Solidarność: ‘People have no idea of the anger at the bottom of society’

In Poland, an increasing part of the Christian labour movement supports the illiberal nationalists, not the Christian Democrats. Yesterday, Solidarność made communism fall. Today, it helps nationalism rise up. MO* spoke with Solidarność-veteran Marian Król.

© Pieter Stockmans

Marian Król

Poland is the country where the famous labor union Solidarność brought the Soviet Union to its knees, inspired by the Catholic social doctrine. Poland is the country where Solidarność helped the Catholic nationalist PiS (“Law and Justice”) gain power. Poland is the country with 38 million inhabitants and Central Europe’s largest economy. 

And it is Poland that will be president of the Visegrádgroup in July 2016. Visegrád is a coalition between Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a powerful populist opposition group against France and Germany’s Europe. This has already had its impact on the European refugee policy. What is behind the shift to the right in one of Europe’s most important countries, a country that will determine Europe’s direction in the coming years?

125 years ago, Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum. This encyclical about the connection between capital and labor gave rise to a Christian labour movement that exists up to the present day. In Poland, it is Solidarność leading this movement. Solidarność has a special connection to the Catholic church’s social doctrine: the Polish Pope John Paul II added two encyclicals to Rerum Novarum. They gave the Solidarność-militants in the 80s courage, faith and an ideological foundation.

Marian Król was one of those militants. From 1976 onwards, he was as a worker in a communist state enterprise in the industrial city Świdnik, close to Lublin, the largest city in Eastern Poland. In July 1980, he was in command of Lublin July, the first large-scale strikes for labor rights in communist Poland. The strike wave in Lublin gave rise to the foundation of the independent labour movement Solidarność, led by dock worker Lech Wałęsa in Gdánsk.

© Pieter Stockmans

Marian Król shows the monument for Lublin July 1980. Król was union leader during the first large-scale strikes for more labor rights in communist Poland. This strike wave gave rise to the foundation of Solidarność.

Until today, socialists and Christian Democrats competed for the soul of the workers. However, the voice of the so-called “precariat”, the relatively large group of Europeans who live in precarious conditions, is increasingly represented by Eurosceptic nationalists. This is nowhere more apparent than in Poland.

A large part of the Solidarność ranks doesn’t support the Christian Democrats any longer, but instead supports the illiberal Catholic nationalists of PiS, who are known in Belgium for their attack on the rule of law and their conservative, right-wing views on abortion.

In the European Parliament, they belong not to the Christian Democrat European People’s Party, but to the nationalist fraction of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, to which also N-VA (the “Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie”, New-Flemish Alliance) belongs. 

In Poland, PiS is writing a new chapter “about the revolution”, de rerum novarum. And the party seems unstoppable. It’s no longer looking for a constructive symbiosis between labor and capital, as Pope Leo XIII himself wanted, but it is rebelling against large companies that are, according to the party, a part of a liberal conspiracy to suppress Polish workers.

‘It’s no wonder that Western Europe is against PiS. The Western capital exploits the Polish worker and PiS is going to change that.’

Marian Król doesn’t want to go this far. The man speaks calmly and remains rational at all times. He neutralizes the view that many Poles today have on Solidarność: mischief-makers who –as PiS - believe in conspiracy theories. 

‘There’s no conspiracy of the elite towards the ordinary Poles, but there are indeed choices that were made in the last 25 years. Therefore, it is time for change. In the presidential elections, we had an arrangement with president Duda (PiS): he would incorporate our policy proposals and our members would vote for him.’

A preliminary agreement?

Król: We always advise our members to vote for a party that defends workers. Today, that is PiS. Most of our members vote for right-wing parties anyway. Only a tiny minority votes for left-wing parties. But both right-wing and left-wing can cooperate to develop our policy proposals. God has created every human being differently, so it is normal that we can work together with all our differences.

Donald Tusk’s liberal-Christian Democratic Civic Platform and the Catholic-nationalist PiS of the Kaczyński brothers refuse any cooperation.

Król: They can’t stand each other. Sad but true. They originated from two different wings within Solidarność during the transition. After the fall of communism, the Christian labour movement in Poland became divided between the liberal Christian Democrats and the illiberal Catholic nationalists.

In 1990, that difference wasn’t so clear yet. I myself was a campaign manager for presidential candidate Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarność leader who became president. In 1995, I founded the Solidarność division of Lublin and distanced myself from Wałęsa. He made many mistakes as president. We don’t participate any longer in this political battle. We don’t formally collaborate with one of both parties.   

Solidarność overthrew the Polish communist government through massive strikes and peaceful resistance. You are world famous because of this. Today, Solidarność leans toward the right-wing government of PiS. Is Solidarność still a political resistance movement?

Król: So far, PiS does what they promised. Why should we strike then? Solidarność was neither left-wing nor right-wing. It was an independent labor union that fought for human rights and labor rights, which, in the 80s, naturally positioned us against the communist government. Today, we are facing the liberal ideology of parties and governments that surrender to big business, against the interests of workers. The environment has changed, but we remain the same independent labor union.

