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Trade Unions

Trade union density is relatively low at around 12% of employees and membership is divided between a large number of organisations. There are two large confederations, NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ, and one somewhat smaller one, FZZ. However, a significant number of union members are in small local unions not affiliated to any of the main confederations.

The main union organisations do not publish regular membership figures and there is no official estimate. However, a survey by the polling company CBOS in April 2012 estimated union membership among employees at 12%.1 The ICTWSS database of union membership calculated union density to be 14.1% in 2010.2

Union membership is divided between a large number of organisations in Poland but three nation-wide union umbrella bodies are considered to be representative and have specific rights. These are NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ, both with more than 500,000 members, and FZZ, which is smaller. (It states it has more than 400,000 members.) There are also a number of other smaller confederations, plus national unions not affiliated to any confederation, as well as many local workplace union organisations, which operate in a single workplace and are not affiliated to any other union structure. However, three quarters of workplace trade union bodies are affiliated to NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ or FZZ.3

NSZZ Solidarność grew initially from the strikes in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980 at the time of the communist government and it was registered as an independent self-governing trade union in September of the same year. After a period of illegality following the imposition of martial law in December 1981 it re-emerged as a legal organisation in 1989.4 Solidarność’s leaders were a key component in Poland’s first non-communist government in the same year and played a direct political role in the years that followed through Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność (Solidarity Election Action), which formed part of Poland’s government from 1997 to 2000. It is now once again primarily a trade union rather a political movement but still has ties to politics (see below). In 2008 it was estimated to have 680,000 members, athough the website of the ministry of labour and social policy, lists its membership at 900,000.5 The 2012 CBOS survey estimated that 5% of Polish employees were members of NSZZ Solidarność.

OPZZ was founded in 1984 after a period of martial law when all trade unions were banned and has remained in being throughout the political and economic transformation of Poland. It was estimated to have 535,000 members in 2009. The CBOS survey in August 2012 found that 3% of Polish employees stated that they were in unions which belong to OPZZ. However, as, unlike NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ member unions are not immediately identified as such, this may be an underestimate.

FZZ is smaller than the other two confederations and is largely made up of unions which had earlier split from OPZZ. A key reason for its formation in 2002 was that the rules for a new tripartite commission bringing government, employers and unions together to discuss future legislation (see section on collective bargaining) only admitted union confederations with at least 300,000 members. A series of independent union groupings, with at that time a membership total of more than this threshold, grouped together to form FZZ and secure a place in the commission. FZZ states on its website that it has more than 400,000 members;6 it is also said to have “around” 400,000 members on the website of the ministry of labour and social policy.7 Figures from the 2012 CBOS survey indicated that 2% of Polish employees were in FZZ unions.

However, the same CBOS survey also showed that 2% of employees were in unions that are not affiliated to the main union confederations. Some are members of the smaller confederations, such as Sierpień 80, and some may belong to local union organisations affiliated to the main confederations but not be aware of it. However, it is likely that very many are in unaffiliated local unions. A union can be legally founded by ten employees and the ministry of labour and social policy website states that there are around 7,000 unions operating at local level at individual workplaces, without any link to larger union organisations.8

There are differences between the structures of NSZZ Solidarność and Poland’s two other main union confederations. NSZZ Solidarność is a unitary organisation with 14 industrial sections plus a retired members section, as well as a regional structure. The website of the ministry of labour and social policy states that NSZZ Solidarność has almost 12,000 local workplace committees.

OPZZ and FZZ, on the other hand, are both largely made up of individual workplace unions which come together in bigger union organisations, which then form the confederations.

OPZZ is made up of 79 national union organisations – both single unions and union federations, which are then brought together in nine industry groupings, as well as several hundred local and workplace organisations grouped in regions.9 By far the largest grouping affiliated to OPZZ is the teachers’ union ZNP.

FZZ has 42 national union organisations that belong to it – it started with 17 in 2002 – as well as a large number of local organisations that belong to its regional structures.10

A study published in 2006 showed how, at that time, this difference in structure was reflected in the numbers employed in the confederations’ head offices. While there were around 150 employed in the head office of NSZZ Solidarność in 2006, the figure for OPZZ was 19 and for FZZ just eight.11

Politically NSZZ Solidarność has been close to the conservative PiS party of Jarosław Kaczyński . However, Piotr Duda, its new president has said that it should keep its distance from specific political organisations.12 The OPZZ, on the other hand, has supported the left-wing party (SLD), most recently in the 2011 elections. FZZ is less politically linked.

These differing political positions mean that relationships between the main union confederations are sometimes tense, although this may be more obvious at national than at local or workplace level.

Union membership has declined sharply since the early 1990s as a result of industrial restructuring and privatisation and a growth in employment in smaller companies in private services. Based on surveys conducted by CBOS, the proportion of employees in unions has fallen from 28% in 1991, to 20% in 2000, 15% in 2010 and 12% in 2012.13

The 2012 CBOS figures show that union membership is highest in mining and industry (20%) followed by education, science and health (19%), and public administration (17%). It is lowest in commerce and services (2%). Large workplaces are much more likely to be unionised than small ones (26% where there are 250 or more employees compared with 7% where there are fewer than 50). Overall, employees of state-owned companies and state institutions are three times more likely to be union members than those working in the private sector. There is, however, no difference between the unionisation rates of men and women.

Unions are making efforts to increase membership, providing guidance on how to set up a local union, or join an existing one. At NSZZ Solidarność’s 2008 congress, its then president Janusz Śniadek reported that in the previous year membership in the union had grown for the first time since 1989.

L. Fulton (2013) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.