Results and prospects of the recent teachers strike in Poland

“Order prevails in Warsaw”?

Written by M. Krakowski, Revolutionary Regroupment supporter in Warsaw, May 2019.

Almost 30 years after the restoration of capitalism in Poland, which was proclaimed a post-Communist “success story” where the level of unionization is one of the lowest in Europe; where the left has a microscopic size; and where the workers have been conditioned for years to humbly accept their fate and work harder so they could one day supposedly become capitalists, hundreds of thousands of teachers throughout the country struck for three weeks in April. This strike movement came after the victorious strike at the LOT airlines in November 2018. It was part of the strike wave of education workers around the world, which is part of the global revival of class struggles. What Marxists had been saying for a long time about the crisis of proletarian leadership has been clearly demonstrated. (see The working class versus the ‘good change’).

Lessons of the teachers’ strike

Teachers under the leadership of the Polish Teachers Association (ZNP) announced an indefinite strike on April 8, demanding a raise of PLN 1,000 and the end of overloading work that stresses both teachers and students, a result of the recent “reform” of education that only created chaos. The government of the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) proposed to raise the salary by a modest 15 per cent, starting in September, with the work time required per week from teachers being raised from 18 to 24 hours. The only union that agreed to this was the infamous “Solidarity” (Solidarność), considered a “yellow” (or company) union because of its prostration before employers and the PiS government.

Ryszard Proksa, the head of the Solidarność teachers union, was revealed to earn PLN 130,000 a year. He signed a contract with the government without the authorization of membership, whom he told not to strike. However, because of this, the union is going through a crisis: many local branches opposed this decision and started participating in the strike, with members massively resigning from Solidarność.

The strike was a surprise for the PiS government. It had just defeated the impotent liberal parliamentary opposition in a dispute over the control of the Judiciary system. Now, this populist right-wing government that had thrown some leftovers from the table to contain the social discontent has faced a class struggle and something that was not a symbolic action declared by unions. Some masks have dropped. People like Proksa and the prime minister and banker Morawiecki can no longer pretend to be friends of working people.

The main union behind the strike was the ZNP, under the leadership of Sławomir Broniarz – but many non-unionized teachers spontaneously joined. It was clear that Broniarz was trying to subordinate the struggle to the parliamentary opposition, mainly the Civic Platform (PO) of Grzegorz Schetyna, who declared support for the strike. The leadership deliberately tried to castrate the movement from any class versus class content. During its 8 years in the government (2007-2015), the PO introduced severe austerity measures, and the gap between the rich and the poor widened; thanks to them, PiS came to power. The PO wanted the strike to be used in its electoral campaign against the PiS. Unlikely “friends” of working people and of trade unions appeared, such as Leszek Balcerowicz, the man who in the 1990s oversaw the IMF “shock therapy” in Poland, leading to huge inflation for the workers. This gathering of false “allies” is due to the strike being in the public sector and the government being in the hands of the PiS, which is hated by some sectors of the bourgeoisie because of its populist measures that take away a small part of the capitalists’ profits and could embolden working people.

Around 600,000 teachers participated in the strike at its beginning. If 10% of those had marched to the Sejm (the lower house of Congress) then it would have spontaneously attracted a lot more people. It was a record support for a strike in Warsaw and it put huge pressure on the government. Polish society is now divided in half. The ZNP did not try to mobilize the support of parents and students and did not want to extend the strike to wider sections of the working class, despite the fact that there is much dissatisfaction in society. The ZNP danced to the PiS tune, trying to pit teachers against farmers and pensioners, to whom Law and Justice had promised a few benefits. Instead, the union should have defended that high-quality public education be financed by the capitalists and the rich. 1% of them get 40% of the national income, which the PiS government wants to enlarge even further with subsidies, lower taxes for the rich and by making all Poland a “special economic zone” without labor rights. Money should also be taken away from the Catholic Church and the Military, which are the main items in the budget of the PiS government. It is necessary to expropriate the great fortunes and properties, both ecclesiastical and secular, to finance quality public services.

