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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » February 27, 2015
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Winter of Discontent
February 27, 2015   
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Strikes by miners and protests by farmers have stepped up the pressure on Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz’s center-right government in the run-up to this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

The government has also been disquieted by rumblings that postal and rail workers may stage protests ahead of presidential elections in May, which will be followed by a parliamentary election in the fall.

The government’s problems started Jan. 28 with a strike at state-controlled Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa (JSW), the European Union’s biggest coking coal producer, which has almost 30,000 employees. The strike ended Feb. 13, but not before a street battle with the police broke out when angry miners tried to storm the JSW headquarters in southern Poland. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets and a dozen protesters were injured. The company’s management board eventually reached an agreement with JSW trade unions, but the unionists threatened to resume their strike unless CEO Janusz Zagórowski resigned. Zagórowski said he would quit provided the miners returned to work and agreed to the company introducing a six-day working week. The first two conditions were met, but there was no agreement on the issue of a six-day week. An extended working week would affect wages at JSW, where miners earn higher pay for overtime.

A JSW spokeswoman said Feb. 16 that Zagórowski had resigned due to a “tidal wave of unprecedented hate and aggression,” incited by the union leaders. The company’s supervisory board accepted Zagórowski’s resignation on the following day.

The forced resignation was widely criticized by Poland’s governing coalition and some opposition groups. Stefan Niesiołowski, of the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party, described the situation as a “dangerous precedent.”

“Union leeches are deciding who’s to sit on the management boards of Treasury-owned companies,” said Niesiołowski, adding it would be a “huge mistake” for company managers to give in to “boorishness and blackmail.”

Former finance minister Jacek Rostowski, now a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, said he was saddened to see Zagórowski go, but described the negotiations as a success for the JSW management board as well as the miners, who accepted changes that have “never been introduced before in the mining sector.” Miners agreed to have one of their bonuses cut by half and salary increases frozen. They also agreed to make up for the costs of the strike to the company. Rostowski said the government would save around zl.50 million on the perks and privileges the miners have agreed to give up.

Meanwhile, adding to the government’s troubles, farmers descended on Warsaw Feb. 11 to stage a protest in front of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. They demanded compensation for damage caused by wild boars, for low market prices, and for a two-year ban imposed in Poland on the ritual slaughter of animals for religious purposes. “We have nothing to pay back our loans with, we have no money left to buy animal feed,” said protest leader Sławomir Izdebski, head of the OPZZ national alliance of farmers’ trade unions. Apart from demonstrating in the city center, some farmers protested by driving their tractors into Warsaw. There were speeches, flags, horns and sirens, but the demonstration in front of the ministry was a peaceful one on the whole. Izdebski met with Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki, but the talks soon failed. Izdebski told the protesters, “We will get in touch with miners who are already preparing an invasion. This government of traitors has to go.”

Sawicki wants to accelerate the transfer of funds for agriculture from existing support programs, including direct payments for 2014. He also wants the European Parliament to speed up work on this year’s direct payments.

But that has not appeased farmers, who warned they would stage a major demonstration in Warsaw, with tractors blocking the city streets. A total of 30,000 people would take part, according to the organizers. The date has not been announced yet, but traffic in the city is likely to come to a halt, unless police persuade the farmers to park their tractors near exit roads from the city, as they did in February. This could be hard to negotiate, as the organizers are saying they are determined and will try to get to downtown Warsaw this time to block the Agriculture Ministry.
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