Poland: teachers' strike betrayed by trade union leaders

“From Saturday 27th of April, the ZNP (Teachers’ Union) suspends the national strike. It suspends it, but it does not end it! I shall add: Starting today, we are entering a new, much more important period.” With these words, Sławomir Broniarz, the leader of the ZNP, has bent to the pressures of bourgeois public opinion and put a lid on the cauldron of struggle that has been developing over the past three weeks. For this, the government representatives in the dispute, led by ex-PM Ewa Kopacz, thanked him warmly.

The mood among teachers is radically different. Following another series of enormous demonstrations (in fact the biggest yet) in support for the strike in all cities and towns on Tuesday and Wednesday, this decision was met with a mixture of shock, disappointment and frustration from the teachers and everyone who supported them.

Further, in his statement, Broniarz did announce that the strike will be continued in September if the government doesn’t meet all of his demands:

“I will tell you this, as a trade unionist who remembers the 1980s. Back then it also began with individual struggles. But each such battle, such as the great teacher’s strike, gives the people strength. It begins to form a massive snowball, which cannot be stopped by propaganda… And I will tell you this: with this power, with the power of the people united, [the government] will not win.

“If we have to, we will be back in autumn, before your offices, all of us. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, parents, students, patients, disabled carers, women and men. We, the people. You will not be able to ignore us.”

This is a poor attempt to sugar-coating the strike suspension by Broniarz, who has been facing intense pressure from the teachers throughout the strike. The mood for mass struggle doesn’t have to wait until September, it is manifesting right at this very moment. If Broniarz wanted to, he could have organised the solidarity around this strike of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers. If the strike was conducted correctly, the reactionary PiS government would now have to choose: either concede all the legitimate demands advanced by the teachers or be booted out of power. Either way, it would have been a fundamental victory, showing that militant struggle can achieve its aims. Instead, we are witnessing to what can be described as an open capitulation by the leadership, which threatens to demoralise and frustrate the teachers, and all those who have mobilised in their support of and sympathised with the strike.

Already in the first and second week of the teachers’ strike, there were rumblings for an immediate strike from the postal workers, healthcare workers, supermarket workers, social workers and others. The trade union leaders used all the pages of obscure rulebooks to drag their feet and delay these strikes. In the end, the PiS emerged victorious (for now) precisely because of the cowardly, treacherous behaviour of the trade union leaders across the board, who have been revealed as afraid of their own shadows. The teachers’ strike proved to be yet another tragic example of lions led by donkeys.

However, in this defeat, there exists also an element of hope. This strike has become hitherto the most important school of class struggle in decades. What Marxists expected for years became a concrete reality for everyone to see. On the basis of the experience of the past three weeks, the consciousness of millions of Polish workers and youth was completely transformed. The teachers flexed their muscles, and therefore showed workers across Poland and beyond that it is possible to organise and fight back. It furthermore showed that in order to win, the workers need leadership and organisations that can be held to account by the workers.

In our previous article, published on 16 April, we pointed out the following, in relation to the Solidarność leadership – which now is relevant for the leadership of the whole trade union movement:

“Some important lessons can be drawn from these events. The class struggle reveals the faults and deficiencies of all the current leadership and shakes to the core all organisations that have roots in the working class. The crisis in Solidarność shows that the mass awakening of the teachers, combined with the open betrayal of the leadership, showed them the need for accountability of the trade union leaders. As Marxists, we support the decision of the Solidarność teachers to join the strike and move towards ousting their leadership, while uniting in the strike movement with the ZNP ranks. We add that the only way the striking teachers can be sure that what they are fighting for is achieved is for the movement to be directed by strike committees under the control of the workers, regardless of their trade union membership. Delegates for strike committees should be elected with the right of recall at any time by teachers in every school. Any deal with the government should be thoroughly discussed by the mass of the striking teachers and their delegates up to a national level. No deal should be signed without the approval of a democratically elected national strike committee.”

Some of these measures were implemented spontaneously by the teachers in the course of the strike, and had there been enough time for an alternative leadership to emerge, it would have been impossible for Broniarz to call the strike off without being replaced, and the outcome would have been very different.

The tenacity, sacrifice and energy shown by the teachers makes it clear to everyone that Poland is not immune from the class struggle. This carries revolutionary implications. The first pages of an entirely new period of militant mobilisation of the Polish working class have been written. The next period will represent a qualitative change in the struggle.