Despite the strike, final exams for Primary School were held – scabs such as catechists, priests, nuns and even firefighters and prison staff were brought to oversee the exams! It is outrageous that they have been let in. Schools should have been occupied with the participation of students, and picket lines built in front of them. The ZNP did not do this because it wanted to be respectful in the eyes of the bourgeoisie and its media.

The teachers were accused of choosing the wrong time for a strike and “taking students as hostages” because soon the high school leaving exams (the maturas) would take place. However, the whole purpose of the strike is to cause impact and show the workers’ importance. The teachers’ strike in 1993 also happened during the maturas, which simply took place a few days after the strike had been over. A strike leadership worthy of its name would not have let itself be intimidated and would have defended its decision to start the strike in face of such a desperate situation for the teachers.

An element of great importance in the strike was the creation of citywide Inter-School Strike Committees and, later, an All-Polish Inter-School Strike Committee. Every strike should create this type of committees covering all participants in a given plant, irrespective of their affiliation with the union; elect representatives recallable at any moment by employees, to participate in negotiations with the employer; and strive to establish a nationwide network.

However, it was soon announced by the union that the strike would be suspended for one day so that the teachers took part in councils, assigning final grades to students of the last year of Secondary School, so that they could take the maturas. The PiS government saw the hesitation of the strike leadership and pushed a bill that allowed directors and school councils to classify students without the participation of teachers – introducing “martial law” in the educational system of Poland. Finally, on April 27, the ZNP “suspended” the strike until September, allowing the maturas to happen without having obtained any concessions from the government!

Broniarz did as the bourgeois opposition wanted. The PO initially declared support for the strike, but when the high school leaving exams were at risk of being late, which would polarize the society and make them lose support among their moderate and conservative voters, it began calling for its end. Because of its class nature, the PO will never reach out to the more exploited sectors of the proletariat. Effective working class participation would have threatened not only the PiS government, but the capitalist order in general. Earlier, the PO itself had sabotaged the strike, when in PO-ruled Warsaw, local authorities helped organize the examination commissions during the eighth-grade exams, stabbing the strikers. PO leader Grzegorz Schetyna said shortly before the end of the strike that if the PiS failed to comply with the teachers’ demands, he would implement them if he won the parliamentary elections next autumn. This is extremely dubious considering that the PO, in its 8 years in power, never raised salaries in the entire public sector. Also, the opposition does not have much chance of defeating the PiS according the polls, so this sounds much like an empty promise.

All this confirms, once again, Trotsky’s 1938 thesis that the crisis of mankind is summarized in the crisis of proletarian leadership; and indicates the need to fight for a working class leadership to re-democratize the trade unions, against bureaucrats such as Broniarz and Proksa. It also indicates that one should not rely on the liberal opposition and other parties of the bourgeoisie which are the enemies of the workers, but on the solidarity of the working people who have the power to stop the whole country in a general strike – which would put the question of power pointblank. The germs of workers’ power will be such organs like the strike committees. Of course, socialist revolution is still a distant perspective – and it requires a political organization, a party that will bring this perspective to the daily struggles of the working class. Currently, there is not even a germ of such party in Poland. But as history shows, every mass strike creates great opportunities for even the smallest revolutionary organizations. This year marks the 85th anniversary of the combative strike of the Minneapolis truck drivers, initiated by a handful of Trotskyist fighters from the Communist League of America, which turned into a general strike that made that city a bastion of trade unions and gave the American Trotskyists a powerful base in the labor movement.

Although the teachers’ strike ended in capitulation, it was of great importance. It was the first event of this kind in years, made by a section of working class which is normally conservative in Poland, with the exception of large urban centers. The strike showed the strength of working people and was, therefore, an important example. 40,000 social workers are now preparing for their own strike action. A new chapter in the history of the Third Polish Republic has been opened.

