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“Changing society is more difficult than doing your laundry” — an interview with Jarosław Przęczek, a Polish union leader

Boyan Stanislavski of The Socialist Network speaks with Jarosław Tomasz Przęczek, a local union leader in Poland who’s recently been in the center of a major campaign after getting illegally fired for — as he describes it — “being a pain in the ass” of the management in a furniture factory belonging to a leading manufacturer. He explains his story and makes many general conclusions about politics and the atmosphere in Poland. 

 

How does it feel to be the most famous labor leader in Poland?

I don?t know. I?m not one. The top leaders of the biggest confederations are still much more recognizable than I am. Although, it?s a fact, the campaign after what happened in the factory where I worked became a major industrial dispute in Poland.

What happened?

I have been illegally fired.

That sounds like a pretty popular practice to fire people illegally. At least in Poland and Eastern Europe. What makes your illegal firing special?

A few things. Number one — I am a trade union leader. According to the Polish Labor Code and other legal acts regulating industrial disputes three main organizers pointed by the union cannot be sacked, they enjoy a particular kind of legal protection. To be more accurate, they can be sacked, but an employer who is willing to do it is obliged to get an approval from the union this person belongs to. In practice — it is impossible to obtain one. In my case the unions firmly said no and it?s evident. I mean the rejection of the employers request is available in a written form. Then comes a whole row of legal infringements, I guess it?s rather boring.

Number two — they fired me, and they stated it, for contributing an article to a newly established Polish left-wing daily paper — ?Dziennik Trybuna?. In this article I have described in details the reasons for which my employer won a kind of non-official competition organized by one anarchist group in the internet for the title of the ?worst employer of the year?. The article was actually pretty soft and revealed just the top of the iceberg, but my bosses obviously freaked out having read it. Since it all kind of went through this daily paper I mentioned it quickly became a scandalous story, even some mainstream media noted it.

And the internet exploded — here we come to the number three. Maybe it?s not so nice to boast about oneself the way I will do it now, but I?m not a typical Polish local union leader. I consider myself a class fighter and to be a successful one I joined the union back in 2009 and I’ve been struggling intensely since then. I use all kinds of modern technologies, internet platforms, social networks and so on in my work. You probably know it even better than I how untypical this is for an average Polish unionist. Since I?m pretty active in the virtual world I?m known there and this is one of the reasons things spread so fast.

Do you really seem to be saying that you haven?t done pretty much anything and things just started to happen by themselves because you are a known figure in the Polish internet?

Are you kidding? First of all, I?m not a known figure in the Polish internet. I?m no famous blogger or anything like that. It?s just that people that are interested in social problems, politics and unions know me as I am one of the most available unionists in the internet. That?s all. But of course things hardly ever start just like that, by themselves. I took a conscious decision that I want a proper campaign and I started discussion with many people, including you by the way. The idea was well received, especially that the way they had fired me is particularly outrageous. The campaign is partially ran by my trade union and the confederation it belongs to, but this is too little in these times.

What exactly was so outrageous in the way you were fired? Is it like the success of the current campaign depends on that?

Absolutely not. Tones of outrageous sackings happen every month here. It just added to the flame. The major outrage is that it is obvious that the press publication I mentioned was just a pretext. They claimed I have distorted the image of the company. I have not done that — they have done it the way they treat workers. I just made it public. They wanted me out ever since I can remember as I am a terrible pain in the ass for the management. Not because I?m doing anything special, just because I?m trying to prevent this furniture factory I worked at to be turned into a labor-camp; which it still reminds one of despite my efforts. Or maybe it is a special thing to do in a way in Poland. I did not embark the idiotic idea of ?social dialogue? which, at least here in Poland, means nothing much but legal super-exploitation covered by bureaucratic arrangements in the so called Tripartite Commission. I went for an open confrontation. By the way, I have to say I am really glad that last week the three major Polish union confederations decided to withdraw their presence from this meaningless body. It seems like we?re heading towards mass protests this fall. Finally!

Sorry, but it really doesn’t sound particularly outraging. I mean, not by Polish standards. I used to edit one of the biggest trade union journals in Poland for three years and, you can trust me, things like that happen all the time.

Yes and no. It?s a fact that many union leaders get immediately illegally fired once they confront their employer, but not many try to make a popular scandal out if it. I did and it worked. Another outraging factor is that they are really cynical. I am an ill person. I have diabetes and require constant medical treatment which is not completely free in Poland, particularly when it comes to drugs and medical accessories to administer them. My wife is unemployed and we have a daughter which has recently been also diagnosed with diabetes. Having fired me the way they did we?re left with nothing to live off. They used a particular paragraph in the Labour Code which allows a worker to be kicked out just like that. This is generally used against workers who steal or come drunk to work. Also the company invested a lot in a kind of black PR against me, just to make sure I get no job in the area. You see, this is how capitalist ?competition? works… I am outraged and people that know these details are outraged as well. For once! Because one of the goals of the campaign is to expose the arrogance of the rich and the government that is backing them all the time.

