasn't enough cash to finish current production. The owners maintained that these were only temporary problems which would be resolved soon. Unofficially, everybody was saying that the company wasn't doing well but the media was silent, the unions pretended to have everything under control - and the workers believed this. The state institutions failed to react.

In January 2002, the workers said "enough" - they hadn't received their salaries for 3 months. Zorganizowano spontaniczny wiec, od którego odcięły się związki zawodowe działające w stoczni.

A spontaneous meeting was arranged by the workers, but the trade-unions active in the shipyard refused to support them.

The paradox is that the trade unions, which are supposed to protect the workers, were on the same side as the bosses and a few of the bureaucrats were on the Shipyard's supervisory board. During the meeting the shipyard workers demanded that all wage arrears be paid immediately and a program to save the shipyard to be presented. During this first protest, the owners had to explain how such a prosperous firm was ruined. Various objects were thrown at the bosses and the president of the "Stoczniowiec" trade-union who cheated workers was almost lynched. As a result of all this, a bank loan was obtained within the week and it seemed as if everything would return back to normal. However, one day the workers were informed that they would have to take a two-week "holiday" because the Shipyard didn't have enough money to maintain production and the banks didn't want to give any new loans. It turned out that the money from the previous loan which was taken in order to build ships was used for other purposes including paying dividends to the owners of the Shipyard. After two weeks, when the workers returned, they were told that they were negotiating with the banks and they'd have to wait for money and a part of them were again sent on "vacation". During those next weeks, only 1000 of the more than 12,000 workforce was working. A month later even those weren't working. They demanded their back pay and started to prepare an occupation strike. However, after negotiating with the owners, they withdrew from the strike in exchange for payment of the overdue salaries. Money was paid within the week but production was frozen for another month.

For these reasons, the workers started to worry about their jobs. They started to organize meetings and street demonstrations. Social discontent was rising and the political elites in Szczecin were afraid that the protest might spread to other factories. In May meetings were taking place a few times a week. They were organized by the workers themselves, without the unions. These assemblies were the most feared, because nobody had control over the workers. However during one of the meetings, a Protest Committee was formed. It served as a safety valve. At the beginning, everything looked spontaneous, but as time went by, the meetings seemed to become more and more closed for ordinary worker's voices. The spontaneity seemed to be gone and the committee started to conduct negotiations with the owners and the government instead of conducting direct action. Meanwhile, the workers were told to wait patiently for the effects of the talks, but there were none, and the initiatives of young workers were suppressed. At some point many shipyard workers stopped participating in the meetings, as they didn't bring anything except new promises. The shipyard workers took the protests to the streets of Szczecin, blocking completely the city traffic. This didn't last long.

The protest committee started cooperating with the police and the march itinerary was announced to the police so that alternative traffic was organised. However during one of the marches the shipyard workers blocked the road to the center of the city. The committee was taken by surprise and there were fights with police.

The workers managed to repel police attacks. The protest committee accused the workers taking part in the standoff to be "provocateurs" - despite the fact that every participant was wearing a shipyard pass. Since then the commiteee kept asking the wokrers to remain calm and refrain from provoking the police. The city inhabitants who decided to join the protest were thrown out from the meetings. The shipyard workers were induced into a state of paranoid fear of "provocators". This caused the isolation of the workers from the rest of the population.

The anarchists from Szczecin, who participated in the protests so far and offered their help were taken off a shipyard meeting by the police. The most radical workers had enough of being insulted and prevented from speaking and stopped coming to the meetings. The main reason of the weakening of the protests was the reluctance of the committee to make any decisions.

Currently, part of the workers were employed in the new shipyards (with worse conditions) and some found work in other firms. A protest which could have led to a wave of strikes throughout Poland was effectively repressed and redirected into debate and discussion instead of strikes and direct action.

Dominik Sawicki

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