The liberals

The strike does not seem to have bothered the liberal circles, which continue to behave as if they are detached from reality. They were delighted by the speech that Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, former Prime Minister of Poland and PO leader, gave at the University of Warsaw on May 3, on the occasion of the Constitution Day. As always, he criticized the current Polish authorities for disrespecting the Basic Law. Many people who are anti-PiS attach hopes to Tusk and his possible return to politics, perhaps even taking part in the presidential elections of 2020. But Tusk paved the way for the PiS with his neo-liberal politics and arrogance, and the PO itself only cares for those constitutional provisions it finds convenient. Under its rule, the PO ignored even the guaranteed right to housing, allowing and presiding over many evictions “to the pavement”. We will never forget that in 2011, during the PO term in the city of Warsaw, the landlord mafia killed the tenant activist Jolanta Brzeska, and the prosecutor’s office first considered it a suicide and then discontinued the investigations. “Defender of democracy” Donald Tusk, as a leader of the European Union, had no problem meeting and greeting the bloody Egyptian dictator al-Sisi, and is a promoter of legislation increasing surveillance systems against the people.

Tusk never mentions the anti-LGBT campaign which Law and Justice recently unleashed. Seeing that the subject of refugees was “worn out”, the PiS started to spread the fear that “deviants” will teach masturbation and “gender ideology” to children in schools and kindergartens “in case the opposition comes to power”. In fact, the differences between the PiS and the PO are mainly personal and tactical. This year, a PO leader tried to forbid the Equality March in the city of Gniezno. And when the editor-in-chief of the liberal magazine Liberté!, Leszek Jażdżewski, appeared on May 3 in front of Tusk and dared to criticize the Catholic clergy for greed and pedophilia scandals, he was met with disapproval not only from the pro-PiS media, but also from PO politicians.

Slightly to the left of the PO is a new political force, Robert Biedroń’s Wiosna (Spring) party. Biedroń’s program can be reduced to “let it be, so everything will be cool and everyone will love each other”. Wiosna raises some socially progressive demands, but avoids the question of how they would be financed and implemented. Biedroń, as the governor of Słupsk, invited the banker Balcerowicz to look at the city finances, showing what he has to offer to the working class. As an open gay, in contrast to the Civic Platform, he opposes the Church and fights for the rights of the oppressed minorities. We believe, however, in accordance with the theory of permanent revolution, that in the era of capitalist decay, it is impossible to consistently fight for democratic rights without breaking with the bourgeoisie. Biedroń will not conduct a struggle against the Catholic Church as one of the pillars of the bourgeois rule in Poland, and therefore will not eliminate the economic foundations of this institution through expropriation of its finances, the same being true for the reactionary media empire of Father Rydzyk. A new PO or Biedron government would at best be the Polish edition of Macron in France. But given the Polish conjuncture, it would probably not be the “Yellow Vests” to take the streets, but rather fascist forces, specially if the left is unable to build an independent working class political force.

The left

The left in Poland is still in a crisis which dates from the breaking of continuity of the workers’ movement caused by the Nazi occupation, followed by decades of Stalinism.

The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), traditionally the left wing of Polish capitalism, has found a way out of its stagnation by… running in the elections for the European Parliament as part of the PO’s “Coalition Europe”! Former Stalinists coming from the Polish United Workers’ Party, PZPR, that ruled the country until 1989, the Social Democrats from the SLD have a long history of betrayal and have renounced socialist traditions, even in the form of a “People’s Poland.” In 2015, the SLD ran in the presidential elections with the theologian Magda Ogórek, who did not raise any working class slogans and now works in the state television TVP, spreading government propaganda. During the elections, a liberal anti-clericalist who shared a Stalinist past with the SLD and was a spokesperson of the Polish People’s Republic government in the 1980s, Jerzy Urban, put it briefly: “She [Ogórek] is stupid and Miller has gone crazy.” This failure was the last nail in the SLD coffin. The coalition of post-Stalinist social democrats with bourgeois post-Solidarność neo-liberals only opened space for the right-wing populists of PiS and the forces to their right, who were able to present themselves as “alternatives” to the hated status quo. Twice the masses chose the SLD in the elections, longing for the economic and social security in the deformed workers state of the PRL, and twice they were disappointed.

