Strajk! – stories of Polish workers: resistance, strikes and revolution

Ross Walker, IMT Edinburgh

We publish here the introduction to a new pamphlet, produced by supporters of the International Marxist Tendency in Scotland, which looks at the inspiring history of the class struggle in Poland. With a large number of Polish workers in Britain, it is important for the labour movement to reach out to these workers and organise them in a united fight against capitalism.

To order copies of this excellent new pamphlet, please contact:

The history of Poland is an inspirational one, steeped with strikes, uprisings and revolutions. It is necessary to study the history of class struggle, not just out of interest, but in order to learn from the past: what went right; what went wrong; what to carry on doing; and what mistakes not to repeat. The history of the Polish working classes is a history rich with lessons.

Polish people make up the third largest foreign-born population in the UK. The 2011 census estimated around 579,000 Polish born citizens in the UK, but more recent unofficial surveys have estimated nearer a million. Where I live in Edinburgh, Poles make up the highest foreign born population, at around 13,000. With 2.9 million foreign-born workers in the UK, any successful revolutionary movement must involve them, and the Poles are no exception. In fact, as this pamphlet shows, the traditions of the Polish working classes can be a vital addition to future movements; but first of all these workers must be reached out to.

Socialism and Religion

The first excerpt is from a text by Polish revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg is mostly known for her work in Germany, her heroic opposition to the First World War and her leading role in the German Revolution, which brought the war to an end; but she also played a big role in the movement in her country of origin.

Luxemburg had a remarkable understanding of the religious question. In her text “Socialism and The Churches” she said:
“Social-Democracy in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation.”

A 2015 poll by the Polish Centre for Public Opinion Research found that 56% of Poles claimed they have never doubted their belief in God, so the demand for the complete freedom of religious belief for all is still extremely important in Poland. This must be carried out whilst also exposing the hypocrisy and reactionary nature of the structures of the church and the need for a materialist, as opposed to idealist, analysis when it comes to social, political and economic events. For this reason we would recommend the whole text which although 110 years old is still relevant today.

However, Luxemburg did make an error when it came to understanding the need to support the right of nations to determine their own future. The Polish workers were not just oppressed by their own ruling class, but also nationally oppressed by Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of course the brutal Russian Czarist regime; for this reason the fight for national freedom was very important for Polish peasants and workers, something which was reflected on the political scene with parties such as the left nationalist PPS (Polska Partija Socialistyczna).

The PPS drew many genuine class fighters to its ranks, but had a strong Polish nationalist ideology which strove to split Polish and Russian workers, something which Luxemburg correctly stood against. When the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party adopted a policy supporting the right of nations like Poland to determine their own future, Luxemburg thought this was a capitulation towards Polish nationalism. However this was not the case. It was necessary to show that the Marxists, socialists and the workers movement in general, and particularly in an oppressor country like Russia, had no interest in oppressing Polish national culture and identity. Luxemburg underestimated the reactionary consequences that a forced political unity could cause and its potential to sharpen national divisions even further.

Luxemburg was a devout internationalist, an absolute necessity for revolutionaries, particularly in times of extreme chauvinism such as in the early years of the First World War. As her counterpart, Karl Liebknecht said, “The main enemy of every people is in their own country”. The main enemy of the Polish workers was and still is the Polish ruling class. Luxemburg consistently exposed the bankruptcy of the Polish bourgeois nationalists and the Polish capitalists who had no interest in the workers or small peasants, but were only interested in increasing their own share of the wealth created by the working masses.

World War Two and the Holocaust

The second article is from “The Militant”, the US newspaper of the Trotskyist Fourth International. It was written in 1944 on the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It tells a story which could be described as a glimpse of light amidst a time of extreme darkness.

“In Lodz, the biggest Polish industrial center, 130,000 Jewish workers went on a general strike, halting temporarily the Nazi extermination drive there. Armed rebellions have flared up through all the labor camps.”

This sentence shows the tremendous power of the working classes even during times of the most extreme barbaric oppression. The following excerpt from S. Mendelsohn’s “The Battle of The Warsaw Ghetto” shows an appeal from the Polish Labor movement on the second day of the revolt.

“Workers and the working intelligentsia are the heart and soul among the masses of fighting Jews who arose gun in hand against Nazi atrocities. Almost all underground publications, as well as the reports of the government representative, speak of the Jewish Fighter Organization which began and led the struggle… both the appeal of the Polish Labor Movement and some newspapers indicate that the organization consisted chiefly of workers, most of them young.”

