The spectre of a national strike of teachers has been looming over Poland for some time now. But despite the lukewarm attempts by the right-wing PiS government to alleviate the situation with half-hearted concessions, the strike date has been set for 8 April. This day will definitely go down as an important event in the history of the National Teachers’ Union (ZNP, formed in the course of the 1905 revolution), and perhaps of the Polish working class as a whole.
This isn’t just a strike accepted by union leaders to let off pressure from the rank and file. This has the potential to become the most important movement of a whole section of the working class since the re-establishment of capitalism in 1989.
Strike committees have been organised in all cities. More than 7,000 of them have sprung up in every corner of the country, as they spread even to the smallest towns and villages. New strike committees are being registered every day, completely ignoring nervous warnings from some local labour leaders about legality and associated dangers. The rank-and-file of two rival trade union confederations, OPZZ and Solidarność, are breaking the mould of division in an unprecedented way, expressing their natural desire for unity. Especially the cowardly leadership of Solidarność, which has been coat-tailing the PiS and has already sold the teachers down the river in a treacherous sell-out, is being shaken up by the strike, as motion after motion is being passed by rank-and-file teachers affiliated to Solidarność, displaying their lack of confidence in the leadership.
Councils involving teachers, parents and students are popping up across the whole country. The farmers, organised in their own union, have already been emboldened into action, and several other sections of the working class have proclaimed solidarity with the strike and will without a doubt observe it carefully, as they draw conclusions for their own struggles. It is a well-known law that the working class learns a hundredfold faster during strikes than in “normal” times. This strike will transform the situation in Poland more than any other event in recent memory. It will embolden all other workers to follow suit and begin a new chapter as they move to take their destiny into their own hands.
“For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions. I think some circumstances are also similar to 1968.” – Donald Tusk, Polish Prime Minister 2007-2014, current President of the European Council
On the surface, this strike might seem completely unexpected. After all, the 2015 parliamentary elections saw the right-wing, fanatically Catholic Law and Justice party (PiS) win the largest majority of any party since the reinstatement of capitalism in 1989. But this paints an entirely incomplete picture of the real situation. The real reason behind the victory of the PiS, which promised a generous series of social reforms, was the deep mistrust and anger against the status quo, especially in extremely destitute and depressed smaller towns and villages, atomised by the privatisation and closure of state industry and collective farms (PGRs). This is where the PiS draws the bulk of its support from.
This mood of discontent was brewed by the 30-year long experience of what capitalism really means for the masses. Despite the economic growth experienced by Poland for a whole historical period, it is here where words inscribed by Marx in Capital are more relevant than ever:
“It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.”
Importantly, this was strongly exacerbated by today’s, liberal so-called “opposition”, which is as responsible as the PiS for making Poland the most-unequal country in Europe by income share of the top 10 percent of earners, according to the World Inequality Database report published earlier this month. The election of the PiS was a very general and confused expression of this anger, which in any case only brought to the fore all contradictions that were already accumulating in Poland over the course of decades.
This isn’t obvious only to those upper-class liberals who led quiet, peaceful and prosperous lives in houses gated away from the real world of working-class Poland. These statistics, are for them, abstract and baffling. This is why, despite their current hooah of “support” for the strike, they will prove to be organically incapable of playing any positive role within it. They have nothing in common with the teachers on poverty wages, who are struggling to make ends meet. The reality for millions of people, that both the PiS and PO are so detached from, was emotionally described by an old worker, who gave a speech a while ago in support of striking glassworkers in Zawiercie to the north of Kraków, and which went viral on social media. In the rare breakthrough of a worker’s voice into the mainstream, we heard the following words:
“These people working here don’t have a penny in their pocket. Can you imagine a working man unable to bring any money home? To tell his child ‘I can’t afford to buy you this or that’? How can something like this happen in this country? The journalists come here, then they go away, but these workers are down here every day, sometimes I see people running in because their train was late…
“So I ask you, what’s this for? I’m sorry for the steel workers here, the mortality rates are tremendous. These people are malnourished, these people can’t afford to see the doctor, they don’t want to watch your television programmes! Do you know why? Because they get home, and they sit in the corner, despairing [about] when they’re going to get any money at all for their hard work. Yes, this year I turned 80. But I’ll tell you that I regret growing old and witnessing what is going on in this country. I remember this glassworks since I was little, I grew up here…
“Nothing is the same anymore. This area, Szklarskie Domy, doesn’t exist anymore. Almost all the glassworkers, wonderful people, used to live here, they used to be happy, but they had money see… Do you know when? Under motherf*cking Communism! … Does it have to be the way it is now?... And do you know what else? It really makes you think! That the man responsible for this is not even here! You all come here, but this bastard doesn’t! Why doesn’t he come to the gate and listen to us?!”
