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There are many problems at Volkswagen, but no one talks about them

  • Dział: English news

A conversation with Andrzej and Sebastian, who are among the organizers of the Inter-Factory Committee with the Workers’ Initiative (Inicjatywa Pracownicza) at the Volkswagen plant in Poznań, Poland

Why are workers at VW dissatisfied? And where did the idea of joining another trade
union, other than „Solidarność”, come from?

Andrzej: Problems have been piling up for years. The way we see it, “Solidarność” wasn’t doing anything. I mean that it wasn’t doing all that the workers expected it to do. They were preparing something with the company management, they were signing things, but they never consulted anything with the shop floor. We didn’t know what they would be fighting for or what they would be agreeing on with the management. They only thing they said was that the workers would be satisfied. Two “Solidarność” delegates worked on my production line. When I would ask them what was going on in the union, they were never able to tell me anything, they never knew anything. It seemed that “the top” was blocking what kind of information could be passed on to “the bottom”. Meanwhile, those on “the bottom” also wanted to help out. We would tell them that if you have some sort of a problem, we could organize a protest, etc.

Sebastian: But most often there would never be any response to our suggestions.

Andrzej: The last straw was when „Solidarność” didn’t block the 17th shift, meaning second shift work on Saturday. They hadn’t discussed this with the crew. Ultimately, I wrote on FB that all of this was a blow at us, the workers. That it is we who have to work three shifts; we have to come in on Saturdays at the expense of our families, our friends and our hobbies. The situation became even more tense when we found out in July that we would have to work over the long weekend in August, when many of us already had vacations planned. I wrote that it can’t be that for half the year we know that we have off and then suddenly we are told that we have to work. The foremen came round to the workers, especially to those who were on temporary contracts, telling them that they had to come in over the long weekend in August and that they better remember that their contract was about to run out. So they tried to blackmail them. This made me really mad. They tell us that the company is really sympathetic to the workers and to their families, and then suddenly we find out that we have to come in during our off days because in the end, VW’s goals are more important than we are.

So you got a disciplinary dismissal for your post about the 17th shift and about forcing people to come in to work over the long weekend in August. There were also suggestions on FB about the need for a new trade union. That’s why Inicjatywa Pracownicza claims that the reason for firing three people from VW was not some alleged attack on the company, but rather the intention of starting a new organization.

Andrzej: Exactly. I want to make it clear that I didn’t write anything about VW producing lousy cars. I am convinced that it produces good cars. In fact, I wasn’t referring to the company and its management as much as to “Solidarność”; that it doesn’t do anything.

Sebastian: I wrote a comment on Andrzej’s private account saying that many people might not come in to work over the long weekend in August. That the masters are sitting around while we work. Because I was employed on a temporary contract, they fired me according to “normal” procedure. They told me they didn’t have to give me a reason. I don’t really know what the official reason for firing me was.

What was the IP founding meeting like?

Andrzej: The founding meeting took place on Sunday, August 6th. We announced it on FB. Because people already knew that some workers were fired for criticizing “Solidarność”, they were pissed off. That’s why more than 120 people came to the meeting. Many more workers wanted to come but for various reasons couldn’t. I kept getting text messages from them.

Sebastian: Currently, after four weeks, the union has over 300 members and declarations keep coming in. We have people in all the factories, meaning Antoninek [a district in Poznań], Swarzędz and Września, except for the foundry. For the moment most of them are from Antoninek. There are slightly different problems in Września because people there work two shifts from Monday through Friday. But eventually they are also supposed to start working three shifts on the 17-shift system. From what I’ve observed, there is a lot of interest in IP at the Września plant. Temp workers are of course also signing up.

What actions have you organized since founding IP?

Sebastian: From the moment we founded the union we started doing regular flyer distributions at the entrances to the factories, as well as giving out declaration forms. Our mates are also now collecting signatures on a petition addressed to VW demanding that we are reinstated back to work. We’ve written a series of appeals to the company management. There was also a meeting with the company directors.

There is a lively discussion going on and a meeting took place among the crew members, to which a couple dozen people came, to talk about demands. Which of the problems raised by the crew members do you consider to be the most important? What are the demands?

Andrzej: The basic demand is to eliminate the 17th shift, although they tell us that this is impossible because of the large amount of orders. But in such an arrangement, losing Saturdays must be adequately financially compensated, definitely much more so than it is now. Second are of course wage raises. For example, the average wage in Slovakia, before the increases that the workers managed to win there (an increase of almost 14% over the next 1 ½ years) amounted to 1,800 euros. Here, on the production line, the average wage is 1,000 euros. We don’t have the exact data yet, but we are sure that the wages at VW in Poland are decidedly lower than in Slovakia, especially following the increases that I mentioned.

Sebastian: According to us, VW is growing, everything is moving forward, more orders are coming in, and the 17th shift is evidence to that. As such, the workers have the right to make higher wage demands.