Understandably, the tragedy of the Holocaust can be difficult to bring political content and analysis to. However, the rise of fascism and the subsequent genocides were political phenomena inextricably linked to the crisis of capitalism and imperialism. The biggest and most serious attempt to halt this slaughter was the Ghetto Uprising, which was a working class led uprising from start to finish, a fact which should be proudly remembered and understood.

The third article, also from the US Militant, tells the story of the great Warsaw Uprising in 1944, which almost defeated the Nazis without the help of the Red Army. Whilst Marxists defend the Russian Revolution and the magnificent gains it made, we also ardently criticize the bureaucratic state of the USSR which, amidst the poverty, isolation and embargoes suffered by the country, degenerated into a monstrous corrupt bureaucratic caste, with interests very separate from the workers and peasants that originally carried out the revolution. The Stalinist betrayal of the Warsaw Uprising is an all too perfect example of this. The text contains quotes from Moscow at the time encouraging the insurrection, and then days later condemning it as a crime. The advance of the Red Army up to Warsaw was halted and arms for the partisans were denied, while thousands of Poles were left to be massacred.

The Moscow press and the Stalinist apologists at the time called the uprising premature and doomed to failure, but during the insurrection itself they actually reported the evacuation of Nazis from Warsaw and some sources even pointed towards workers councils being established in Warsaw factories. The Americans and British seeking a chance to gain influence over the Polish gave it “token aid”, but feeble amounts, weeks after the insurrection had started. In reality neither the Allied governments nor the USSR had the interest of the Polish masses at heart. A successful uprising in Poland would have been a tremendous example to workers and oppressed peoples all over. Whether living in the capitalist world or in the USSR, it would have shown people the power they held in their hands, and during the post-war worldwide revolutionary wave it could have marked the end of both capitalism and Stalinism. The capitalists and the Soviet bureaucrats were equally fearful.

Solidarnosc and Stalinism

The fourth article tells the phenomenal story of The Solidarnosc movement in 1980. The original strike of Shipyard Workers started with the victimisation of three workers in Gdansk and spread throughout Poland to involve hundreds of thousands of striking workers across all industries. Even layers of rural peasants and workers refused deals with the PLR government and sent free food to the strikers.

The strike contained many economic demands including increased wages, family allowances and pensions, but also democratic demands like freedom of press and speech, the release of political prisoners, and of course the right to strike. The mayor of Gdansk ordered the printing of hundreds of thousands of anti-Solidarnosc leaflets, but this was met by the print workers refusing to print them and coming out in full support of the strike.

What was significant was that at no point during this wave of strikes was the demand of returning to capitalism used. Many Polish workers will wince at the word “socialist” and even more so the words “Communist” or “Marxist”; but the truth is the PLR could not be described as any of the three things, as the author, Ted Grant, explains here.

“The corruption, the nepotism and the incapacity of the bureaucracy has become clear for all to see. A workers’ state can never be run on the basis of privilege and without the participation and management of both industry and state by the working class. As a result of the inefficiency of the bureaucracy there was an actual fall of 2% in production last year. So long as living standards were going up the workers would grit their teeth and tolerate the crimes and privileges of the bureaucracy. But now it has clearly landed Poland in political and economic crisis, the workers find this regime unbearable.”

The following paragraph showed quite aptly the situation at the time in Poland:

“In reality, the bureaucracy has been enormously weakened while the working class has been enormously strengthened, not only in numbers, but in its capacity of struggle, by the post-war industrialisation of Poland. Under such circumstances, a victory could easily be gained which would spread to the rest of Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union; and also have a decisive effect on the capitalist states of the West. That is what the bureaucracy – and the ruling class in the capitalist west – fear, and it is this that the workers have to understand.”

Solidarnosc still exists as an important trade union but is very different to what it was. Like many mass revolutionary movements it degenerated when the masses left the scene, allowing the movement to be hijacked by pro-capitalist, anti-communist forces, and even by the Catholic Church. The article itself explains the beginnings of this degeneration. The movement lacked clarity in ideas and the leaders lacked confidence in its rank-and-file. The west cynically used it to smear the ideas of communism with the crimes and inefficiencies of Stalinism. But at the time, it was an earth trembling event that was felt by workers everywhere.

The fifth article was written by an Italian worker and member of the FGSI (Italian Socialist Youth Federation) interviewing factory workers in Naples.