The reader may have heard of the Tale of Two Cities. For decades, the only voice heard in Poland was that of rich bankers, monopolists, clergymen, politicians and other wealthy speculators. The majority of the working class was entirely excluded from politics. This strike is giving real hope and voice to the majority, because it is spearheaded and powered by people like the one quoted above.
The movement understanding that this anger stems from the accumulation of poverty, misery and desperation since capitalism was reinstated and endorsed by one government after another, is key to its victory. It is an unfortunate fact that the top leadership of ZNP holds illusions in various “pro-democracy” campaigns led by these same liberals who attacked education so ferociously, but in this strike, and perhaps at the pressure of the rank-and-file, the leadership of ZNP is openly and correctly denying the liberals a leading role. Indeed, the balance sheet of the eight-year rule by the Liberal Civic Platform (PO) seems to be a book closed by seven seals for these respectable ladies and gentlemen.
In fact, the situation is so fragile that the father of PO and current EU bureaucrat-in-chief, Donald Tusk, is preparing a return to Polish politics. But no matter how inflated his ego and saviour complex, his return will not solve anything for the working people of Poland. It cannot be forgotten that he himself helped prepare the emergence of PiS, as he brewed up this bitter discontent with privatisation, job losses and “liberalisation” of labour laws, required by the capitalists. While the bureaucratic regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1966, thanks to the planned economy, was able to build 1,000 schools to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the baptism of Poland by Mieszko I (which is seen as the country’s birth year), Tusk and co. – when in government – affirmed that there was no other way but to close down schools en-masse. This record has not been forgotten by the teachers, and judging by the scale of this strike, it is likely that the Liberals are going to become completely sidelined and isolated, although the existing labour leaders will try their best to prevent this.
On the eve
The strike won’t officially begin until Monday, 8 April. However, its preparation is heavily underway, encouraged by a very sympathetic mood from students, parents and other workers. Indeed, it takes place just weeks after the Youth Climate Strike, which in itself was an enormous display of the willingness to fight by the students, as tens of thousands came out on the streets of all major cities. Where the teachers gave support for the students in their walkouts, their students are now displaying solidarity and active support towards the strike, despite it taking place during the exam period:
Młodzieżowy Strajk Klimatyczny pod Ministerstwem Energii. NIE ZABIERAJCIE NAM PRZYSZŁOŚCI!!! #StrajkDlaKlimatu pic.twitter.com/GbzE2qrb5C— Piaskiem w oczy (@piaskiemwoczy) March 15, 2019
Youth Climate Strike in Warsaw: “Don’t take away our future!”
For several months leading up to talks, the government was only promising more of the same, which is implementing part of the pay rise, months down the line, and the rest of it at an even later date. Over the past few days, the government delegation headed by Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska held intense discussions with the labour leaders. This has caused the ZNP to back down from some of its demands, but there is still no compromise, as the main demands remain unsatisfied. One of the flagship demands is the urge for an immediate pay rise of 1000 zlotys per month, which would raise the living standards of many teachers, whose pay averages at the bare minimum of 1800-2400 zlotys. The government attempts to calm the situation through daily meetings with the labour leaders, yet it continues to offer nothing substantial. For this reason, the ZNP is expected to go ahead with the strike on Monday.
For this purpose, strike committees have been formed all over the country, engulfing a huge number of teachers who hitherto had not been involved in any union or political activity. Many of them have never seen a shop steward in their lives. The map below portrays the spread of those strike committees that have been officially declared, and which currently number 7,821 schools and nurseries (79.5 percent of the total). The first, least-populated map represents the number of committees as of Sunday 17 March. The last, most-populated map was drawn up on Saturday 30 March.
The divide between ZNP and Solidarnosc
The initiative to call the strike, taken by the ZNP, has had a tremendous impact on the “competitor” teachers’ branch of Solidarnosc. It must be said that today’s Solidarnosc is not comparable to that at the time of the revolutionary mass movement of 1980/81, when it had 10 million members around the country. Its treacherous and reactionary leadership reduced Solidarnosc to a rump and a mockery of its former self. The leaders are openly sympathetic with the PiS government, regularly betray the workers and openly shake hands with the bosses. To give a hint of their reactionary character, around this time last year, behind the backs of its rank-and-file, the leadership secretly allowed the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR) to hold a rally in the historical building of BHP, where the Gdansk Inter-District Strike Committee of 1980/81 – a soviet in all but name – used to meet.