 

Prime Minister Szydło (PiS) condemned the liberal system in her inauguration speech and defended the hardworking Pole.

Król: Not a moment too soon. State enterprises were being privatized through foreign investments. The economy shifted to a services-based economy. Factories were being closed down. In some regions, the population was, however, dependent on agriculture and industry. The resulting soaring unemployment rate in those regions reduced the local purchasing power and it was a death blow for the independent economic activity in local communities. 

In the remaining factories, the wages remained low and employees were being employed with temporary and precarious contracts. This is the reason why the Polish economy grew so fast: flexibility for the often foreign companies, insecurity for the Poles. But there comes a point when we say no to growth that uses the Polish workers as instruments. That’s why Beata Szydło underscored the importance of the economy that much. We put much faith in the government.

Of all European member states, Poland has the highest number of employees with temporary contracts that offer almost no security, known as junk contracts. Is this in fact a big problem for Poland?

Król: Temporary contracts are for temporary jobs. Many employers, however, use them for employees who are actually permanently employed. So the employer can stop prolonging the contract at any moment. These contracts destabilize the daily life of ordinary people. They don’t offer young couples job security for the future, so banks refuse them loans, as a result of which they can’t start having children. This creates demographic problems.

Employees don’t accrue pension rights and employers who make their employees work under such contracts don’t pay social-security contributions. Can my pension still be paid for? Our social security system is built on the soap bubble of economic growth. People are becoming insecure and angry.

PiS applied the minimum hourly wage at 2,7 euro per hour also to junk contracts.

Król: Yes. Because with such contracts, companies could make their employees work beneath the minimum hourly wage. That’s pure exploitation. Desperate people are happy when they can accept any job under any kind of circumstances. The Polish workers find themselves in a weak position and fortunately, they have the government on their side now.

It’s no wonder that Western Europe is against PiS. The Western capital exploits the Polish worker and PiS is going to change that. Western Europe reacts strongly because it is afraid of a strong and independent Eastern Europe. The economic situation of ordinary Poles will improve, not only the situation of the companies and the elite. I think it’s good that PiS doesn’t surrender to international business, as the liberals did.

Can they win this battle in today’s Europe?

Król: That’s why Europe has to change. But it’s a difficult battle. If the government asks foreign companies to pay more taxes, they change the wages. If the government raises the minimum hourly wage, companies say that they can’t pay more taxes because they have to finance the increased wage costs.

Król: For this, we should go back to the 18th century. West Poland, near the German border, was developing better. The regions in the East had always been close to Ukraine and Russia. These border regions have suffered the most from the repeated divisions, occupations and wars in Poland.Prime Minister Szydło also wants to develop rural regions. How is it possible that some regions lagged behind the impressive economic growth in Poland?  

Poland has the greatest economic growth of Central Europe, but also the highest emigration rates.  It has never, in its traumatic history, been better than today, but growth that is built on subordination, low wages and poor working conditions is slavery. We want economic progress too, but we can no longer accept the negative consequences for ordinary workers.

In Belgium, the president of the Christian labor movement said: ‘The goal of Rerum Novarum was a better life for everyone. Growth can not only be quantitative. Growth will be qualitative, or will not be at all.’ He said this in a critique of, among others, N-VA, a Belgian government party that often defends the employer’s interests. PiS, which is a part of the same European fraction as N-VA, defends the worker and carries out a left-wing economic program that seems to come directly from Rerum Novarum.

‘We want economic progress too, but we can no longer accept the negative consequences for ordinary workers.’

Król: Solidarność took its name even from the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In particular from two encyclicals by the Polish Pope John Paul II: Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), about the value of human labor. Real development shouldn’t be reduced to the multiplication of goods and services, but it enables each individual to develop himself fully and with dignity.

Unemployment, low wages, job insecurity: all violations of human dignity. In 2014, Solidarność was campaigning against the insecurity of employees in LIDL-supermarkets. They were forced to work with junk contracts. 

This tension between economic growth and human development is reflected in the story of Krysztof Bogusz, a worker who joins the interview. He too wears a little cross around his neck. Bogusz is leading the Solidarność division in the chocolate company, where he is a worker.

Bogusz: My wage is too low to pay off loans, so I do all kinds of jobs in my free time. I work like hell, from early in the morning until late at night. Can I have some free time too, some time to spend with my family? We cannot afford a vacation. If, as a worker, I would earn enough money for an eight hour working day and I would be able to pay off the loan and live a worthy life, there would be no problem.

Król: The companies’ profits and the high purchasing power in Western Europe are a consequence of the low wages and poor working conditions elsewhere, for example in Eastern Europe. Many people have no idea of the anger at the bottom of society. I don’t feel that the liberal Christian Democrats are taking this seriously.

© Pieter Stockmans

‘I don’t trust the Christian Democrats’

The Catholic nationalists do?

Król: If PiS could strengthen the bargaining position of the labor movement towards the employers, then this could increase the wages. As it did in Western Europe.

