Labour Protest in Poland

Trade Unions and Employee Interest Articulation After Socialism

by Michał Wenzel (Author)
©2016 Monographs 205 Pages


This book is an account of protests organized by trade unions from the late socialism to the 21st century. It uses protest event analysis and mass surveys to examine the impact of trade unions on institutions before and after systemic change. Social protest in the post-war Poland was primarily a working-class phenomenon. Unionized employees were able to influence transformation processes in many ways: directly in enterprises, politically via their representatives in parties, and indirectly by creating a public opinion sympathetic with their goals. Individual chapters contain theoretical assumptions, an overview of employee protest under state socialism, the dynamics of trade union membership, and a detailed description of trade union protest activities after systemic change. A comparison between protest dynamics in Poland and in Hungary serves as illustration of legacies of negotiated transition on social mobilization.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Unions as Actors in Civil Society, Institutions and Social Partners
  • 2. Labour Protest in Poland Before 1989
  • 3. Unions During Transition
  • 4. Overview of Labour Protest in 1989–2011
  • 5. Legacies of State Socialism: Protest in Public and Private Enterprises
  • 6. Trade Unions and Politics: Strength and Weakness
  • 7. The Effect of Protest: Union Influence on State Reform
  • 8. Poland and Hungary: Negotiated Transition as Significant Legacy
  • Annex. Data and Methodology
  • Bibliography
  • List of Tables and Figures

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Why study labour protest in Poland? Because it was the driving force of political change throughout the post-war period. This was quite clearly true in the communist time (1944–89). The frequency and magnitude of spontaneous social mobilisation was the defining characteristic of Poland as compared with the other eastern bloc states. During that period, all major changes in political elites followed and were a consequence of massive unrests. There was no exception to this rule: the governing party elites changed in the years 1956, 1970, 1980 and 1981, which also happened to be the years in which mass workers’ protests occurred. Transformation, which started in 1989, followed a wave of strikes in 1988.

The picture is less obvious, but also true, in the beginning of the transformation period. The reforms introduced in 1990 were accompanied by a large-scale protests encompassing many sectors of the economy and involving different social groups. The 1990s were marked by a particularly high mobilisation which culminated in 1998, during the period of a second wave of systemic reform. Protests calmed down in early 2000s, but returned at the end of the first decade of the XXI century. Through such activities the society was an active participant of the reforms.

Social protest in the post-war Poland was primarily a working-class phenomenon. Again, this is quite obvious in case of the communist period, but also true under the conditions of the new system. The unrest that led to political change in the communist years was located primarily in large industrial plants: in 1956 in Cegielski enterprise in Poznań, in 1970 in the shipyards in the coastal cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Szczecin. The protests that started the Solidarity movement in 1980 were dispersed throughout the country, but by far the greatest impact was from the strikes in major industrial centres: shipyards and coal mines, where agreements between protesters and the authorities were signed. Likewise, the strike wave that led to systemic transformation was located in major industrial plants.

After transformation, under conditions of freedom to protest, mobilisation is more dispersed. Nevertheless, trade unions are consistently the most common organizers of protest activities, and industrial workers are the most common group of participants. They frequently use symbolic elements inherited from the former regime. Trade unions that organise these protests were often formed before transformation, and their leaders learned the protest know-how under the former system. ← 7 | 8 →

The central thesis of this study is about the significance of labour protest for determining the power structure and policy both under communism and in the new system. Unlike in other Soviet-dominated states, the society in Poland were able to exert some effective influence on the communist regime, which resulted in a set of internal policies designed to accommodate workers’ demands or dissipate their discontent. The patterns of mobilization inherited from that period proved to be instrumental in shaping the transformation path in the early years of the new system, when the key institutions and policies were created. This concerns, inter alia, economic changes introduced during transformation. Employees organized in unions were able to influence transformation processes in many ways: directly in enterprises, politically via their representatives in parties and indirectly, by creating a public opinion climate sympathetic with their goals.

Labour and Transition

Workers in large industrial plants in heavy industry were, in the official discourse of state socialism, the leading class. This symbolic appreciation was coupled with the reality of restricted professional mobility, hard and dangerous work, authoritarian management style and political control over the enterprise. On the one hand, workers were told by authorities, on everyday basis, that they constituted the backbone of the country. On the other hand, they had to endure excruciating and unrewarding labour whose fruits were often seen to be expropriated by the rulers. This led to a combustible state of collective consciousness: a sense of self-importance coupled with frustration. Being a leading class in name only created conditions for unrest.