Surprisingly, this same leadership was drawn into the strike, mainly due to the pressure from the rank-and-file of the teachers’ branch. However, it quickly went on to conciliate and seek agreement with the government, and it sold out its members on 1-2 April. Although this was expected, this marked an important breakthrough for the government, which can now point fingers at the ZNP and ask “Solidarnosc is satisfied, why aren’t you?”
However, this move by the leadership has achieved nothing but to infuriate the Solidarnosc rank-and-file, as “open dissent” is taking place within its membership. Motions of no confidence in the leadership have been passed in Głogów and Wrocław, calling the leaders “saboteurs” for their “shameful” actions. In many other cities, the Solidarnosc teachers simply ignore the leadership and continue to work with the ZNP teachers. In this situation, the ZNP and the entire labour movement should fully expose the class-collaborationist nature of the Solidarnosc leaders and make an appeal to the Solidarnosc membership that their actions will be wholly supported by the entire movement. This could lead to the vomiting out of the reactionary Solidarnosc leaders into the dustbin of history where they belong, and the beginning of the end of the historical divide between the two main trade union confederations: the OPZZ, which the ZNP is affiliated to, and Solidarnosc. This would strengthen, not just the teachers’ strike, but the future of the entire labour movement in Poland.
Class against class
One of the main reasons for the strength of the teachers’ movement and the powerlessness of the government is that this strike is not confined to one or two demands. Its energy and scale meant that it acquired a logic of its own. Through this, it became a point of reference for all the frustrations of the teachers, which are inflicting serious damage on the government. Despite the lies of the PiS politicians and their lackeys in the media, the momentum for the strike only continues to increase. The state-owned TVP (Polish Television), for instance, broadcast a clip where a teacher of a primary school in Szczecin said that she is satisfied with the concessions. This clip was one of many examples of scandalous manipulation by the TVP. The same teacher complained in a Facebook post that the video was shot last year, in relation to a previous agreement, but that this time around she and her colleagues are all going on strike.
Many Polish workers identify with the teachers’ grievances and demands, as more and more of their voices come to the surface. This has been coupled with an immense show of solidarity from the parents and the students who are standing hand in hand with the teachers. To express this, a network of Citizens’ Councils (Narada Obywatelska) have been popping up all over the country. This has been launched by a group of teachers called JaNauczyciel (I, the teacher), which claims to represent 32 thousand members. This has been officially supported by the ZNP, the Solidarnosc teachers, parents’ support groups, various academic groups and foundations, and also the Union of Polish Cities, representing 300 local city and town councils. The website includes practical advice on how to organise and lists its aims, which include “direct communication between students, teachers and parents”, getting broader layers involved with the teachers movement, and “going beyond simple wage dispute, to underline the broader (systemic) and deeper character.” Although the first meetings of these committees are yet to take place, the Citizens’ Councils have been or are in the process of being formed in most of the main cities, such as Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź, Białystok, Wrocław, Kraków and Lublin.
It is not clear whether these Citizens’ Committees will play a leading role in the strike, because of their heterogeneous composition and, at the time of writing, a lack of mass involvement compared to the strikes committees. However, depending on how the strike unfolds, this development can potentially gain a logic of its own, in the same way as the strike committees did. If these gain the same kind of momentum we saw on the map of strike committees, it will begin to become a movement that goes beyond the teachers’ dispute. Already, on the 3 April, Warsaw witnessed a protest of thousands of farmers wearing yellow vests and blocking one of the main roads. Their grievances are connected to the reforms that farmers see as damaging to their industry. But without a doubt, the mood of militancy and anger that the teachers feel affects all sections of the working class. On top of the recent actions by the farmers, messages of solidarity have been passed inside university unions and individually from other workers. This is what the Citizens’ Councils may begin to express as the movement snowballs.
This shows that the struggle of the teachers for better working conditions can potentially become a catalyst for the struggle of the entire working class in Poland. In this scenario, the question of which class holds power in society will become a daily discussion in shop floors, bus stops, pubs and on the streets.
Over the past years, we have often heard the disparaging brigade of the liberal-left lament an “imminent rise of fascism” in Poland. While, as Marxists, we do not underestimate the danger posed by the extreme right wing, we have pointed out in the past that the situation among the masses was different, and the contradictions would explode in terms of heightened class struggle. This movement of teachers proves that the Polish working class, with its incredibly rich revolutionary traditions from 1905, 1917, 1970 and 1980, is preparing to move once more onto the stage of history. Sharp turns and sudden changes are implicit in the situation, and many illusions will be shattered overnight as the workers, through their experience, become conscious of their power as a class.