Andrzej: Some people have been getting wage raises individually, but they are very few. During the year we also get a so-called “inflation” increase. Recently that amounted to about 100 zlotys (23 euros). But at the same time the company’s expectations as to our work hours and our availability are increasing. The norms are also increasing. The problem mainly concerns young workers, who earn little at the start and the question is how long will they have to wait to get a proper wage and earn as much as the “senior” workers. For the moment it seems that they will have to wait a very long time.

Sebastian: I started the job relatively recently. At the beginning I was getting a basic pre-tax pay of 2,800 zlotys (656 euros). After a few guaranteed raises over a period of three years my pre-tax income was 3,800 zlotys (890 euros). With a bunch of bonuses (for working the night shift, for not taking sick days, etc.) I got an additional 400-500 zlotys (94 -117 euros). There is also the so-called quality bonus and the quarterly bonus, but these aren’t always given and they don’t amount to very much. The situation of young workers is also difficult because of the pressure: they are often thrown in at the deep end. They don’t have the experience but the clock is ticking. They aren’t always able to stand this pressure and they quit. One of my mates had an upset stomach for half a year. People even talk about how “young” workers are bullied.

What percentage of workers at VW are temporary workers?

Andrzej: Among about 10 thousand people employed at all of the VW factories, we estimate that about 1/3 of those working on the production line are temp workers.

Sebastian: Up until now, temp workers had to work three years before they could be employed by VW. Starting this year, this is supposed to change to 1 ½ years. In the past we would be moved from one agency to another in order to avoid legal regulations concerning temp work. That’s how it went in my case. When I got close to 1 ½ years of work, they told me to take a vacation and use up my leave time in entirety (which I was supposed to diligently collect before) and after that I went back to work at VW but through a different agency. Although in theory temp workers can’t earn less, in this case they also manage to bypass the law. Temps work positions that are ranked higher in the wage structure while earning the official wage at which they were hired, and which is of course ranked lower in the wage structure.

Besides „young” workers and temps, are there any other groups in particular need of union support?

Andrzej: That’s workers aged 50 and over, who often have a hard time for health reasons and because of the concussions they’ve had over the years. There’s a growing number of workers like that.  At the same time the norms are being increased and we work longer, at least periodically. Theoretically there are posts especially for this group, but there are too few of them and often time workers get them because they have good relations with the right people, and not because they need them.

Sebastian: There’s also the problem of safety at work.

Andrzej: You can see that there are serious problems at VW. Meanwhile the management and “Solidarność” make the situation out to be too rosy, as if everyone was satisfied. They downplay a lot of issues. Now apparently the Germans are surprised that something is not right and that workers in Poland are starting to rise up.

There are supposed to be wage negotiations between VW’s management and IP…

Andrzej: Wage negotiations are a top priority. Next in line is how particular workers are treated, because we are not all treated equally. Third is that workers should be able to choose their leaders. Leaders should not be appointed by the management. These are the issues we want to discuss.

Do you foresee the possibility of entering into a collective dispute and announcing a strike action?

Andrzej and Sebastian: That is a possibility of course.

How do you see IP’s activity at VW? How will what you do differ from what “Solidarność” has been doing?

Sebastian: We have to be visible on the shop floor because everything depends on the production line workers.

Andrzej: We don’t want to organize the way „Solidarność” has. We also don’t want any offices or union organizers employed by the boss.

VW workers in Slovakia were able to win pay raises. There is also talk of a strike in Portugal. How does the VW crew in Poznań, Swarzędz and Września comment on this? What do you think about it?

Andrzej: The workers’ protest in Slovakia had direct influence on our decision to start a new trade union. The workers in Portugal don’t want the 16th and 17th shift, meaning they don’t want to work on Saturdays. They want to have off. They want to have their weekends and time with their families. The VW crew members talk a lot about the events in Slovakia and Portugal. The Slovaks were apparently surprised that “Solidarność” didn’t want to join their protest. People on the shop floor say that trade unions in Slovakia had even sent some sort of letter to “Solidarność”, to which it is said to have replied that the situation in Poland is not bad and that they are negotiating with the management, etc. In the meantime, a few days ago IP received a letter from workers at the Spanish VW who are members of the CGT trade union (which is allied with IP). We also got in contact with people in Slovakia.

Do you see the possibility of developing cooperation on the international level?

Andrzej: It’s not a possibility, it’s a necessity. We have to be aware of the fact that we are dealing with an international corporation. Scandals like “dieselgate” [revealed in 2015, “dieselgate” was the illegal process of installing software into VW cars, which allowed for manipulating emission readings from the exhaust system] have direct influence on the situation of workers in all countries where VW cars are produced. That’s why we have to join forces. Issues like this affect us all.

Sebastian: By the way, not one of the VW bosses was really held accountable for that scandal. If something like that concerned a simple worker, this would not be the case. As you can see with the both of us, even moderate criticism of the company, or calling for a new trade union can land you in hot water and out of a job.