The roots of labour unrest in state socialism can also be traced to generational changes. During the post-World War II years, mass migration from villages to cities occurred. By the 1960s most Poles lived in urban areas. Many of the new urban dwellers saw this change as upward social mobility. However, in time the system stabilized. The post-war generation occupied positions of influence and blocked mobility channels for new generations of workers. The tensions were exacerbated by the rising educational standards of workers. Young, ambitious, fairly well educated men in industry found themselves without career prospects, in deteriorating material living conditions. This generation gave rise to the Solidarity trade union (NSZZ “Solidarność”) in 1980.

Activity in the Solidarity movement was a life-defining experience for a generation of people. This concerns leaders, activists and sympathizers. They emerged as a distinct group with its own identity, mythology and shared interests. It became an institution in the sociological sense. Due to the fact that, as institution, ← 8 | 9 → it contained both cultural and economic component, it proved to be durable beyond circumstances that led to its origin. Solidarity formation was a learning experience for activists. They acquired a set of skills related to protest organization and interest articulation and successfully used them under former system. After transformation, a lot of this know-how was preserved. They repeated the same methods of actions and rhetoric even long after state socialism was gone.

The significance of union mobilization during transition was reinforced by the emergence of the increasingly independent left-wing union, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ). This confederation was initially under full political control of the Communist Party. However, during transition, in the late 1980s, it increasingly gained independence and started to act as a force separate from the authorities. Around the time of the systemic change, it frequently overtook Solidarity in radicalism. Strikes and protest actions served it as a source of legitimation, signalling that it emerged as a true voice of the working class. Competition between these the two large union umbrella organizations was a significant factor both in industrial relations and in politics during and after transition.

On the level of enterprise, unions were able to capitalize on the weakening of political control. During transition, many directors were nominated or approved by Solidarity. The winning strategy of unions when they articulated demands was addressing the grievances as high up as possible. Enterprise-level issues were frequently directed at the national or regional government. Such a strategy was the legacy of the formation period of Solidarity. In 1980–1981 protests were typically resolved by political authorities. Continuing such a strategy under free market economy, while apparently dysfunctional, proved nevertheless effective on numerous occasions. The bargaining power of unions was reinforced by connections of both Solidarity and OPZZ with political parties. This tactic was effective in public sector. With time, jobs were increasingly moved into the private sector due to privatization of some enterprises, collapse of others and the emergence of greenfield enterprises. In private sector the strategy of involving high-level authorities was much less effective and was used to a much smaller extent. Trade unions had the skills and experience to achieve their goals in residuals of the former system, but were not able to adapt to the private economy and, as the public sector shrank, so did the unions.

Complementary to the enterprise-level influence, unions were able to shape state policy on various levels. This was possible due to their influence in parliament in the early years of transition. Solidarity was particularly strong. In the 1990s it entered parliament by itself, as well supporting numerous political groupings. It appointed the Prime Minister in the 1997–2001 parliamentary ← 9 | 10 → term. At that time, the path to political career frequently involved union leadership positions. To a lesser extent, this was also true about the OPZZ. It also had parliamentary representation in the post-communist left-wing party, the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD). It was a strong actor in the socio-political milieu composed of groups with origins in state socialism. The mutual balance of power between the two unions and political parties tied to them changed over time. While in the 1990s unions were relatively strong and managed to dictate the conditions under which common causes were advanced, in 2000s the pendulum swung. Unions weakened, while the party system consolidated. Leaders of Solidarity were no longer kingmakers, and leaders of OPZZ ceased being key players in left-wing politics.

Thirdly, unions had significant “soft power” during transition. The myth of Solidarity and the numeric strength of the OPZZ reinforced it. Public opinion was, in general, highly sympathetic to union goals. Union influence on the state was generally viewed as insufficient. Strikes and other union protest actions were usually received with understanding and empathy, even if they caused disturbances to everyday life of citizens. Being in government undermined the position of unions: when Solidarity was in power it became wildly unpopular. It lost trust because it failed to perform its role as a union. In general, employees wanted protection, but failed to see it delivered.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
industrial relations institutions post-communist transformation social movements
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 205 pp., 32 tables, 33 graphs

Biographical notes

Michał Wenzel (Author)

Michał Wenzel is a lecturer at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. Previously he was a researcher at CBOS Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw and worked at the University of Oxford. He was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne and at the University of Michigan.


Title: Labour Protest in Poland
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208 pages