European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in Poland: background summary

  • Trade union membership in Poland currently amounts to 17% of those who are employed on the basis of employment contracts, and 11% of all people in employment.
  • In the summer of 2015 the Central Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny, GUS) published the results of their module study on trade unions, the first such study in 25 years. According to GUS (2015), approximately 1.6 million people belong to trade unions.
  • Trade union membership deteriorated severely in the 1990s and early 2000s due to processes instigated by the political and economic transformation, such as privatisation, labour market liberalisation and industrial restructuring. According to data provided by the Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, CBOS), membership seems to have stabilised since 2003 at a relatively low level; while the GUS study (based on a huge sample of 12,300 organisations) suggests that the overall state of membership is actually a little better than previous public surveys suggested.
  • There are three national trade union organisations, including two confederations:
    • OPPZ, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych);
    • FZZ, the Trade Unions’ Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych);
    • and one general workers’ union, NSZZ “Solidarność”, the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union (“SolidarnośćNiezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy).
  • According to GUS (2015), there are 12,900 active trade union organisations (of the 19,500 registered), of which 66% operate in the public sector. Around 2,000 organisations are independent, while the remaining number are associated with upper-level structures. The three national-level representative organisations encompass 83% of total union membership (over 1.3 million).
  • Trade unions remain in a state of advanced pluralism. They are organised in three major ways: cross-occupational (including “Solidarność”, a general workers’ union), occupational, and territorial.
  • Collective bargaining is extremely decentralised and practically confined to company or establishment level (single-employer collective agreements). With the labour law reform of 1996, a free collective bargaining mechanism was introduced with the withdrawal of the state from detailed regulation of labour relations by means of a simplified labour code and a limitation to minimum standards.
  • Less than 3% of the national workforce is estimated to be covered by multi-employer collective agreements. What needs to be emphasized is that the content of collective agreements has been steadily deteriorating (according to analyses of the National Labour Inspectorate) and nowadays rarely exceeds the provisions of the labour law. Even though the government has a right to generalise (extend) multi-employer collective agreements (so that they cover the whole sector), it has never used that prerogative. Collective bargaining coverage is low, estimated to be at 30%.
  • Even though there is a dual channel of employee representation, trade unions remain the main platform for employees to have a voice, as works councils have largely failed to become embedded in the national industrial relations landscape. Following the implementation of the EU information and consultation directive, since 2008 employers with at least 50 employees have to allow the establishment of a works council. According to official statistics, only 567 works councils have been re-elected for a second term (compared with 3,401 established for a first term). The falling interest in works councils is mainly due to the fact that their prerogatives are narrow.
  • The main mechanism for setting pay in private sector companies is employer decision-making. For some occupational groups representing the so–called ‘national budgetary sphere’ (that is, those outside public enterprises and whose remuneration is financed by government expenditure, such as teachers, public services, and central government officials) it is the government that makes decisions on pay rises. From 2011 until 2015, there was a pay freeze in the ‘national budgetary sphere’, introduced voluntarily by the Polish government as an austerity measure, with no external pressure aside from the excessive debt procedure activated by the European Commission. It was lifted in 2015.
  • Tripartite social dialogue is conducted at three main levels: national, regional and sectoral. In 2013, all three national trade unions unanimously decided to exit the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs in a gesture of protest against unilateral government policy and the growing disregard for social partners’ opinions. During a two-year impasse in tripartite social dialogue, representative trade unions and employer organisations continued bipartite negotiations, producing draft legislation on a new tripartite body, which was endorsed by the government and passed into legislation in June 2015. The Social Dialogue Council (and the regional social dialogue councils) launched their operations in October 2015, shortly before the parliamentary elections that would bring the main opposition party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), to power.
  • An increase in the national minimum wage is the prerogative of the Social Dialogue Council (Rada Dialogu Sołecznego, RDS); previously (until 2015), it was in the hands of RDS’s predecessor, the Tripartite Commission. If the central-level tripartite body fails to reach a general agreement on the subject matter, then the decision is taken by the government; a common scenario in recent years.
  • In Poland, there is a statutory right to employee representation at board level. By virtue of the Act on Commercialisation and Privatisation of State-owned Enterprises of 1996, employees in former state-owned enterprises that have been transformed into corporations in which the state remains a shareholder, enjoy the right to elect their representatives to the Supervisory Board. These employee rights came under attack by private shareholders in some corporations, who claimed that their own rights under Corporate Law were being violated (as in the case of the major copper mining company, KGHM Polska Miedź). However, the ruling of the Supreme Court of June 2015 upheld the employee rights facilitated by the Act on Commercialisation and Privatisation of State-owned Enterprises.
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