Militancy grows over first week of Polish teachers' strike

The Polish teachers’ strike, which started on 8 April, marks a fundamental change in the situation in Poland, once hailed as the success story for the transition to capitalism after the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1989. The class struggle is back on the agenda. Now the greatest teachers’ strike in Polish history has entered its second week and is becoming the catalyst for the pent-up anger of youth and workers.

Lenin once pointed out, after the Russian Revolution, that there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen; in the sense that the experience of events concentrated in a brief space of time can determine a sudden leap in the consciousness of the masses. 8 April marked the beginning of what appears to be the greatest teacher’s strike in Polish history, not just for its scale but also for its social and political implications. According to the Polish Teacher’s Union (ZNP), around 15,000 schools, nurseries and colleges (just under 80 percent of the total number) are currently on an indefinite strike in the middle of the exam period. The strike has become a serious field of struggle, serving as a point of expression for the pent-up discontent that has been accumulating over the course of years, if not decades. The strike has also become a school of class struggle. The teachers, students around them, and the entire Polish working class are drawing very important lessons from this crucial experience.

Strike committees are operating in nearly all Polish cities, towns and villages. In order to operate, they need strikers’ signatures every morning, but the teachers are standing firm in this regard. Despite the exam pressure, the strike has been strengthened by an enormous show of solidarity from the school students. In those schools where polls have been conducted, the student support for strike fluctuates around 70-to-80 percent. Demonstrations in support of the strike have been erupting in city after city, and town after town, in an almost completely spontaneous fashion. The vast majority of teachers and school students who organise support groups in their schools, collect money for the strike fund or speak on platforms at demonstrations have never been involved in political activities in their lives. The strike fund account, opened by the ZNP on Thursday, has already collected 5 million zlotys, roughly the equivalent of 10,000 weekly workers’ wages. This shows that the impact of this dispute is not confined to the teachers, but by its very nature it reaches to the very depths of society. Mainly, this is due to the magnitude of the strike and the confidence displayed by the teachers, but also because of the role played by teachers in society: every worker knows someone who is a teacher or has a child whose school is affected by the strike. The strike continues to be a topic of daily discussion on shop floors, in pubs or on social media and this is having an impact on every section of the population.

The mood on the ground is overwhelmingly for sharpening and intensifying the strike. Interviewed for Wyborcza.pl, one teacher said that the strike methods of nurses and police officers in the past period show that the road of least resistance leads nowhere. “We’ve learned from this experience,'' she commented. Another teacher from Warsaw said: “I personally think that the strike needs to be sharpened. The government is playing with us and doing whatever it wants, and we are not reacting to it.” Many other comments to the same effect confirm that the striking teachers agree that more needs to be done to ensure victory. This explosive mood rightly terrifies the PiS government. It also causes anxiety among the leaders of the teachers’ trade union, ZNP, who are feeling the heat of the pressure coming from their ranks. The Solidarność leadership, whose decision to sign a deal with the government has provoked a crisis in the trade union, is facing open rebellion from their members who have openly defied this decision by solidly joining the strike.

The reactionary establishment exposed

I teach science for pennies I teach fairy tales for megabucks Image public domain"I teach science for pennies..." "I teach fairy tales for megabucks!" / Image: public domain

The ruling, right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government has taken a hardline stance against the teachers, refusing to concede anything further than the “offer” that is currently on the table, which proposes more of the same. The OPZZ is demanding an immediate pay rise of 1,000 zlotys, whereas the government is insisting a drawn-out pay rise of 9.6 percent in September, to be followed by a longer plan of minuscule pay rises between 2020-2023. All this at the cost of increased pressure and greater workloads in the classrooms. In the same way as appetite grows with eating, any meaningful concession to the striking teachers would only embolden them further and reveal claims of a “lack of money” for the lies they are. Furthermore, it would provide an example to other sections of the working class, who are facing the same hardships as the teachers, that the only way to win better working and living conditions is by taking matters into their own hands.

The government apparently felt confident enough to enter into an open battle with the teachers, who are feeling emboldened by the scale of the crisis in the education system. However, it is clear now that the Polish ruling class is experiencing serious problems in how to handle such a conflict. They overestimated their strength and underestimated the workers’ willingness to fight. The PiS gained confidence after defeating the Liberal opposition in the battles over political control of the courts, the media and other sectors of the bourgeois state. However, they approached this dispute as if it was yet another battle of this type. But instead of provoking lukewarm appeals and backdoor committees from the Liberal opposition, here they are in danger of provoking a mighty conflict with an important section of the working class.