Lions led by donkeys

Sławomir Broniarz ZNP leader Image ZNPbiuroSławomir Broniarz, ZNP leader / Image: ZNPbiuro

The immediate aftermath of the decision to suspend the strike has been coloured with confusion, anger and despair. Underneath the Facebook announcement of the strike’s suspension by the ZNP leaders on the union’s page, the comments were full of bitterness and frustration directed at the leadership. One of the teachers, Daria, said:

“I feel cheated… What was all this for? What was the point of the past three weeks? We will not be able to get the same numbers in September… This is a defeat for us. We became a laughing stock and are returning to work without gaining anything.”

Another teacher, Anna, commented:

“I expected everything, but definitely not this. I am saying straight away: me and all my coworkers are leaving the ZNP. And we will not go on strike again! We risked everything: our relations with the parents, our salaries, everything! We’ve had enough of this! The teachers were betrayed by Solidarność, today we’ve been betrayed by the ZNP! I believed in you! The disappointment is enormous! I’m at loss for words!”

The decision has been announced by the leadership of the ZNP, without a hint of democratic discussion or any vote involving the striking teachers. It came after intense pressure from the government, the capitalist media and others lackeys of the ruling class, who shamed the teachers for conducting a strike during important exams, which will now be continued as normal in May. The labour leaders could have easily explained that it is the government and the system as a whole that jeopardises education, not the striking teachers fighting against years of mismanagement and neglect of the public education. Overcrowding and cuts are stopping the students from achieving their full potential, not the strike. It is the ongoing chaos in the education system and cuts to schools that make it difficult for teachers to help the students in their learning, not the strike. In fact, the strike is the only weapon in the hands of teachers and students with the power to change this.

Broniarz, Proksa and other trade union leaders are not able to understand and explain this, because they are not willing to change society. They proved to be nothing but careerists who made for themselves cushy careers on the back of the organised labour movement. A leadership able to organise the struggle for workers’ demands, when attacked, could have tipped the balance of forces even more in favour of the teachers’ struggle. A militant appeal to the parents, students, and all sections of the working class would have transformed the situation entirely and the government could do nothing about it.

Indeed, this cowardly behaviour is not an accident – Sławomir Broniarz has been the ZNP leader for 24 years. Many others on the executive have also been in their positions for the entire period of relative class peace over the past period. As they grew used to their prestigious positions, powered by impressive salaries and lavish expenses bills, they were taken completely off guard by everything that happened in the past two-and-a-half weeks of the strike. They attempted to let off the steam that has been building from the bottom up for months. But they were not prepared to lead a struggle, which inevitably raised the fierce resistance of the ruling class and the system under which they receive their privileges.

This is something that the teachers, in the course of the strike, became acutely aware of. The ferment within Solidarność following its leadership’s betrayal at the beginning of the strike showed that. The passive suspicion within the ZNP ranks towards the leadership has also been transformed into a feeling of open dissent. Teachers will now have to return to work. However, many of them (and with them all those who mobilised and supported them have gained an enormous amount of experience), which they will put to use in the future struggles. As Marxists, we will support any attempt by the workers to carry out a full transformation of their organisation, beginning by replacing those local, regional and national leaders who, in their conduct during the strike, proved that they don’t deserve their positions.

The power of the working class

Neither the government and bourgeois commentators, nor the trade union leaders expected the teachers’ strike to go as far as it did in the past weeks. The opportunist labour leaders, used to the previous period of relative class peace, were scared by the radicalism of this strike, which was spiralling out of their control. The Liberals, who expected this to be a petty squabble against the PiS that they could use for their own political gains, also withdrew their support as soon as they realised its true character. For example, Tomasz Lis, one of the most prominent Liberal commentators, joined ranks with the PiS when he was “forced to admit” he agreed with the PiS lie that there is no money, and that the strike should be ended. This attitude is not surprising – the PO, when in power, was notorious for brutal cuts to the education system.

It was just a matter of time before the Liberal politicians responded to their real class interests and withdrew their support or openly played an antagonistic role towards the strike. The strike unleashed forces that laid bare the class content of all organisations, and which put to the test all their leaders. It shattered many illusions that the PiS or the Liberal opposition are able to solve anything for working-class people. The class struggle swept away all that is alien to the working class – including the middle-class liberals, the sectarians and ultra-lefts, who convinced themselves that the Polish workers were too backward to fight, viewing them with nothing but contempt. But they too were left with their jaws wide open. Many of them were nowhere to be seen during the movement.

The last three weeks shook the country from top to bottom, because a mass movement was spearheaded by an important section of the working class, which after years if not decades of passivity, humiliation, exploitation and hopelessness, had finally stood on its feet and said: “We’ve had enough!”. The best creativity, spontaneity, and the belief that things can be changed were delivered by the best proletarian methods of struggle that are part of the traditions of the Polish working class.

