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In Defense of the Polish Miners
poland / czech / slovakia | workplace struggles | opinion / analysis Thursday July 28, 2005 01:56 by Laure Akai - FA Praga cube at zigzag dot pl
Miners fight to defend retirement rights
Why the rioting miners in Warsaw were not only justified in their demands but they actually were asking for way too little. On July 26, about 8000 miners descended upon Warsaw. This was the largest protests the miners had had since 2003 when they brought riots to the city.
In Defense of the Miners
On July 26, about 8000 miners descended upon Warsaw. They had come to the
Sejm, the Polish parliament, to protest reforms in retirement rules which
allow them to retire after 25 years of work. A number of unions organized
for the protest, which was the largest the miners had had since 2003 when
they brought riots to the city.
The miners, who have long been at the forefront of the labor movement,
unfortunately have become victims of much interclass antagonism. The media
has portrayed them as drunk, volatile elements who use violence to force
unreasonable demands down people's throats. If some years ago workers from
other sections of the economy (and other regions of the country) largely
sympathized with the miners, nowadays, a disturbingly large segment of the
population have begun to parrot the government line: that mines are
unprofitable, that miners are overpaid, have unreasonable privileges and
are, in essence, a burden on the economy. In other words, other workers have
begun to feel like they are subsidizing the miners' free ride.
In fact, the case looks very much different. The coal market is booming.
Some years ago, coal sold for 20 dollars a ton - now it sells for over 60.
(1) Demand, both local and for export, is high due to the increased
construction and production in Poland and the huge Chinese market. And the
coal companies, most of which have not been privatized (2), are reaping
record profits. So much in fact that even their very optimistic profit
forecasts were exceeded. (3) Of course business people would argue that 40%
of the labor force had to be downsized over the last 10 years to achieve
this. (4) And many more redundancies are expected in the future. And while
it is true that the coal market is cyclical, forecasts predict good times
for the coal industry for some years to come. (See KW's 2007 forecast
Back to the miners, there are theoretically other options to early
retirement, like career changes after some years but unfortunately there are
no other jobs on the market in their region - or at least no jobs they could
fill without retraining. This would require a social commitment and a more
vigorous rejection of age discrimination. However, tendencies in the job
market are towards hiring younger, cheaper workers, even in skilled jobs and
the government created employment programs which allow employers to
circumvent many social costs and pay lower wages to first-time job seekers.
To the miners, it may seem that other alternative employment is a distant
dream. In fact, we may suppose that if other employment were readily
available, fewer people might even choose to be miners without special
What the people forget about when complaining about the uppity miners are
the categories of other workers which have early retirement benefits. Such
as the police. Or soldiers. (Allowed to retire after 15 years and with
generous housing, health and retraining allowances.) Even many civil
servants may retire early. I have more sympathy with the miners.
When confronted with these facts, people's moods seem to change. People
sometimes change their tone and become more sympathetic, although, still
thinking that their tax money pays for all this, the resentment cannot help
but triumph. The mood set by the media machine is hard to overcome.
But the question we should be asking is not why we should pay for early
retirement or not, but why aren't the miners in charge of the profits of
this industry? If the mines were run by collectives of miners, excess
profits could be sent to a fund to cover early retirement expenses. Right
now, much of he industry's wealth goes not towards wages but to the state,
to paying back the state's debts, and, as is typical with state controlled
companies, into a vortex of sorts. Individual theft of state resources and
gross mismanagement continue to be a huge problem.
Not that they would be any better off if the industry were privatized. Then
the miners would be working for company profits, for the bosses and
shareholders. In coal (and in steel) even a relatively modest shareholder
can earn enough money on the profits of this industry to allow himself an
early retirement. It's exactly these shareholders, including, ironically,
many people's pension funds, that force more and more rationalization
schemes that hurt the miners economically in order to give more profit for
the shareholders. Of course we rarely hear miners on TV complaining that the
money sucked out of mining companies has meant that their labor is paying
for the retirement nest eggs of tens of thousands of others.
This is part of the horror of investment capitalism; that the better or more
secure financial future of workers with capital to spare and pension schemes
is ensured by firing people, pushing costs down and maximizing corporate
profits. It is a vicious circle that only can be broken by abolishing such
investment, by taking the profit motive out of industry.
And in all this financial shuffling, whether by private capitalists or state
ones, it's the miners whose production value is being controlled on their
behalf but not in their interests. It's time not to think about getting more
value out of the miners by making them work longer, but about getting rid of
the state and capitalist vampires that suck the life blood out of all of us.
When the people control things, either coal production will by cut as we
find alternatives to and reject current production models or a much wider
segment of the population will take turns working in the mines and nobody
will work there for more than a few months. No more subproletariats doing
all the shit work and reaping few of the benefits. The yuppie workers in
their steel skyscrapers forget that without miners, farmers, factory
workers, none of their shitty money counts for anything. It's time to get
over the illusions of the skilled and educated workers that the lowly miner
needs to accept more humble working conditions. On the contrary, all of us
workers not only deserve, but we can do much better for ourselves.
Videos of miners' riot in Warsaw:
(1) Different sorts of coal have different prices and a lot depends of the
end user. One company sells for over 150 dollars a ton to retail customers.
(2) Although there are some private mines, most coal mines are part of 7
companies owned by the State Treasury. They hope to consolidate these into
two companies to be privatized in full.
(3) One example, KHW, which has 7 mines, exceeded their forecasts by 30% in the first 6 months of 2005, earning gross profits of 86.4 million zl. (29 million dollars).
Kompania Weglowa (KW) which is the largest coal company in the EU, also made healthy profits. Their net profits (sorry, no figure for gross) were 121.9 million zl.(over 40 million dollars) in the first five months of 2005. Last week the state transferred stock and cash to them for a capital increase of 900 million zl. (300 million dollars). KW has set a target of 1 billion zl. net profit for 2007, almost 400% percent higher than what they forecast by the end of this year.
(KW financial statement, 22.07. 2005
(4) The World Bank of course was involved in the restructuring process.
In 2004 alone, the state took $300,000 million dollars from the World Bank
to restructure the coal industry. Poland owes the World Bank 5.9 billion
dollars. The cost of coal restructuring - between 2 and 4 billion dollars.
Sun 26 May, 14:14
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