The government has on multiple occasions attempted to drive a wedge between the teachers and their students, as well as other workers. They are also waiting for the striking teachers to exhaust themselves before forcing their so-called deal upon them. However, none of these manoeuvres appear to be working, as the teachers, students and sympathetic workers realise that this strike has become an open battle against the government and everything it stands for.

Upcoming EU elections reveal cracks in the PiS

In any case, this aggressive stance by the PiS does not necessarily represent strength on part of the government, but rather a mixture of its degeneration and creeping anxiety in the face of one of the greatest strikes that any government had to deal with since the restoration of capitalism in 1989. For instance, there are the European Parliament elections, which are treated extremely seriously by the PiS, which is being blamed for the EU’s withdrawal of investment from Poland. Despite seemingly large support in the polls, the PiS had been forced to resort to a number of dodgy manoeuvres to preserve its main base of support, which is beginning to be shaken, not least by the strike. These have uncovered the real fears of the government.

Anna Zalewska, the minister for education, had been promised a place on top of the PiS candidate list in the Dolnośląskie-Opolskie region, where the PiS emerged strongly from the 2015 parliamentary elections. In exchange, she accepted becoming the face of the PiS’ “education reform”. This reform, which is in the process of being rolled out, means complete chaos in the education system. The government is planning to finally abolish all gimnazjum schools (schools for 12-15-year-olds) and merge them with primary schools and liceums. This means that, for instance, the number of first-year liceum students will go up from 358,000 in 2018 to 727,000 in 2019. This is because of the gradual way this phase-out is executed, final year gimnazjum students will be competing for courses in liceum with final year primary school students. This means that first-year liceum students this September will include children born in 2003, 2004, 2005 and even 2006. Not only does this mean a huge increase in the burden of work for an average teacher, but also a more stressful education for school students.

In order to prevent open dissent against PiS’ jedynka (number one candidate) in the region, the government had attempted to push Zalewska into the shadows, instead using the ex-prime minister, Beata Szydło (who herself is standing in the amalgamation of PiS’ third-and-fifth-strongest regions, Małopolskie-Świętokrzyskie) as the face of the government against the striking teachers. This has, however, solved nothing as Zalewska is still seen by the teachers as one of the main antagonists in the dispute, and although already isolated within her own party, which is distancing itself from her, the risk of being ditched by the PiS in the European elections remains very real for Zalewska.

In the wake of these elections, the government has also attempted to rally to the ballot boxes what has traditionally been one of its core bases of support, pensioners, by spending more than 10 billion zlotys on trzynastka, which is a one-time payment of an extra monthly pension. This cynical manoeuver infuriated many teachers, who now have hard evidence that the government does have money when they need it – to remain in power. Although the polls suggest that the most loyal PiS supporters remain opposed to the strike, there have been a number of pensioners who have already sent letters to various newspapers and media outlets, stating that they will be transferring all of their trzynastka towards the strike fund.

The Machiavellian figure in charge of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is probably the most polarising figure in Poland, has not once referred to the strike in his address to the regional PiS conference in Lublin. Kaczynski’s hatred of the movement, if translated into words, would serve to infuriate millions against him, including those who voted for the PiS in 2015 but are now either directly or indirectly involved in the strike. The most degenerate and reactionary elements in and around the PiS have not, however, minced their words when exclaiming their opinions about the teachers.

On a curious side note, it is ironic to see those who liked to shout the loudest about the tradition and legacy of workers’ struggles under the PRL regime now spitting the vilest venom against the teachers. This proves that their appropriation of workers’ struggles under the banner of bourgeois patriotism had nothing to do with their desire for working-class emancipation, and everything to do with promoting their own profiles and careers.

The traditions of the Polish workers are more militant and revolutionary than these ladies and gentlemen are ready to admit. In 1970 and 1980, the workers organised themselves in Inter-District Strike Committees (MKS) – soviets in everything but name. They organised workers’ guards to defend these organs of workers’ power. The main demands of those struggles were aimed against the bureaucracy in control of the state: for representatives to be elected on an average workers’ wage, for the right of recall of politicians at any time and for the trials of those who were guilty of mismanaging the economy. In the face of extraordinary police violence, the workers often responded with rocks and molotov cocktails. The impact of those revolutionary movements of the Polish working class on the army brought it to the verge of disintegrating, with the rank-and-file fraternising with the working class. These extraordinary, revolutionary events continue to weigh heavily on the memories of Polish workers. The events today, however, are proving what this legacy means in concrete terms.

fronda snip

After 1989, the movement of the working class has been thrown back by the restoration of capitalism and the experience of betrayal after betrayal by all those who claimed to be their saviours. In these conditions, all sorts of scum managed to step forward and gain a certain foothold. However, facing only the very first stages of the return of class struggle, the right wing has been experiencing a complete frenzy and meltdown. Wojciech Cejrowski, an extremely reactionary celebrity with his own television programme, has described the ZNP as “a powerhouse of Communist clogs”. He has also suggested that the striking teachers should be fired en masse.

