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Trade Unions

Trade union density is low at around 12% of employees and there are a large number of trade union organisations. But the vast majority (around 85%) of union members are in organisations linked to the three main union bodies, NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ and the somewhat smaller, FZZ.

Annual official figures on union membership are not published, but the national statistics agency GUS published the results of a survey looking at unions and employers’ organisation in 2019.[1] Although the focus was on organisational structure and activities, the results included some information on union membership. The survey found that there were around 1.5 million trade union members in September 2018. Only 100,000 union members were retired and just 15,000 were not employees but working under a so-called “civil contract”, a relatively common form of work in Poland. This suggests that there were around 1.4 million employees who were union members at this date, and with the total number of employees estimated at 13.2 million in the third quarter of 2018,[2] this produces a union density figure of 10.6%.  This is slightly lower than the figure produced by the polling company CBOS based on a survey of 936 people in September 2019. This estimated union membership among employees at 13.9%.[3]  The independent ICTWSS database of industrial relations statistics calculated union density to be 12.7% in 2016.[4]


The GUS survey indicates that most union members, 1.3 million out of 1.5 million or 87%, are in three national union umbrella bodies, which are considered to be nationally representative and have specific rights. These are NSZZ Solidarność, OPZZ and FZZ. Their dominance in terms of union membership is also indicated by the CBOS survey, which estimates that 92% of union members belong to these three bodies.[5]


The development of each of the three organisations has been different.[6]


NSZZ Solidarność grew initially from the strikes in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980 at the time of the communist government. After a period of illegality following the imposition of martial law in December 1981 it re-emerged as a legal organisation in 1989. It 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 a trade union rather a political movement but still has ties to politics (see below). Figures provided to the European Trade Union Confederation show that  NSZZ Solidarność had 543,587 members in 2019.[7] And the 2019 CBOS survey indicated that it was the largest trade union body in Poland, with 6.3% of Polish employees in membership, although the relatively small sample size and the fact that just two years earlier a comparable survey estimated it accounted for only 3.0% of employees makes this figure open to some doubt.


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. A 2020 Eurofound study reports that it 792,503 members in 2012, but the current figure is likely to be lower.[8] Some estimates put it at around 500,000. The CBOS survey in 2019 found that 3.4% of Polish employees stated that they were in unions which belong to OPZZ, although, as with NSZZ Solidarność, this figure should be treated with caution, as a comparable survey in 2017 put the share of OPZZ at 4.6%.


FZZ is smaller than the other two confederations and is largely made up of unions which had earlier left OPZZ. It was formed in 2002, when the rules for a new tripartite commission bringing government, employers and unions together to discuss future legislation (see section on collective bargaining) provided that only union confederations with at least 300,000 members would be included. A series of independent union groupings, with a membership total of more than this threshold, grouped together to form FZZ and secure a place in the commission. The Eurofound study indicates it had 408,905 members in 2012.[9] Again the current figure is likely to be lower. The 2019 CBOS survey indicated that 2.2% of Polish employees were in FZZ unions.


The 2019 CBOS survey also showed that 1.0% of employees were in unions not affiliated to the main union confederations. And the GUS survey of trade union membership estimated that there were 200,000 union members outside the three main bodies. Some are members of the smaller confederations, such as Sierpień 80 or Związkowa Alternatywa. However, very many are in local unions, which are not affiliated to national confederations. A union can be legally founded by ten employees and the 2019 GUS survey found that there were around 2,300 union organisations not affiliated to the three main union bodies – most (1,900) operating at the level of a single company or workplace.


The OPZZ and FZZ confederations are also largely built around individual company or workplace unions, plus organisations operating across several companies. These company and multi-company union organisations come together in federations, which then form the confederations, although in some cases multi-company union bodies affiliate directly to the confederations. The 2019 GUS survey indicates that, although these bodies are numerous – 7,900 company and workplace unions and 2,100 multi-company unions, they are small. The average membership of a company or workplace union is just 86 members, and the median size is even smaller at 35. For multi-company unions, the average size is 195 members and the median size is 80. (These figures relate to union bodies affiliated to the three main union bodies. Non-affiliated local unions are smaller, with an average of 60 members and a median membership of 26 in company and workplace unions.)


As a result the OPZZ website lists 82 national-level membership organisations – both single unions and union federations, which are then brought together in seven industry groupings.[10]  By far the largest national organisation affiliated to OPZZ is the teachers’ union ZNP, which is estimated to have around 200,000 members.


FZZ has 53 national-level union organisations that belong to it – it started with 17 in 2002 – as well as a 69 local organisations that belong to its regional structures.[11] Its largest affiliate is the nurses’ and midwives’ union OZZPIP, which states it has around 80,000 members.[12]


NSZZ Solidarność is structured differently. It is a unitary organisation with both a regional and industrial structure. There are 14 industrial sections plus a retired members section.[13] The basic organisational building block at local level is the single employer organisation (organizacja zakładowa) or the multi-employer organisation (organizacja międzyzakładowa), where the group covers more than one employer.


