Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nurses set up tent village in Poland

This summer, several thousand nurses from Poland's state hospitals camped out in tents in front of the prime minister's office for four weeks [1]. Their protest was aimed at raising their poor wages of 1,200 to 1,300 Zl (approx. 320 Euros) a month [2]. The tent action itself was triggered by police violence against participants of a large nurses' demo on June 19. Subsequently, several nurses from the leadership of the OZZPiP union [3] occupied a room in the pm's office for a week in order to force the pm to talk to them, while outside the building the "white town" quickly grew to about 150 tents in which an average of 300 inhabitants took shifts over the weeks. Most of them were OZZPiP activists who came on the free days, took holidays or union leave for the action. The nurses quit their camp without concrete results when the pm left for his holidays on Juli 15.

Everyone loves the nurses ...

The "public" received the protests very positively. A great majority in the country supported the action and agreed with the wage demands, according to polls. Many people came along spontaneously and brought food, blankets or sleeping bags. People were impressed with the women's determination and optimism. Many seemed to have been waiting for this movement which exemplified the concerns of a large part of society: Poland is modernising and turning into one of the EU's extended workbenches, but wages have remained low [4]. The nurses also made the connection to the current emigration move: "Stay healthy, we're leaving!" or "We want to work not emigrate".

Support came not only from almost all left-wing groups and grouplets [5] but - at least verbally - also from the neoliberal opposition who likes anything that gets the religious-right-wing government into trouble. PO [6] leader Tusk condemned the police brutality just like Warsaw's PO mayor, former central bank boss Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Stars and starlets from the cultural scene gave concerts and/or spent a night in a tent.

Even though other unions like left-wing Sierpie? 80 tried to get their foot into the door of the action, their influence remained limited to participation in the tent village's assemblies which discussed practical questions like protection from attacks. The OZZPiP seek their allies among neoliberals - for instance they asked the boss of the private employers' association, Bochniarz, to negotiate for them -, but politically their monopoly was never questioned.

... but what exactly was it about?

Despite all the positive public feedback hardly anyone knew what actually happened in detail. For instance, many declared their solidarity with the "nurses' strike" although the nurses did not strike at all [7]. There was no lack of strikes in Poland this year, however, like warning strikes for wage rises at Fiat in Tychy and Bielsko-Biala, at Opel in Gliwice or repeated wildcat strikes at the Cegielski machine factory in Poznan. The bus drivers in Kielce ...

The nurses' concrete demands were as little known as the fact that there was no strike. Somehow they're asking 30 per cent more, right? In reality, the OZZPiP did not demand a direct pay rise but demanded the extension of the law concerning the rise of subsidies to personell costs from 2006. After a doctors' strike in early 2006, this law made additional subsidies for the National Health Funds NFZ available in order to raise personell spendings by 30 per cent in the period from July 2006 to September 2007.

Polish hospitals are permanently skint [8] and regularly receive similar financial support. The public Polish health system is chronically underfinanced (Poland spends about 4 per cent of its GDP on its health system, compared to 10 per cent in Germany and 15 per cent in the USA). There are lobbies in all parties who would like to commercialise the health system in order to open up the potentially huge health business for clinics, private practices and the pharmaceutical and medical technology industries. However, nobody knows how to finance this. On the one hand, raising the current health insurance contributions of 11,45 per cent or making the employers pay (in Poland contributions are paid exclusively by workers) are seen as politically inacceptable. On the other hand, an official return to budget funding would effectively block the road to commercialisation. So further small steps are being made on this road, like the introduction of private supplementary insurances (so far only between 1 and 2 per cent of people in Poland have something like that) and the creation of legal possibilities for doctors to make money on the side (so far they take an estimated 1 to 3 billion Euros of bribes a year from patients [9]). At the same time, the current system is kept on its feet with temporary exceptional regulations.

The OZZPiP demands to extend the abovementioned law for several years after 1 October 2007. They want to raise health spendings - no matter if through subsidies or through rising contributions - i.e. they want to enlarge the cake and thereby also enlarge the total wage year by year. On the other hand, nobody has ever talked about a 30 per cent wage increase, neither in the future nor in the past. According to the OZZPiP, the 30 per cent cost increase through the 2006 law has resulted in an average 17 per cent wage increase. [10]

In the background: the doctors' strike

The fact that the 30 per cent cost increase was written into a law at all was due to a doctors' strike. And in 2007 they are fighting for their interest again. Because the biggest strike in 2007 - the longest and the one with the biggest participation - was the doctors' strike which started on 21 May. Current wages are very heterogeneous and some of them below 1,500 Zl. The doctors' union OZZL has made clear nationwide demands: They want three times the national statistical average wage for specialised doctors, double for the others. Thus doctors not only talk about concrete amounts but also mark the social distance they would like to keep. The union left the decision about strikes to local strike committees in individual hospitals - just like negotiations and agreements. According to the union, there were strikes in different forms in about 230 of Poland's 800 state hospitals. In some places planned operations were cancelled, in others there were only emergency services, still others boycotted the settlement of accounts with the NFZ. Additionally, about 3,500 of 120,000 doctors in the Polish Health Service gave notice of termination. By now (late August) most hospitals have signed different agreements - and many doctors have called off their notices of termination. OZZL leader Bukiel - also advisor of the ultra-neoliberal party UPR - used the attention created by the strike - and the nurses' protest - to keep reiterating his main demand: privatisation of the Health Service!

Unlike the nurses' the doctors haven't endeared themselves to the public. On 21 August patients even occupied a hospital in Radom to protest against the doctors' strike. The doctors have neither shown a lot of consideration for patients nor tried to struggle together with the nurses.

Similarly, the OZZPiP see themselves as a representation of certified nurses and keep their distance from other hospital workers (assistant nurses, ambulance drivers, cleaning workers etc.). Instead, they attach themselves to the doctors and their representatives who were frequent and welcome guests in the "white town". They still do not plan any strikes although their demands have not been met. In late August, the union put up some tents again in front of Parliament and talked to the press. They also promise continued protests in September.

And the nurses?

Although many nurses in Poland liked the action this does not necessarily mean that they share the union's view about doctors or about the privatisation of the health system. But they have not spoken out nor organised any actions of their own. The "white town" looked a lot more lively than the usual plastic-bag-dress union rituals in Germany but still the action was organised from above - even though it must have been great for the participating nurses to get out of their usual lives, get to know colleagues from other cities and bathe in the "public's" sympathy for a few weeks.

Maybe the nurses in the country simply reckon like this: The average 17 per cent wage increase they received in 2006 still mean low wages in absolute figures (about 200 Zl more) and compared to other occupational groups. But they are among Poland's highest percentual wage increases in the last years. Workers in the automobile industry got less: After years of almost no wage increases at all, this year the union (Solidarno??) felt obliged to stake a stand and organise warning strikes and then signed quick and poor agreements: For example, Solidarno?? at Opel in Gliwice had demanded 500 Zl more per month and then signed a single payment of 2,500 Zl (approx. 200 Zl per month) with an average monthly net wage of about 2,300 Zl. In the postal service a spectacular wave of wildcat strikes last year resulted in a disappointing increase of 110 Zl monthly [11]. Therefore the nurses may speculate that the union will get them a good result again. By attaching themselves to the doctors who receive all the anger, they do not even have to spoil their moral position with the "public" and the patients. It remains to be seen whether this speculation will work out.