Another right-wing clown, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who once enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among the youth for his “anti-establishment” politics (which used to include the establishment of the monarchy), had also shown his absolute contempt towards the striking teachers. In a video-blog, he has suggested once again firing the teachers en-masse, reminding his viewers that Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 airport workers following the 1981 dispute in the USA. Krystyna Pawłowicz MP, one of the most inconvenient loose cannons of the PiS, was quick to slander the strike efforts as pro-German and anti-Polish. Fronda.pl, the most popular website of Catholic reactionaries and all sorts of oddballs, published an article with the headline: “Teachers’ strike – A Communist mentality comes to the fore”, accompanied by a picture of Sławomir Broniarz (ZNP leader), the ZNP flag and a portrait of Vladimir Lenin lined up next to each other

The voice of these lunatics, courageous only in the comfort of their unaccountability, reveals to the workers who is with them and who is not. It lays bare the class content of everything before them, as the poisonous fumes of nationalism and patriotism begin to dissipate. Furthermore, these seemingly fringe voices reveal the real worries of those who realise that this strike could easily bring the PiS’ downfall, meanwhile disrupting any popularity and authority they thought they had. The advancement of the teachers’ movement correlates directly with the disintegration and isolation of all these so-called “true Poles” who have made comfortable careers out of their vile, reactionary views. The PiS itself would be in a much weaker position, if in power at all, were the labour leaders willing to take charge and truly represent the mood of the teachers for a root-and-branch transformation of society.

The treacherous role of the Solidarność leadership

The strike is still gaining momentum, but so far it has highlighted some important lessons on the role of the labour leaders. This is already understood by the most advanced of the striking teachers. In the ZNP this is represented, for now, by passive suspicion, whereas the tops of Solidarność teachers’ branch are facing a full revolt of their members.

It has been over a week since the agreement between Solidarność and the PiS was signed. This was a deliberate attempt to divide the teachers just before the strike was due to start. The PiS used it to denounce the ZNP as an outside force, which incites either “gullible”, “lazy”, “anti-Polish” or “Communist” teachers to strike action, to much disgust from the students and parents. This is the image painted by the state-owned TVP, which after a thorough reshuffle only employs those who are proven loyalists to the PiS regime.

The real situation is, however, different. An agreement was signed between the cowardly and treacherous leaders of Solidarnosć and the government. The leadership of Solidarność – Teacher's’ Branch around Ryszard Proksa are completely divorced from the realities of working-class life by handsome privileges, grants and paid expenses. They have every reason to support the PiS propaganda. The recent revelation that Ryszard Proksa earns over 130,000 zlotys per year, more than five times the average teachers’ wage, only added fuel to the fire. One teacher interviewed by natemat.pl, said “He makes a living from our subs. If he gets paid so much, then no wonder he doesn’t care about our struggle for decent wages. He cheated us for his own private interest. This is an utter betrayal, he stabbed us in the back!”

Solidarnozsc Image Gazela AgencyThe tops of Solidarność are facing a full revolt of their members / Image: Gazela Agency

Indeed, the membership of Solidarność has a completely different story to tell than its leadership. The Solidarność teachers suffer the same hardship, exploitation, overwork and lowliness as their fellow teachers in the ZNP. For this reason, there is no significant gap between those schools organised by the ZNP and those organised under Solidarność. The membership in and around Solidarność simply ignored all the legalisms and formalities perpetrated from above and moved into action along with the rest of the teachers. “We are not interested in what our leadership is saying. We are interested in what the rank and file wants”, said a regional Solidarność leader in Wrocław-Krzyki. Multiple regional committees of Solidarność have admitted that: “in all schools where we have representatives, the teachers went on strike”. Ryszard Proksa had already warned about disciplinary consequences for this dissent against his leadership.