“Poland has been a victory for all workers – for Italian workers too. No, wait, those aren’t just big words; I’ll explain what I mean. Before the events in Gdansk there were many intellectuals in Italy, who were playing with the idea of anti-strike laws. Now these intellectuals have all disappeared all of a sudden; who at this moment would dare to talk about limiting the right to strike after what the working class has just done in Poland? So it’s a victory for all of us. But watch out – those intellectuals will be back.”
Another worker saw the further problem which the Polish struggles had highlighted; “Our union is no good, our officials elect themselves from amongst themselves; what’s happened to control? All right so we talk about Poland, but let’s have a bit of democracy around here too.”

The final article describes events 35 years after the Solidarnosc movement, in early 2015, when miners in Silesia in Southern Poland struck against privatisation amidst a global capitalist crisis and a particularly big plummet in energy prices. In a country with a so called “pro-capitalist consensus”, 68% of the population backed the strike whilst only 15% took the side of the government. The first strike wave in early January was successful; the militant mood of the strikers pushed the more conservative minded union leaders to threaten a general strike, which made Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz back off and accept the union’s demands.

19 days after the strike, however, it kicked off again when ten miners from a non-striking mine who had organised a solidarity picket with the strikers were sacked. In response, demonstrations were held next to the company’s HQ in the city of Jastrzebie on the 2nd and 9th of February, where tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were fired at unarmed protesters, injuring twenty people.

The sacking of miners taking solidarity strike action, followed by the use of brutal violence against the strikers, demonstrated just how worried the Polish state is by the potential power of the militant and organised working class. This is why the police were authorised to shoot at unarmed protestors.

Solidarity and Socialism

After this event, activists from the Scottish Socialist Party held a solidarity picket outside the Polish consulate in Edinburgh. Preparing for the picket was a revealing experience. Having leafleted almost all the shops and cafes on South Bridge, North Bridge and Leith Walk where many Polish workers are employed, we almost always encountered a positive response. One Polish barmaid smiled and said “I didn’t realise socialists did good things”; another chef said “Solidarność Towarzysz ” and laughed heartily. A waitress originally from Poznan said “Waw, I’ll put it up, my boss will take it down and tell me off but I don’t care, it’s about time”. I tried to persuade her not to risk her job but she was stubborn that it remained up.

Not all responses were positive. The weekend after the picket we were canvassing for Colin Fox (Edinburgh South SSP Parliamentary candidate). When knocking doors in a high rise block of flats in Moredun we met a Polish woman and told her about the picket. She said “good for you, but I came to Poland to get away from politics, I don’t have time” and slammed the door. This is to be expected. Although we are living in a time of increased radicalisation and politicisation, we cannot expect our message to reach everyone. It takes more than a leaflet or a pamphlet or even a solidarity picket to bring masses of people into political activity. It takes great events. As Trotsky said, the revolution takes place in people’s minds before it takes place on the streets. People can only take so much and they are forced to move and to fight. Strikes, demonstrations, and other sharp clashes of the working classes and the oppressed layers against the ruling classes and the state will bring masses of people into activity.

The workers will move when they are ready, not a second sooner, not a second later. The role of socialists and Marxists is to participate in the everyday class struggles, putting forward a socialist alternative and building a revolutionary organisation for when the masses of workers do finally move.

The brutal contradictions of capitalism that affect the consciousness of all workers and eventually drive masses of people into political activity are even more extreme for foreign-born workers. This paragraph from a TUC (Trade Union Congress) report shows very clearly how anti immigrant sentiments are fuelled by employers and the divisions exploited by them:

“The article reported on the outsourcing of staff, particularly housekeeping staff, in the sector and revealed how this is leading to a two-tier workforce in the sector, with a largely migrant workforce deployed through agencies and a diminishing in-house staff. The in-house staff are invariably on better pay rates and terms and conditions, but these are at risk due to the outsourcing and deployment of agency staff on far worse pay and conditions. This in itself provides a potential source of tension between the two groups of workers – a fact that unscrupulous employers are keen to exploit. The article also revealed a further form of exploitation, the requirement for staff to undertake ‘training’ or ‘inductions days’ without pay when they start their employment. Intimidation and easy dismissal of staff who complain is a feature of employment too and the poor working conditions and high levels of turnover make it difficult for trade unions to organise workers in the sector. The Guardian article reported the specific case of the Kensington Close Hotel, which under new ownership promptly outsourced its permanent housekeeping staff to employment agency Calibre International, while the newly transferred staff had wages protected under TUPE regulations, the 40 or so newly recruited agency maids (Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Mongolian workers) were being paid a piece rate of £2.08 per room, but this subsequently fell to £1.40 – £1.60 per room. As a result some workers were earning less than the minimum wage. Others were earning just £20 per day, while trainee maids worked up to three days ‘training’ without pay. This outsourcing had created a two-tier system with migrant workers on worse terms used to undermine existing terms and conditions. Longstanding members of the housekeeping staff at the Kensington Close hotel reported that they had not had a pay rise in almost five years and felt that tactics such as delayed implementation of paying revised national minimum wage rates were designed to ‘encourage’ them to leave so that they could be replaced by migrant agency workers on even worse terms and conditions.”

