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Protests in the Szczecin Shipyards and the Workers' Situation in Poland

hydrarchist writes:

This is a text prepared by the anarchist federation from Szczecin for the
anarcho-syndicalist conference in Essen at the end of this month.

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.

2: 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.
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

The Nationwide Protest Commitee (OKP), which includes over a dozen
workplaces from all over Poland, was formed on the initiative of the
Shipyard protest committee. The OKP has existed for over 2 months but we don
't want to evaluate its activity yet. We don't expect a lot from it because
there was a certain form of manipulation in it from the very beginning. One
of its ideological leaders became Marian Jurczyk, a pseudo-legendary figure
from the strikes of 1980 who became the president of Szczecin and a Senator
and currently is is the far-right League of Polish Families. We feel that
the OKP is more interested in politics than workers' rights (one of it's
postulates are new elections ...and the fight to stop the liquidation of
military units).

Therefore, we feel that anarchists shouldn't take part in the activities of
the OKP because it isn't a struggle for anarchist and syndicalist ideals."