Razem (Together), the Social Justice Movement of Piotr Ikonowicz and the Labor Union (former SLD coalition partner), put together a list in the European elections called Left-Together. It was a coalition of petty-bourgeois forces and Razem, which renounced the red banner in favor of a purple one, supports NATO and arming the country against Russia and China. All this excluded the possibility of Marxists voting for them. The informal leader of Together and number one candidate of the left in Warsaw, Adrian Zandberg, said that the goal of the coalition was “a modern and efficient welfare state” and “an Europe of prosperity, in which everyone can count on decent salaries and social security”. Given the specter of the next economic crisis and the rise of right-wing populism and even fascist forces in the Old Continent, these delusions serve only to numb the workers from the need of a tough class struggle.

Pracownicza Demokracja (Workers’ Democracy), an organization affiliated to the international tendency created by the late Tony Cliff, which claims to be a revolutionary socialist and Marxist force, after having supported Razem in the parliamentary elections of 2015, now loyally called workers to vote for Left-Razem.

Marxists, unlike Anarchists, do not boycott bourgeois elections as a rule. But to us, elections only matter as long as they can be used to propagate socialist consciousness in the proletariat. Did the campaign conducted by Razem or Left-Razem raise workers’ class consciousness? Neither this party nor its coalition members even claim a socialist perspective in their electoral program or pretend to fight for more than “capitalism with a human face”. They do not draw a class line against the capitalists.

The specter of fascism and the European Union

The other players on the Polish political scene which are dangerously growing in strength are “fascistic” or even openly fascist forces in opposition to the PiS, the PO and the left. The PiS has just appointed the nationalist Andruszkiewicz as a minister. In the elections for the mayor of Gdańsk, after the previous mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, was murdered in January, Grzegorz Braun got 15% of the votes. Braun is an anti-Semite who claims Poland is now a “Russian-German condominium under Jewish trust management” and a self-declared enemy of democracy and of all manifestations of “socialism”. He is also a supporter of absolute monarchy who would like Poland to possess a nuclear arsenal. In the 2015 presidential elections, he ran under the slogans “Faith, Ownership, Tradition” and “Church, School, Guns”.

Along with the notorious anti-abortion politician Kaya Godek, Braun joined the Confederation formed by Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s “Freedom and National Movement”. In response to “Kaczyński’s five” (5 electoral promises made by the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński), one of Confederation’s politicians, Sławomir Mentzen, presented the “Confederation’s five”: “We do not want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the European Union.” The Confederation may become a coalition partner of the PiS in the autumn elections.

Korwin-Mikke and Braun, as free-market extremists, will of course reject the label of fascism as “leftist”. However, it is worth noting that Mussolini carried out the first privatization campaign in history (after him, Hitler did one too). Leon Trotsky defined fascism primarily as the fighting organization of capital, a movement mobilizing the ruined petty bourgeoisie on the basis of an anti-socialist and anti-proletarian program, to destroy parliamentary democracy (considered a “weakness” of the bourgeois state) and all relatively independent workers organizations. As Korwin says: “Wszystkie związki na Powązki” (“All unions to Powązki”, which is a graveyard in Warsaw). Korwin and Braun are close to fascism – they openly reject democracy in favor of dictatorship or absolute monarchy; consider that “small owners” (the “salt of this land”) are oppressed by taxes and large corporations; and believe that big business, in collusion with the state, supports “socialism” and “statism”, ands destroy the “real free market”. What distinguishes them from fascists is that their main arena of activity is in the elections, not the streets. They have not tried to create street militias so far. But Korwin and Braun are known for their enthusiasm for universal access to weapons, and you cannot resist the impression that there is a desire that their “small owners” take matters into their own hands and begin to massacre leftists.

