How the people of Poland are kept from taking to the streets

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent. Propaganda serves to justify almost anything.

Anyone who wants to learn about the current economic situation in Poland will encounter curiously contradictory accounts. In the Polish mainstream media, only one image emerges: Poland has growth, has avoided the financial crisis and is up to its ears with new investment, of which the tacky skyscrapers rising up in Warsaw are proof.

Take a closer look – the investment was mostly in roads and stadiums for the Euro 2012 football championship which are now mostly unused and loss-making, while schools, libraries and school canteens are being closed. Health care is free only in theory – if you can’t pay the monthly insurance or are on benefits, it is restricted or has to be paid for. Donald Tusk and his neoliberal party, Civic Platform, have raised the pension age from 65 to 67 and recently, “to fight the crisis”, abolished the eight-hour working day. Last but not least, if it was a prospering country would two million of its people be economic emigrants?

It is true that so far Poland has introduced few overt austerity measures, benefiting from a strong industrial base closely connected to Germany, EU investment and less “financialisation” than, say, the Baltic states. However, if Poland were a land of milk and honey, the migrants would be returning after raising some money. They aren’t. So, instead, the Polish press runs frequent articles bemoaning how Spaniards, Portuguese and other citizens of crisis-ridden European countries are coming to the country to get a job – although the numbers are tiny compared to the volume of those emigrating.

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent: Roma, Chechens and Ukrainians are treated as second-class citizens. In Białystok, in north-eastern Poland, violent attacks on Roma camps and houses are common. A recent court case ruled that the swastika, written on the city walls and worn by neo-fascists, is legal because “it’s a famous Asian symbol of happiness”.

If the right has radicalised since the Smolensk plane crash, which killed 93 officials, including the president and many MPs, then the left is in a state of decrepitude. A “tenants’ movement” fights the evictions that blight the country and there was a very small Occupy movement. At a recent “congress of the left”, there was talk of “learning from the right” and an “alliance with the middle classes”. Yet the only large party of the left, the Democratic Left Alliance, formed by the ex-communist nomenklatura and the governing party in the 1990s and early 2000s, was reduced to 8.24 per cent of the vote in the last election. Even the recent self-immolation of a 56-year-old man in front of the prime minister’s office in protest against his and many others’ impoverishment didn’t especially shake the public. Nor did his subsequent death.

What has? When public transport fares in Warsaw went up by 60 per cent, there were protests and a petition demanding the resignation of the city’s Civic Platform mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. But Poland is not yet taking a cue from the Brazilian protests – which, with their focus on hikes in transport fares and the costs of hosting the World Cup, resemble the problems Poland had after Euro 2012.

Here in Poland, propaganda serves to justify almost anything Civic Platform does – especially as we are ritually menaced with the possible comeback of the Law and Justice party. Split between neoliberals and rightwing populists, the people of Poland are successfully kept from taking to the streets.

The Warsaw skyline. Photograph: Getty Images

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.