In disgust at the leadership, which has signed a deal behind the backs of the rank and file and continues to hold it in nothing but contempt, many teachers have left Solidarność to join the ZNP. Many branches have either disaffiliated or collapsed as official structures. The Solidarność – Teacher's Branch in Wielkopolska region has released a statement in which, apart from total condemnation of Proksa, it states: “There are many letters of resignation from Solidarność. If this keeps up, people like Proksa will remain in charge of our Union. It is him, not you that needs to resign!”. This is a correct appeal towards an understandable reaction at the disgusting leadership of Solidarność. There are some reports of people actually joining Solidarność with the goal of transforming it.

It is still uncertain where the civil war raging in Solidarność will end up. For now, many teachers are focusing on the strike itself – although the image of Proksa and the clique around him was completely shattered by the strike, the question of internal union politics remains unexpressed, firstly due to the urgency of the strike itself, and secondly due to a lack of leadership, be it from within or outside of Solidarność.

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 Solidarnosc 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 Solidarnosc 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.

The role of the ZNP leadership should be that of assisting the strike movement’s development. However, the strike has already exposed some of the weaknesses of the ZNP leaders. The first week of the teachers' strike took place in the middle of exams undertaken by final year primary school students. The ZNP bent to the pressure of bourgeois opinion and decided to allow the teachers to invigilate the exams as individuals. There were many instances where the teachers pleaded their leadership to allow them to occupy the schools and form genuine pickets to stop the scabs from coming in and doing work for them. According to Adam Zygmunt, the leader of West-Pomeranian region of ZNP, there have been requests from a quarter of the total ZNP branches in his region to be allowed to form pickets as part of occupational strikes. This has not been a part of any organised campaign called by any group, but rather a spontaneously-reached conclusion by teachers who want to beat the government.

Broniarz (ZNP leader) has categorically refused. He says that the ZNP will not support such form of strike. Broniarz and Zygmunt agreed that this will only cause to increase the friction between the teachers and parents. However, the isolated cases prove that the opposite would be the case. Many school students have organised solidarity demonstrations in their local schools. The true scale of this is hard to follow as the events are unfolding, but the Facebook event for a student’s strike in solidarity with the teachers gained 140,000 responses in a matter of days.

Some of these students’ strikes have been well publicised on social media. Franek, a member of a school students’ union in Opole said: “Before we organised the demonstrations, we conducted a poll, from which we found out that almost 80 percent of students in our school support the strike. We want to show the teachers that we support them. We believe that they also fight for our cause. We know very well about the problems of education and the whole system because we live in it. This strike is not just about wage increases, it’s about the whole education system, which needs to be changed.”

On the basis of explaining who is at fault for the strike, who is really placing education in danger and how teachers united with students can advance and take down the government, the ZNP could win the support of an even wider layer of students and parents, if it only had the confidence to do so.

The lack of leadership, however, means that this is not the case. The polls show that more than half of Poles support the strike, but the gap is by no means decisive. An important bulk is still opposed to the strike. Many arguments used against the strike would be solved by a bold appeal for a general strike for higher wages, better conditions and a radical plan to change society. “I earn even less than the teachers and I’ve never been on strike!”, “the union leaders are corrupt and they back the Liberals!” or “What will I do with my children now?” are not uncommon arguments by some ordinary people against the strike.

The wavering, conciliatory leadership of ZNP around Broniarz has also affected the strike itself. On days when exams were supposed to be taking place, there were many cases where the teachers have either overseen exams themselves or helplessly watched scabs (priests, nuns, prison officers and other unqualified elements lured in by handsome sums of money) enter the exam halls. This was due to an ordinance by the Ministry of Education implemented at the last minute. This trick, however, will not be legally possible during the most important matura exams taken before students graduating liceum. Many teachers have faced genuine dilemmas due to their honest concern for the students. As one teacher explained for wyborcza.pl:

“The ZNP had allowed individuals to return to work… This was an extremely difficult decision for me to take. I know that I have weakened the protest. On the other hand, however, I’ve got the students. I’ve taken the decision to temporarily return to work for the exams, but as a striker, I don’t feel better. I feel a lot worse.”

Although many schools stood firm, many more have seen exams go ahead. This tragic decision by the ZNP was prepared by their anxiety about any bolder action and the desire to appear reasonable in front of the bourgeois media. However, this has done nothing but concede yet another small victory for the government, who would find an excuse to guilt trip the teachers into returning to work even if they struck in the summer holidays. In the meantime, their uncompromising attacks on working conditions would continue as usual.

