100,000 Polish unionists protest government labour policies in Warsaw march

WARSAW, Poland – Threatening a general strike, throwing smoke grenades and blowing whistles, around 100,000 Polish union members marched through Warsaw on Saturday to vent their anger against the government’s labour and wage policies.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government is rapidly losing popularity after recently raising the retirement age, announcing a reform of the pension system and relaxing some labour code provisions that allow for longer daily and weekly working hours.

The demonstrators marched to the historic Castle Square with flags and balloons in national white-and-red colours and with banners saying “Tusk’s government Must Go,” and with individual plaques reading: “I am Tusk’s Slave.”

They converged on Warsaw from all over Poland on the last of four days of major protests in the city that also included meetings with politicians and debates with labour market experts.

Some of them have camped in front of parliament since their first march Wednesday.

The organizers — Poland’s largest union, OPZZ, Solidarity and groups representing various professions — said about 120,000 participated in the march Saturday. City authorities said there were some 100,000.

The unionists said that the policies of Tusk’s pro-market government hurt the interests of workers and of their families. Tusk is in his sixth year in office and is Poland’s longest-serving premier since the fall of communism in 1989.

A nurse interviewed on TVN24 said that after 31 years in her job her monthly earnings are 2,000 zlotys ($630.)

OPZZ leader Jan Guz said the march was a warning and if the government does not change its policies “we will block the whole country, we will block every highway, every road” to demand better work conditions.

“We don’t accept a policy that leads to poverty,” Guz said amid the noise of whistles and horns.

Poland has experienced big strikes in the past. In the 1980s, the Solidarity freedom movement organized nationwide strikes that eventually led to democratic reforms.

The marchers complained of large-scale layoffs after economic growth slowed down to 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product last year from 4.5 per cent in 2011. They want job security and contracts that guarantee health care and retirement benefits at a time when unemployment is at 13 per cent and many companies offer short-term contracts without social security.

Workers say average monthly wages of about 3,700 zlotys ($1,150) before tax are among Europe’s lowest. They also want the reversal of a recent raise in the retirement age to 67 years from the previous 60 years for women and 65 years for men.

The ruling coalition of Tusk’s centre-liberal Civic Platform and a peasant party has been losing popularity to the nationalist opposition Law and Justice party of former prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and its parliament majority has shrunk precariously to 232 votes in the 460-member lower house.

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