However, there is resistance to proto-fascism and fascism in the Polish society. When nationalists tried to organize a rally under the slogan “University Free of Marxism” at the main campus of the University of Warsaw, the leftist counter-demonstration – at which we were present – blocked their entrance, and the Rector issued a ban on the fascists. The fascists had to retreat to the square with their tail curled up under the cover of the police. Three flags hung on the University’s gate that day: black, red and rainbow.

Currently, the Confederation is taking part in the European elections on an openly anti-EU platform, and on May 1 this year, on the 15th anniversary of Poland’s entering the EU, they organized a mass demonstration in Warsaw, called the “March of Sovereignty”, under the slogans “No to the EU” and “Stop the dictates of Berlin and Brussels”.

The PiS government is currently also in conflict with the European Union, which initiated proceedings against it because of the violation of EU legal principles in Poland. The liberal circles’ “defenders of democracy” hope for an EU intervention, and the opposition accuses the PiS of pursuing “Polexit”. In fact, although the PiS is Euro-skeptic, it does not reject the EU as such, advocating a looser, decentralized Union, a “Europe of nations”. However, in 2017, Poland was one of the signatories of the agreement on “Permanent Structural Cooperation” (PESCO), which obliges member-states to cooperate in the development and purchase of weapons and the provision of troops and equipment for joint military interventions – which is considered by some as an important step towards an European army.

What is Marxists’ position on the EU? We regard it as an imperialist consortium aimed at increasing the chances of European capitalists in competition with their imperialist rivals from the United States or Japan, including mechanisms to make exploitation of the working class more efficient. This is the goal of many EU directives. It is particularly evident in the case of Greece, where the “Troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund imposed severe “austerity measures”, causing one third of the population to live below the poverty line. “Tightening the belt” on Greece, Ireland and Portugal had the objective of favoring German and French banks, since the EU also serves to economically subdue the weaker bourgeois European countries. The EU is conducting military interventions in Mali, Bosnia, the Central African Republic and Somalia, hoping to guarantee its share in the imperialist division of the world.

Instead of being the “heart of democracy”, the EU did not care much about deeply harming the Greek population. It also intensified the censorship of the internet and the imposition of undemocratic restrictions under the pretext of combating “fake news”, “disinformation” and “cyber-attacks”.

Some leftists in Poland have illusions about the possibility of the EU stopping the “fascistization of Poland”. In fact, Eurocrats were not bothered by the fascists in Ukraine after the Maidan “revolution”, and last year they congratulated the far-right Conte / Salvini government in Italy on their electoral victory, declaring their willingness to cooperate with it.

The EU is commonly associated with ‘open borders’. In fact, it unleashes police terror against immigrants and refugees, and closes its external borders for them, making thousands die on the bottom of the Mediterranean. Even within the EU, Roma from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia are constantly deported from France and other countries.

While not supporting the EU, we do not support the nationalist “alternative” that means regress to the limits of the nation-state, which is in conflict with the increasingly integrated global economy and hampering human development. It would, for instance, make the fight against climate change impossible. Inclusion or exclusion from the EU does not change the bourgeois character of the state, which continues to attack the working class and intensify its exploitation. In addition, the current leading capitalist opponents of the EU, such as Marine Le Pen and its Rassemblement national, in France, have an even more reactionary, anti-worker and anti-immigrant agenda than the EU itself.

We are for European unity that benefits the working people, but this is impossible on the basis of capitalism. The current “European unity” is simply the unity of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and the semi-colonial countries of the “global South.” Against the wobbly European Union and the nationalist project of “sovereign nations”, we put forward the slogan for the Socialist United States of Europe.

