02/06/2015 09:29 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2015

The Land of Junk Contracts

The Poles call them umowa śmieciowa, or "junk contracts." If you're young and lucky enough to have a job in Poland these days, it's likely to be short-term and come without benefits. Ten percent of young people (up to the age of 25) are working in the black market, and another 25 percent have part-time or short-term work. Of the rest, most have job contracts that provide little in the way of security.

Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate in Poland has averaged around 30 percent over the last 17 years. Though it dropped to around 23 percent in August, young people are happy to get any kind of job. A huge number have simply given up and taken advantage of the freedom to travel throughout the EU. More than 2 million Poles, many of them young, have left the country for better opportunities abroad.

Slawomir Rakowiecki has been a long-time trade unionist in Poland, part of the first generation of Solidarity activists. He has been involved in the union in Warsaw and at the provincial level (Mazowsze), and his focus has been the transportation sector. A nationwide railway strike last year and several other actions have boosted the unions' profile in this sector.

But the ground has shifted in Poland since the glory days of Solidarity. The independent trade union once counted 60 percent of the workforce as members. By 2013, trade union membership overall in Poland had dropped to only 10 percent, one of the lowest in Europe.

"We are totally aware of the changes that have taken place in the structure of the labor market, especially taking into consideration the number of our members," Rakowiecki told me in an interview in August 2013 in Warsaw. "In the past, when the working class was huge, promoting our ideas was very easy. Nowadays, however, when huge numbers of employees are forced to be 'self-employed,' organizing trade union activity is very hard. Look at the example of the taxi drivers. The cars, the repairs and service, the insurance, the gas, and the telephone exchange all belong to the taxi company, but drivers are forced to be self-employed. Therefore the taxi company does not pay pension insurance for its taxi drivers. And according to the current law, taxi drivers do not have the right to be members of a trade union, since they do not have the status of an employee."

The junk contracts are an even more obvious symbol of changes in the relationship between employer and employee. "Poland is an indisputable leader of the so-called junk contracts," he continued. "These contracts provide for two to three months of temporary employment with minimum salary, which literally means creating a new class of employees 'under the table.' Therefore people are permanently afraid to lose jobs where even their health and pension insurance is not covered. Moreover because of this employment relationship, they do not have the right to join a trade union. This is why the officials' argument about the decrease in popularity of the trade unions is a ridiculous assumption."

Rakowiecki was frustrated with the Polish government response. Shortly before we spoke, Solidarity representatives had walked out of the tripartite commission (with government and business) and demanded the resignation of the labor minister. Together with the former official trade union OPZZ, Solidarity organized one of the largest demonstrations in years in Warsaw in September 2013.

"We used to face a situation when a worker came to us with an issue, and we were knocking on the doors of different directors, heads of departments, representatives of self-governing communities," Rakowiecki lamented. "But for the past three years, we get no response. The doors don't have knockers or keyholes.

The Interview

Tell me about your work in Solidarity.

I don't work in the trade union. I am only a so-called activist. Professionally I am a senior administration specialist as well as a history teacher and the head of a workshop on military history and scale modeling. Because of my profession, from the very beginning I've been engaged in the transportation union. In the communication division, I head up the tram infrastructure sub-division. At the regional level, I am a representative of the communication trade union in Mazowsze Region. Finally I am also a member of the National Commission, which is the highest executive chamber, whose members are elected during the general assembly for a four-year term. Our term will be over this fall, and in the middle of this year, the next election will be held for the next four-year term. My roots are deep in the municipal service, which I specialized in on the regional committee. Right after Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnosc (AWS) was established, I was promoted and became a vice president in Warsaw. When the coalition broke up, I went back to the communication and education sectors.

What I am doing at the trade union is structured on three different levels. Here in Warsaw I am dealing mostly with the municipal transport company of Warsaw. At the provincial level, on the other hand, I am monitoring the activity of the legislative assembly of the Masovian Voivodeship. Finally, on the national level, because of my language skills and interest in the economy, I am helping to develop the union position on Polish economic issues.

By the way, right now is a very important moment for the Polish trade union movement. The issue of the quality of public transportation has become more and more important these days. A conflict has arisen between the transportation union and the government, which is trying to reduce staff privileges for free transportation, a traditional benefit for people working in the transportation sector. The cuts reached all of the transportation companies: Warsaw's subway, buses, trams, rapid transit system, and even the department in the municipal government responsible for supervising transportation companies. In this way over 30,000 transportation company employees, with their families and children, have been hit by the new regulation. In response, the trade unions of five different transportation companies got together to create a common protest committee with me as a head of the committee. We began talks first with the municipal government and then with employers. We organized a huge demonstration in front of the municipal government building on Plac Bankowy in Warsaw, where later we met with the vice presidents of Warsaw responsible for the city transportation sector. We have also met a couple times with city representatives mostly from Civic Platform (PO), and this is when the current government realized that all the teams are determined and we are ready to strike.

Although the regulation was supposed to go into force in September this year, the government started to negotiate with the trade unions because it faced the threat of a strike that would paralyze the entire city. When we announced in the media that we were going to launch a strike of all of the transportation companies in the city, we were invited to the talks, where the majority of our requirements were agreed to and the date of the regulation entering into force was postponed until March 31, 2014. Thanks to that agreement, the employees and their families maintained their privileges with the proviso that, until the end of this year, the board of each transportation company involved would work out its own internal regulation with the trade union. However, the government required the companies to standardize those regulations as much as possible. In practice the regulation applies to companies in entirely different economic conditions, meaning that the trams, which are more ecological and less noisy, have to harmonize their regulations with the bus company, which is in the worst economic situation, being noisy, expensive, and polluting. We will return to the negotiations with the government right after the holiday period. But this time I need to focus more on the regional level, though one can sense the anti-governmental atmosphere at both levels.

In the meantime, the mayor of Ursynow, Piotr Gusial, along with local activists, came up with the idea to organize a referendum to recall the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. We immediately agreed to that and started to collect the signatures under the referendum proposal. We are doing this because the current government continues to avoid basic regulations.

For instance, according to company law, the governing bodies of companies with only one owner are subordinated to the owner's will. A prosperous company can afford better social benefits for its employees. However, in case of the city bus company, the owner decided to implement new regulations that forced the company to face collapse and cut benefits. Hence we as the employees were instructed to somehow compensate for these lost benefits with financial subsidies and other methods. The management also decided to start closing depots and dismissing employees through a voluntary redundancy program. Of course, there is no room for negotiations regarding certain regulations, such as occupational safety and health, when the company was instructed to immediately increase municipal revenue. No wonder, then, that anti-government sentiment has increased at the regional trade union level.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.