Is this the main goal?

No, the main one is to sort out the thing between me and my employer. A court suit is underway, but a lot of pressure has to be put on the company.

What company is it? Tell us something about your (ex)employer.

We?re talking about ?Black Red White? here. BRW is a leading furniture manufacturer in Poland, founded in 1991. The company’s headquarters are located in Biłgoraj. Black Red White is the biggest Polish manufacturer of traditional and new furniture systems, living room, kitchen, bedroom and office furniture, furniture for children and teenagers, chairs and tables as well as upholstered fittings made of furniture panels, MDF and solid wood. BRW consists of 17 production plants which employ over 6 000 people. Total production volume exceeding 180 000 000 sq ft of furniture panels a year, wholesale of over 7 000 000 cabinets annually and over 800 furniture models place BRW S.A. in the top ten plants of this kind in the world. Such a large-scale production combined with enormous exploitation of workers lowers costs and allows them to offer very low prices. BRW has branches in Canada, USA and in a few countries in Europe. We?re talking about a gigant here! And imagine this company is constantly starved of money. Everytime I went to discuss wages or social funds, they always replied that their pockets are empty. And they pay so little… Nearly everyone is on a minimum wage there.

What is the union presence there?

We have a Furniture Workers Union which is part of the All-Poland Trade Union Alliance, a left wing labor confederation. I am leading a basic, local organization of the FWU in that factory. Somewhat 1/3 of the workers of BRW Sofa — this is how the factory I worked at is called — is in my union.

I guess it?s not yours anymore…

Oh, no. It?s is ?mine? in a sense that I keep leading it. You don?t have to be employed is a particular workplace to lead a union operating there. It?s not a common practice, but it happens.

What is going to happen with the union now since a leader of your format is absent since quite some time?

The union will survive and I have no intention abandoning it.

But will you reinstated at work?

I don?t know. It is possible, but judging by how they treat me now I can expect that the first day I?m back at work I will be fired again. One way or another the union will survive and even if I don?t work there I will not unsubscribe from the labour movement. I think it?s time to train other unioin leaders to become a real pain in the ass, like I am in BRW Sofa. Once this phenomenon becomes massive, the atmosphere is going to change.

Is this your personal goal?

It?s one of the goals of the campaign. Look, I’ve been illegally fired. The breach of the law here is more than obvious. Things could have been sorted out quietly. They way they did it was just an act of desperation on their side. They read the article in ?Dziennik Trybuna?, they freaked out and they wanted me out immediately. So they did it wrongly. I will win in any court. But it?s not enough for me. I am an activists and I want the society and the workers to learn from what happens here. The question of the atmosphere is absolutely crucial here. This is what we should aim at as activists, union leaders and politicians.

Do you consider yourself a politician?

Not in the ordinary sense. I?m not part of the gang, but I am politically active therefore I am a politician. I conduct political activity. Actually we all do, but not many are prepared to admit it. Politics became something really dirty here during the last 30 years especially.

OK, what kind of politician are you?

A firmly anti-capitalist one. Left, socialist-anarchist kind of.

Since we started talking about politics… How can this atmosphere you?re talking about be changed in your opinion?

I don?t know. I mean, I?m sure that such campaigns are super important, but I?m not sure how can a major breakthrough be made. One thing I am sure. None of the official parties can change it. People look towards all public institutions and political parties with such a distrust that you just can?t mobilize anyone to support any of them. Unions could play a huge role, but they are huge bureaucratic organizations — I?m talking of the top three confederations now — who?s leaders seem to be, to a bigger or lesser extent, out of touch with modern reality. Fact is that the unions are the only massive organizations here (apart from the catholic church) and this is an excellent advantage. I think we all need a serious discussion, I?m sure such an organic work we all do — like the current campaign is extremely important, but I guess (and hope) it?s not all we can do. The society is crying out for a major change and the level of anger and frustration grew to levels unheard of probably in the whole of the Polish history. But the status quo still survives. Why? How to change that? To answer these questions is still a task ahead of us. But just to sum up and not to make any confusion — I do not know how to change the atmosphere. I know how you and I can contribute to it, but I don?t know what can be done in a broader perspective. Do you know?

Not really.

Well, there?s two of us now not knowing and wanting to know. Surely, there is no easy, one-time solution. Changing society is not doing your laundry where you just put things in a washing machine, add some detergent, and — blink! — it?s done in half an hour. There are no pills society can take against capitalism. There are no prescriptions either.

There are some left wing groupings who claim they know how to achieve such a change.

Yes, but most of them (if not all) have a major cognitive problem. No matter how left they are or claim to be, they have not understood one of the most important Marxist theories; namely that it?s the being which determines the consciousness and not the other way around. When you turn the table here you end up in right-wing science fiction world where the reality is nothing but a mega-projection of what you have in your head. When you get to this point you need a therapist to discuss with and not a political or/and union activist. Really, you can?t build anything on the periphery. You need to be where things happen. And some important ones happen in the unions. As we both know, right?

Right.

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