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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » February 6, 2008
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Industrial Unrest Puts Government to Test
February 6, 2008   
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The first 100 days for Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his government have been anything but a honeymoon. Doctors, nurses, miners, customs officers and teachers have all been either protesting or taking industrial action for higher wages. The government has managed to pacify some of the protests but they are in for a torrid time over the next few months.

For the first time in more than a week, a complete night shift of customers officers reported for duty on Poland's eastern border Feb. 1. The lines of trucks awaiting clearance began to move. The wait at one border checkpoint shortened dramatically to just 24 hours.

"We've managed to solve the problem of crossing the border. The pace of customs clearance is picking up," said Tusk. The prime minister believes that confidence was decisive in resolving the dispute. Trade unions representing customs officers approved provisional pay increases of zl.500 per month and better legal protection. The government has promised legislative amendments to better their lot. The situation along Poland's eastern border has headlined domestic and some foreign media over the past week or so. Politicians in Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states had expressed concern that the dispute was hampering the free movement of goods to Western Europe. TIR (large transport) drivers stuck on the border had repeatedly threatened to block the roads leading into Warsaw and other large Polish cities. While this scenario did not pan out, the scenes of drivers waiting in 30-kilometer queues without access to food or toilet facilities were hardly edifying.

The crisis began when protesting customs officers broke off talks with the government on Jan. 30. They had been demanding a rise of zl.1,500 over two years and better legal protection. In particular, they had demanded the repeal of a law requiring the dismissal of customs officers suspected of corruption without anything having been proven by a competent court. "We've heard the government is planning to resolve the problem by force and wants to unlawfully transfer the powers of customs officers to border guards," said Iwona Fołta of the Białystok Alliance which covers most of the officers working along Poland's and, by implication, the EU's eastern border.

Some comments from government representatives clearly did have a menacing undertone. The prime minister's chief adviser, Michał Boni, who took part in the negotiations, said the government was entitled to use "every legal option" to get traffic moving at the border. Rafał Grupiński, secretary of state at the Prime Minister's Office, appealed to customs officers not to give in to the "blackmail of radical trade union activists," who, as he put it, "are fighting for their own best interests rather than those of the customs officers." Tusk eventually met the protesters personally and persuaded them to return to work. The drivers had earlier called off city blockades as a gesture of goodwill to the government and customs officers.

Coal miners at the Budryk mine in Ornontowice ended their 46-day strike, one of the longest in Polish mining history, on Jan. 31 (see photo below). The strike committee signed an agreement with Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa coal company that had acquired the Budryk mine on Jan. 1. Both parties deemed the compromise a success and the miners prepared to return to work. The agreement provides for a six-person working committee to draft guidelines for leveling out the wages paid in the company's collieries. Completion has been brought forward to the end of 2010 rather 2011 as had initially been planned.

Miners working underground should get around zl.2,200 gross (zl.1,500 net) compensation beginning early February and a wage rise of around 10 percent in 2008 under the agreement. The agreement also states that no action will be taken against the organizers unless a court rules the strike illegal.

The Budryk mine was beset with a sit-in in the boardroom in Ornontowice, an underground strike and a hunger strike. The strikers spent Christmas and New Year's Eve in the colliery.

Poles have retained their optimism through all this agitation. A Eurobarometer survey found that 76 percent of Polish respondents are optimistic about their situation. Health care was thought to be the country's greatest challenge by 49 percent, supplanting unemployment, which now polls 32 percent.
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