It is clear that the mood on the ground is crying out for leadership. The teachers have already broken barrier after barrier that was imposed upon them by the state, by bourgeois opinion, and by the trade union bureaucracy. The union leaders have only agreed to lead the strike under pressure from below, and there is little hope in the capability of these ladies and gentlemen to take it further. Pickets and occupations on their own would certainly shake the PiS. An appeal for genuine unity between trade unions – not to the Solidarność careerists, but its rank and file – would further weaken the government and strengthen the strike. But, if joined by the councils of teachers, parents and students, the government could be sent packing A mass campaign for a general strike would certainly bring it down.

In this vacuum, the Polish Marxists have intervened, putting forward all these slogans on their leaflets. These were concluded by the call: Forward to a general strike! Long live the revolution!

Tomasz from Poznań Marxists attended a local solidarity demonstration, where he reports the mood:

“Thousands turned up. There were many teachers, but there were also just as many students. Most of the school students were no older than 16, there were actually quite a few children who came out to support their teachers. There was a noticeable absence of all the ‘usual’ protesters and other assorted sectarians. The Liberals were unfortunately in charge here, and they were in constant control of the microphone. We gave out all our leaflets. The slogan of revolution was met with enthusiasm by most people. At worst it just got a passive reception.”

Marcelina represented the Marxists in Kraków and, alongside the teachers, has managed to make a speech on the microphone in front of hundreds of people. In her speech, she explained that the real root of this crisis in the education system lies in the capitalist system, which puts profit before our needs. Importantly, she underlined that the Liberals are just as responsible as the PiS for this chaos:

“Huge movements such as this give us the opportunity to abolish this thievish system. It must go beyond the simple economic demands of one group and involve as many workers as possible in our struggle. It is us, the working people, who create the wealth in this world, and it is us who should own it… Today we are also witnessing another round of the youth strike for climate movement... The fight to save the environment cannot be separated from the fight of labour against capital. Forward to the general strike! Long live the revolution!”

This was followed by a round of applause, not least from some of the embarrassed Liberal activists. She subsequently gave out every single one of her leaflets.

What next?

The trade union leaders have initiated yet another round of talks commencing this Thursday, the government seems completely unwilling to change its tune. It had a chance to use concessions in order to prevent the strike in multiple talks before 8 April, yet it has refused to do so. Following the successful exams that took place in the preceding week, as well as the full support of Solidarność leaders, it feels confident that it can either wait to exhaust the teachers or pressure the anxiety-ridden leadership of ZNP into defeat.

However, the strike has already completely transformed the entire situation. Many are comparing the teachers’ strike to another, indefinite strike of teachers in 1993, which lasted 20 days and ended with a defeat. However, it is important to note that the 1993 strike took place against a background of general atomisation and isolation of the working class, which had suffered several defeats and betrayals.

Solidarity demonstration in Wrocław Placard says PiS We exchange ideas for Capital Image public domainSolidarity demonstration in Wrocław. Placard says: "PiS, we exchange ideas for Capital!" / Image: public domain

The situation today is completely different. A whole new generation of workers and youth, unaffected by the defeats of the past, has entered the scene. More demonstrations in support of the strike are occurring in all the main cities, as well as towns and villages that have not seen any popular movements in decades. It is more likely than not that, in the case the government continues its uncompromising stance, it will sooner or later resort to adding more fuel to the fire.

It is often said that the wind shakes the tops of the trees first. Marxists have often said that the splits in ruling class in Poland and further afield are preludes to movements of the working class. The movement of teachers and school students indicate that the temperature among the Polish working class is becoming extremely hot. Had the teachers a bold, socialist leadership that knew a way forward, the strike would not only prove a lot more confident within the schools and colleges, but it would involve the entire Polish working class in a struggle against the PiS and the outdated, degenerate capitalist system it represents.

This strike should be a call to arms for any honest revolutionary in Poland who desires to change society. The ad nauseum mantra of impatient, middle-class “radicals” that “Polish workers are too backward to fight” is being exposed for the nonsense that it is. The teachers’ strike is the first sign that the period opening up before us is one of revolutionary upsurge, in the course of which all the best revolutionary traditions of 1905, 1917, 1970 and 1980 will return on a higher level. With correct slogans, tactics and analysis, the Polish Marxists will already find that they reflect the mood of many workers and especially the youth. They must seize the opportunities posed by this radical change in the consciousness of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Polish workers and youth and build stronger roots for Marxism in Poland, to prepare the revolutionary organisation needed for the battles that lie ahead.