The ZNP leaders became a fetter on the development of the strike immediately after it started. They opposed forming picket lines, occupations, and they allowed a return to work on an individual basis for invigilation of the middle school exams. Some teachers were pressured heavily to return to work for the exams, and due to a lack of leadership and out of an honest concern for students, some of them did, especially in smaller towns and villages. Where the teachers stood their ground, they were forced to watch government sponsored scabs, often without any qualifications, do their job for them. With even more important exams coming up at the beginning of May, they were not going to allow this another time.

On Wednesday 17 April, an Inter-School Strike Committee (MKS – the acronym is a reference to workers’ councils in the 1980/81 revolution) was formed in Warsaw. In the next days, similar MKS committees were formed in Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań, Łódź, Gdańsk, Gorzów, Białystok and Szczecin. Very soon, this spread to the smallest cities and towns throughout the country. This remarkable development was achieved without any organisation, or call from above. It was the spontaneous creation of Polish teachers who were prepared to fight until victory. The local MKS then linked together on a national scale to form the All-Polish Interschool Strike Committee. This organ, directly representing the teachers, sat alongside the ZNP in the talks against the government, in which no compromise was reached by either side. They then pressured the ZNP to prepare mass demonstrations in all cities, which were attended by tens of thousands. Squares of the smallest towns were filled with unprecedented crowds of people expressing their solidarity. Many MKS voted to prepare the sharpest tools of struggle to ensure victory in the wake of the May exams.

The largest demonstration in support of the teachers was held in Warsaw, the day before Broniarz announced the strike suspension.

It is no wonder that almost all MKS are unhappy with Broniarz’s decision to suspend the strike. Many, such as the one in Poznań, decided to ignore the suspension and carry on striking, although this is unfortunately an isolated example. The teachers were prepared to fight to the end, but they are also tired. There is only so long you can fight for without victory in sight. With hopeless leadership that conceded on every important question, and which refused to extend the struggle to other sections of the working class, the majority will most likely return to work. The Warsaw MKS states:

“We deplore the suspension of this strike. The government has not conceded a single one of our demands. We are thoroughly bitter and disappointed… We are aware that the Polish education system will never be the same again. Our protest will continue. The role of structures, which arose spontaneously from the bottom, is not yet finished.”

General strike looming ahead

Demonstration in support of striking teachers called by the Warsaw MKS and ZNP Image fair useDemonstration in support of striking teachers called by the Warsaw MKS and ZNP / Image: fair use

The scale and scope of the teachers’ strike has hit Poland like thunder from a clear, blue sky. The teachers were regarded with scepticism by all the pessimists, but, along with students, parents and supportive workers, they overcame a thousand and one barriers imposed upon them by the PiS, the capitalists, the state and the trade union leaders. The strike showed the workers in all corners of Poland that it is possible to group together and fight back. Although the labour leaders did their best to prepare defeat, the war is not lost by any means.

The teachers are currently disheartened, but conditions have not changed and they will be forced to return on the path of struggle. The movement will erupt again once they see a chance of success. Broniarz announced that the struggle will continue in September if the demands are not met. But the teachers will not move again in the same way until the question of leadership accountability is resolved and they are confident they can win. This is why the next upsurge of struggle necessarily will come back on an even higher level. In the coming months, the most-advanced workers must seek to involve as many sections of the working class as possible to strike at once. The need for a general strike is already being discussed among a layer of workers, who have learned from this strike that there is widespread discontent among the Polish working class, who all share the same problems.

The emergence of the MKS is the consequence of a natural yearning of the teachers to express themselves as a section of the working class. These committees must not be disbanded, but strengthened until September and beyond, and if any other section of the working class mobilises in the meantime, they should be involved in these organs of workers’ power.

A general mobilisation of the working class will naturally come back to this experience. The Interschool Strike Committees will become Interdistrict and Interfactory Strike Committees. As they strive to link up on a national scale, the question of which class holds power in society will become the burning question of the day. A National Council of Workers’ Delegates will become the embryo of a new power in society, if it develops a mass base of support.

This perspective is entirely possible. The most important task, which will be the result of the future struggles, is that of building a revolutionary leadership that will lead the working class to power. An entirely new period has opened up in Poland. The Polish working class is learning that, when mobilised, they are a powerful force. The main weakness of this movement has been the trade union leadership. Polish workers are also realising that they cannot expect the PiS or the capitalists to solve their problems, and that the struggle against the capitalist ruling class is not only necessary, but will be much harder than they initially expected. Armed with this understanding, they will enter the future struggles with even more determination. The confidence of the ruling class, who now rejoice of their petty victory will be then shattered to pieces.