Politically NSZZ Solidarność is close to the conservative PiS party of Jarosław Kaczyński It backed Andrzej Duda, the PiS candidate in the presidential elections in 2020, with the union newspaper awarding Duda “man of the year” shortly before the first round in June. NSZZ Solidarność argues that the PiS government has delivered on key promises it made to the unions, notably lowering the retirement age. [14]


The OPZZ, on the other hand, which supported the left-wing SLD party in the past, has been much less willing to support the PiS government, clashing sharply with them during a major teachers’ strike in 2019. FZZ emphasises its political independence.


These differing political positions mean that relationships between the main union confederations are sometimes tense, particularly between NSZZ Solidarność abd OPZZ.  However, this may be more obvious at national than at local or workplace level.[15]


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 12.9% in 2019.[16]


The 2019 CBOS figures show that union membership is much higher in public institutions and state-owned companies, where 29% of employees are union members, than in the private sector or mixed public-private companies, where the figure is 4% in both cases. The 2017 CBOS survey showed that union membership was highest in education, science and health (26%) followed by public administration (20%) and transport and communication (20%). It was lowest in construction (0%). However, these are relatively small samples, so although the broad picture is correct the precise numbers probably are not. Large workplaces are much more likely to be unionised than small ones (19% where there are 250 or more employees compared with 5% where there are fewer than 50).[17]


Unions are making efforts to increase membership. NSZZ Solidarność, for example has a section of news on its website, called “union development” where it reports on local successes in increasing membership and organisation, and a national official responsible for union growth.[18]


Both NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ also pushed hard to gain the right to organise workers employed under so-called “civil law contracts” rather than employment contracts. Before the unions’ ultimately successful action, Polish legislation prevented these workers from joining unions. This changed in January 2019 and unions can now recruit these workers, although it unclear how far they have been able to do so.


The GUS survey shows that just under half (47.7%) of union members are women. NSZZ Solidarność regularly responds to the ETUC’s annual gender audit and the 2019 report indicates that 40.0% of its membership is female. The most recent comparable figure for OPZZ is from 2010, when women made up 48.0% of its membership. There are no figures on FZZ’s female membership. [19]

[1] Partnerzy dialogu społecznego - związki zawodowe i organizacje pracodawców, GUS, 27.08.19 https://stat.gov.pl/obszary-tematyczne/gospodarka-spoleczna-wolontariat/gospodarka-spoleczna-trzeci-sektor/partnerzy-dialogu-spolecznego-zwiazki-zawodowe-i-organizacje-pracodawcow-wyniki-wstepne,16,1.html (Accessed 08.06.2020)

[2] Table 2.1 Aktywność ekonomiczna ludności Polski III kwartał 2018 roku, GUS 31.01.19

[3] Związki zawodowe w Polsce, Nr 138/2019, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), November 2019  https://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2019/K_138_19.PDF (Accessed 07.05.2020)

[4] Jelle Visser, ICTWSS Data base. Version 6.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies AIAS. October 2019

[5] The 2019 figures show that 12.9% of employees are union members but only 1.0% are in union outsde the three main groupings.

[6] On the history of Polish trade unions, see Trade unions in Poland, by J. Gardawski, A. Mrozowicki, J. Czarzasty, Report 123 ETUI, Brussels 2012, p. 31-33.

[7] ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2019 – 12th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, April 2019  https://www.etuc.org/sites/default/files/circular/file/2019-05/ETUC_Annual_Equality_Survey%202019_FINAL_EN.pdf (Accessed 03.04.2020)  

[8] Living and working in Poland, by Jan Czarzasty and Adam Mrozowicki, Eurofound, May 2020 https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/country/poland#actors-and-institutions (Accessed 24.06.20)

[9] ibid

[10] See OPZZ website https://www.opzz.org.pl/o-nas/ogolnokrajowe-organizacje-czlonkowskie  (Accessed 24.06.2020)

[11] See FZZ website http://fzz.org.pl/o-nas/ (Accessed 09.06.2020)

[12] OZZPIP website http://ozzpip.pl/o-nas/ (Accessed 24.06.2020)

[13] See NSZZ Solidarność website http://www.solidarnosc.org.pl/sekretariaty-branzowe (Accessed 24.06.2020)

[14] On the past political links of Solidarność see Trade unions in Poland by J. Gardawski, A. Mrozowicki, J. Czarzasty, Report 123, ETUI, Brussels 2012, p. 35.

[15] For a detailed examination of the role of unions in Poland, see Coming full circle? Contestation, social dialogue and trade union politics in Poland by Magdalena Bernaciak, in Rough waters: European trade unions in a time of crises, edited by Steffen Lehndorff, Heiner Dribbusch and Thorsten Schulten, ETUI, 2018

[16] Członkostwo w związkach zawodowych. Naruszenia praw pracowniczych i „szara strefa” w zatrudnieniu, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, 2009; Związki zawodowe i naruszenia praw pracowniczych, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), 2010; and Związki zawodowe w Polsce, Nr 138/2019, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), November 2019 

[17] Działalność związków zawodowych w Polsce Nr 87/2017, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), July, 2017

[18] See http://www.solidarnosc.org.pl/aktualnosci/wiadomosci/rozwoj (Accessed 24.06.2020)

[19] ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2019 – 12th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, April 2019  https://www.etuc.org/sites/default/files/circular/file/2019-05/ETUC_Annual_Equality_Survey%202019_FINAL_EN.pdf (Accessed 03.04.2020)

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.