Since Poland’s 2004 entrance into the EU and the mass immigration to the UK, there have been efforts on the part of some trade unionists to organise this new layer of the working class. When Polish church-based community group Polski Bristol raised the problem that Polish people were having to pay taxes not just in the UK but also back in Poland, the South West TUC launched a campaign which pressured the governments of Poland and Britain to sign a treaty ensuring that this will no longer happen. In 2008, the TUC and Polish union organisations Solidarnosc and OPZZ signed a protocol to help Polish workers in the UK. A Polish language website was launched including guidance on worker’s rights. The following excerpt from a LibCom article shows a successful strike of Polish cleaners in Northampton in 2007.

“The mainly Polish workers employed by cleaning company Glenn Management to clean offices on the Moulton Park industrial estate, Northampton, had not been paid properly for around four months. However after only one day’s strike action they were paid the money that they were owed. One employee told Libcom: ‘We had been trying to get hold of our manager again and again but he was not interested in talking to us. Within half an hour of going on strike, however, he suddenly became very interested in what we had to say. First of all he told us that what we were doing was a disgrace and would endanger our jobs. When it became clear we would not be intimidated he tried to pay only those of us who spoke good English. When we made it clear that this wasn’t good enough we were all paid in full.’”

Capitalism and racism: divide and rule

As welcome and inspiring as this is, there is still a long way to go. The trade unions have barely touched the surface in terms of recruitment of Polish or any other immigrant workers in the UK. The TUC needs to take the lead in a campaign to unionise every worker – public, private, permanent, agency, indigenous or immigrant – and fight for recognition in every workplace. If this population could be recruited and brought into trade union activity it would be a crucial step forward for the labour movement.

In order to do this the trade unions need to be honest about the causes of such exploitation. Legislation against such employment abuses would be welcome, but would not solve the problem. The TUC needs to explain that this is an inherent symptom of capitalism; that none of this is needed; that there could be enough jobs for migrant and indigenous workers and they could be well paid. Trillions of pounds are hoarded or squandered in the name of profit. The labour movement must show that it is ready to fight for a system where the working people own and democratically control this wealth and can run the economy in their interest.

Whether it is legally through the already existing trade unions or through spontaneous illegal action (like Solidarnsoc 1980), workers will eventually organise. If the existing trade unions let them down they will eventually form new structures, which the 3 Cosas strike of Latin American cleaners at the University of London showed. Whether through the existing labour movement or through wildcat actions, the role of Marxists is to participate alongside workers in their struggle, whilst explaining the need for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society and building an organisation which can give movements clear ideas in the future.

Tensions are further fuelled with the use of reactionary, racist and slanderous media. The looming possible referendum on the EU gives the establishment and the right wing every opportunity to broadcast their reactionary bile at the expense of the nerves of the hard working EU migrants. Since 2007 there has been a reported 42 racially motivated attacks on Polish people throughout the UK, and this figure would increase considerably if those unreported were included. The British establishment may pay lip service against such hatred, but in reality they benefit from the exploitation and divisions. As has been shown with Black and Asian immigrant workers, the British ruling class is very willing to exploit their cheap labour whilst perpetuating racist and divisive ideologies.

Workers of all countries: unite!

As Liebknecht said, our many enemy is in our own country. The enemy of British workers is the British ruling class; the establishment. The ideas of British nationalism and chauvinism are completely opposed to the interests of British workers. So of course is the ideology of Scottish nationalism, which socialists in Scotland must fight to expose the bankruptcy of. Our only ideology is a proletarian ideology of internationalist class solidarity. An injury to one is an injury to all.

As the late twentieth century Trotskyist, Ted Grant, said “Not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines without the kind permission of the working classes”. We create the wealth. We run the world. The only problem is we don’t yet collectively realise it. We are living in a time of revolutionary upheavals worldwide. This will affect the UK and Poland and we have full confidence in the revolutionary potential of the Polish working classes, whether in Poland or here.

We encourage readers to read, question and if you agree, join us in fighting for a world devoid of oppression, devoid of totalitarianism, devoid of racism and false national divisions. Fight for a system where those who create the wealth, own and control it. This is no easy task, but as Rosa Luxemburg also said: “Socialism or barbarism” — there is no other option. We believe that socialism is possible, but not without your help.

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