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This year marks 30th anniversary of “free elections” in Poland, which were supposed to represent the “victory of democracy” and the “fall of communism” after the Second World War. Both in Poland and in the world, this did not lead to the “end of history”, universal prosperity, peace and the flourishing of liberal democracy. Instead, there are huge levels of social inequality, economic stagnation, increased authoritarianism and the outbreak of armed conflicts that threaten to transform into an open imperialist war between nuclear-armed powers. The PiS government itself organized a conference about Iran for the United States in Warsaw this year, without the participation of Iran (!), in which the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that his goal was to prepare for “war with Iran”. In the meanwhile, President Duda wants membership in NATO’s “Great Alliance” to be included in the Polish Constitution.

Bourgeois governments all over the world, regardless of ideological differences, are pursuing increasingly similar policies. France’s Macron, who expressed concern over the state of democracy in Poland, abolished the state of emergency, de facto making it permanent; he pomulgated a decree establishing an anti-worker and anti-union law without passing it through parliament; not to mention that he brutally reppressed the protests of the “Yellow Vests”. As Trotsky wrote almost 90 years ago: “The excessively high tension of the international struggle and the class struggle results in the short circuit of the dictatorship, blowing out the fuses of democracy one after the other… What is called the crisis of parliamentarism is the political expression of the crisis in the entire system of bourgeois society.” (“The Austrian Crisis and Communism”, 13 November 1929).

The PiS government has shown its anti-worker face, but it still strikes a social chord with measures such as the “13th payment” for pensioners and the “500+ for each child”. In our opinion, however, no income redistribution, whether made in a left-wing or right-wing fashion, will resist the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist system of production. The next economic crisis may not save Poland this time, and the PiS government will have to change its course. The government already began to imply that from now on the budget will be focused on the Military rather than on social spending. It has also announced the privatization of municipal housing, despite their previous cynical use of a re-privatization scandal against the PO. (Actually, the PiS said nothing about it at the time, being more interested in finding people to blame for the Smolensk plane crash in which their previous leader died). The economic project put forward by the PiS is a utopian “national capitalism”, which only means increasing the competitiveness of Polish capital by increasing exploitation over the workforce.

Those who want to “defend democracy” in an alliance with PO and the EU, cling to a doomed perspective. In the upcoming clash of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat over democratic rights, there will be no stone unturned, leaving two possibilities – either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (including possibly in its fascist form) or the dictatorship of the proletariat, meaning real implementation of the progressive democracy for the working majority of society, followed by a classless and stateless communist society. As the teachers’ strike showed, independence is needed not only from the PiS, but from all bourgeois parties.

Differences between the PO and the PiS are minor: both are right-wing parties originating from the Solidarność counterrevolutionary camp and representing those who have been enriched by the plunder of state ownership, which put a lot of people in poverty. PiS has often criticized the other capitalist parties, labelled “post-communists”, for this disaster, but it is not innocent. The PO, with its elitist opposition to “income redistributions” has no chance of defeating the PiS. The pseudo-left party Razem, which is now in the political margins and has renounced socialist traditions, has vain expectations of benefiting from the post-Solidarność epoch of PO-PiS governments.

Only a workers’ party presenting a radical, revolutionary program of social change, which does not adapt to the system of commodity production and wage labor, will be able to tear off the social electorate of PiS, which is directing social discontent with previous governments and wishes for “systemic transformation” into reactionary channels of nationalism and clericalism.

The upcoming workers’ struggles should be linked to the struggles for democratic rights and civil liberties (but not for “free courts” and “in favor of the Constitution” as proposed by the “Committee for Defense of Democracy” or Citizens of Poland); workers must join the battles for the rights of the oppressed – women, sexual minorities, immigrants, Roma – and oppose the falsifications of history aimed at starting a war with Russia and supporting the current adventures of the U.S. and NATO in Syria and Yemen, or the planned ones in Iran and Venezuela. (In the latter, the bourgeois opposition agrees with the government). Besides participating in these struggles, there is also a burning need for discussion between subjective revolutionaries – without sectarianism and without political diplomacy – to regroup on a solid, principled basis, building a propaganda group in Poland for the creation of a revolutionary communist party, a section of a rebuilt Fourth International.