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Organizing the Disappointed in Poland

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When Poland went through its "shock therapy" years of the early 1990s, many people lost out as a result of the economic reforms. The unemployment rate went up rapidly from under one percent in January 1990 to over 16 percent in 1994. And even though the reformers had promised that the pain would be relatively brief, the unemployment rate didn't fall after that. It peaked in 2003 at over 20 percent and still hovers today somewhere between 13 and 14 percent.

The unemployment rate was only one of the indicators of economic suffering. The poverty rate also increased dramatically, from 17.3 percent in 1989 of the population to 31.5 percent in 1990. The hardest hit were industrial workers at first. But as the reforms started to bite in the countryside -- and later as Poland prepared to join the EU -- poverty spiked among farmers.

The political party that initially benefited from these economic travails was the former Communist Party, which renamed itself the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). In 1993, it won the parliamentary elections and formed a government with the Polish People's Party, an agrarian party that also considered itself on the Left at that time. But the SLD soon demonstrated that it too favored the same kind of economic policies of its Solidarity-linked predecessor.

There were other political parties in the 1990s that tried to organize the disappointed, such as the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which positioned itself as a non-Communist alternative on the Left. Zuzanna Dabrowska was part of the "Democratic Revolution" faction of PPS.

"If we would have had more technical power -- money, structures, people -- we could have appealed to all the people who, year by year during the 1990s, were more disappointed by what was going on in Poland, who lost their health, their money, their livelihoods during the transition period," she told me in an interview in August just outside of Warsaw. "These were people who decided not to take part, not to vote. But to find these people and unite them, you had to have much greater organizational power. These were not activists, but ordinary people."

She recounted a meeting from 1993 or 1994. "We were as radical as possible on the political scene in those years," she remembered. "It was an open meeting, and I noticed an older couple sitting there. I didn't know them. I said hello, asked them where they came from. They said they'd come from a small city. "And what do you think?" I asked. "Oh, it was okay," they said, "but for us it was not radical enough!" These were just normal people. I think this group is now lost to democracy and political participation in Poland. They will never again trust anybody."

In 1992, when I last interviewed Zuzanna Dabrowska, we talked about the prospects for the Left, the state of the women's movement, and the rise of the Right. Twenty years later, we discussed these same issues, along with some new topics like "grantosis" and the exodus of young people.

The Interview

What are the economic priorities in terms of transforming Poland? Obviously there are restrictions set by the EU, by international financial institutions, by the global economy as well. And there are domestic challenges too. But given those restrictions, what can be done here in terms of traditional Left principles of equality, fairness and so on?

It's still the same question: If you will pay people more, will they spend more in the economy? If you say yes, you are on one side. If you say, no, you must freeze everything and you're on the other side. As a country, we are now on this second side. But Donald Tusk, who is afraid of losing votes, is trying to cut the cuts. The last budget decision was to make the debt higher and not to cut pensions or social spending. But the question is still "what should be the level of social spending?" In my opinion, it is so low that it's practically impossible to cut more. Of course it would be always possible to cut more, as we know, but it could be then dangerous for politicians. Even the rightwing opposition is afraid to cut.

Of course, it's a question of creating new sources of profit, like taxes on international financial transactions. But those ideas are not present on the table. There's nothing new, and that's the problem. If the opposition Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) were in power now, it would do exactly the same as the ruling party Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) is doing. And Platforma, in opposition, would say what PiS is now saying. It's a never-ending story.

We have no social pressure. Poles have the lowest wage pressure in Europe and the lowest wage increase in Europe. We are silent. Solidarity has a rather bright leader, Piotr Duda, and it is organizing a protest for September. But it's more a group of radical trade unionists organizing a happening on the street than a massive demonstration of workers. Such things are not happening any more.

I'm always a little surprised at what happened with Solidarity. As a result of its political choices, the economic reform that took place went against the interests of almost everyone within the trade union, except the leadership. Is it possible for any trade union in Poland to overcome that history and become an effective force that puts pressure on wages to go up?

Solidarity is now on that path. Earlier, they were clearly linked to the right wing, to PiS. Now not so much, even though Piotr Duda was at last congress of PiS. But I wouldn't exaggerate that. The problem is the ideological war against the trade union in public opinion. The opinions presented in the media are the same as in the middle of the 1990s: Those stupid trade unions want more and more of our taxes and they are absolutely irresponsible. If these opinions won't change, nothing will change, even if Solidarity is making good choices. They are well-organized now. Their actions are good, regionally and nationally. We'll see what happens in the week of protests in September. I think it will be a big step. But it still won't be massive until this opinion that trade unions are irresponsible radicals no longer dominates the political and social scene. I don't know what to do to change this.

One of the most important reasons is that the elite, the well-educated workers and intellectuals, left. They are creating trade unions in the UK or in France or in Germany. They don't have any problems understanding their own interests. But they are not here. If you have energy and want to do something, the only way is to go out.

Out of Solidarity and out of the country, both.

Yes.

I've talked to a number of people on women's issues here, and I've gotten very different interpretations. It seems to me that compared to 23 years ago, things have gotten better in terms of the sheer number of women active in Polish life and in leadership positions. There's also the Women's Congress, which has attracted a lot of attention. On other hand, there's still the issue of abortion, where the laws here don't meet European standards. What explains this lag between the influence of women and feminists in Poland and the reality for women now in Poland?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.