Bogusz: If I would work in the same company in Western Europe, I would earn much more money. The Polish worker is a kind of slave who works for other people’s interests, not for himself. This too comes from the papal encyclicals. Each day, the social teachings of the Church are being violated in Poland. The company fired employees when they joined the union. The previous government didn’t have a problem with that, even though the Polish constitution guarantees the freedom of association.

‘Our voice is represented by PiS. If Europe says this is a populist, nationalist party hostile to globalization and immigration, so be it.’

Donald Tusk’s liberal Christian Democrats made us believe that foreign investments would solve all our problems. And we should believe that? We don’t trust them anymore. They have become the higher middle class that has lost touch with us completely. Our voice is represented by PiS. If Europe calls that a populist, nationalist party that’s hostile to globalization and migration, they should do that.

A critical inhabitant of a village in Eastern Poland told me that Poles ‘expect everything from emigration and are against immigration’. Europe asked Poland to take in 7600 refugees. Isn’t that’s a piece of cake for a country with 38 million inhabitants? The current Pope Franciscus considers solidarity with refugees as an essential part of Solidarność – Christian solidarity.

Król (remains calm): How can we help refugees if we still have to grow economically ourselves to avoid our own youth being forced to emigrate if they want to live in dignity? There are so many young Poles who leave the country. That hurts. The money that Poles earn abroad flows back to Poland and contributes to better living conditions in the villages, but the taxes they pay abroad do not benefit the Polish economy.

Poland pays for their education and foreign economies benefit from it. I think we should be able to use their abilities in Poland. In order to keep emigrants here, we need to keep immigrants out. Poland is also unable to allow large groups of Muslims. We see that Muslims in Western Europe live separated from the rest of society and we want to keep our society integrated. Therefore, we can only accept Christians.

Bogusz: I get angry when I hear the criticism that’s now coming from the EU: that we wouldn’t be a democratic country, that we’d be xenophobe or intolerant. Already during World War II, Poles fought against all artificial borders that Russian communists and German fascists forced upon us. 

We protected Jews. And now, Germany tells us what to do? If we would be fascists, then we wouldn’t have protected any Jews. Of course there are also real fascists in Poland, but every country has its idiots, right? Or maybe there is someone who pays them to do what they do, so Poland gets a bad image.

© Pieter Stockmans

Marian Król with a sculpture of John Paul II in the background: ‘How can we help refugees if we can’t offer our own youth a future? That hurts.’

Up until today, Poland is a country of emigration. The local economy of entire Polish villages has been moved to countries such as the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom votes for Brexit on the 23th of June, half a million Poles living there would suddenly no longer be EU-labor migrants and many of them would have to return to Poland.

Król: As I said, we hope that Polish emigrants will return to Poland. But if it happens this abruptly, it will be harmful to both the British and the Polish economy. Poles go to England to work there, not to take advantage of that country.

I don’t believe that the United Kingdom will ever leave the EU. And even if it would happen, they would work out a way to keep the Poles there, because they need them. Just as Germany allows the Syrian refugees, not because it is humane, but because the German economy needs them. As long as refugees go to Germany and don’t come to Poland, it is fine to me.

How successful is PiS with young people? Are there any economic reasons for that?

Król: Many young people voted for PiS because of their insecure economic situation. The child allowance “500+” was very attractive to young families. But the connection between low wages, high unemployment rate in some regions and the success of PiS isn’t clear-cut. It’s one of many reasons. People who stay behind yearn for change. But it’s also about family values and patriotism. For centuries, that feeling has been strong in the East.

The child allowance for vulnerable families will cost 3,5 billion euro in 2016 alone. According to economists, this expensive measure will not make a structural difference.

Król: And yet it will give young families breathing space. They can also use the money to start an economic activity and become financially stable so they can start a family or expand it. Again: economic growth or human development?

We leave Król’s office – decorated with a carved wooden sculpture of Pope John Paul II and a bust of the legendary Polish nationalist independence leader Józef Piłsudski. We visit the monument of Lublin July: a worker breaking his chains and a huge cross above it. “If you are a son of God, you will receive the inheritance of God” is to be read next to the logo of Solidarność.

Król talks nostalgically about his militant past. Since 1980, he led large-scale strikes in the factories, many times suppressed by the police. As an active member of underground Solidarność-cells, he was repeatedly arrested and interrogated. He organized the notorious Świdnik-walks: during the propaganda news on the communist state television, 20.000 inhabitants went for a walk. As a signal to the communists, that they could not control people’s minds.

Solidarność was founded in the early 80s, a period in which no one dared to talk to each other about politics or human rights. Everyone could be a spy. The words that the Pope John Paul II spoke during his historic visit to Poland were an inspiration to millions of Poles who desired change. ‘Let the spirit come down and change the face of this nation.’ Many considered this as a reference to the atheist communists who suppressed the real identity of the Poles. 

The spirit of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine has helped overthrow European communism. A generation later, this spirit helps the advance of European nationalists. In the next European elections, we’ll know who wins the battle for the soul of the worker: socialists, Christian Democrats or nationalists. 

This interview was realized with the help of the Polish journalist Alina Pospischil. Translation form Dutch to English: Linde Braeckman.

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