Volkswagen Poznań through the eyes of a worker

I’ve been working at VW Poznań for over 10 years already. I write “already” because time flies by real fast in that factory. In order to get hired by VW, I had to first work for a temporary work agency called Work Service for three years. I don’t know a single temp worker who wasn’t pushed around by the foremen saying that if he refuses to work overtime, they won’t extend his contract. I had to sign temporary work contracts for a month at a time. Because of that, every month you would have a great deal of stress on you.

Although we have Solidarność at VW, in my perspective they mostly concern themselves with recruiting workers who are moving from the temp agency to VW, and with collecting dues from them. They tell people that once you join the union, Solidarność will help you out if you run into trouble with the boss. Joining the union is also supposed to raise your guarantee of getting an indefinite-term work contract. Often time people join the union only because the foremen are in it and because they are the ones who decide about contract extensions, as well as transfers to better job posts. I joined Solidarność in my first year at VW while I was working through the temp agency. When my foreman began pushing me around I went to see a Solidarność representative about it. I didn’t know at the time that most foremen are in Solidarność and that they have a much better established position there than do temp agency workers. So they told me that my supervisor has the right to use his position to force me to work “voluntary” overtime. After three years of temp work, once I signed a contract directly with VW, I didn’t renew my membership in the union.

If workers were feeling exploited for being forced to work overtime by foremen and section managers, or because health and safety rules were being infringed upon by the management, I would say to them, look, you’re in Solidarność, report your problem there. I would get silence in response. They were too scared to say anything even in their own union. Soon enough, every rank and file worker figures out that Solidarność and the management together wield control over the workers. This translates to particular arrangements, particular money, particular positions and careers. Solidarność is just an integral part of the company. Without Solidarność, the management would have a much harder time in getting the shop floor to accept meager pay raises or increased norms. On many occasions that union helped the management in silencing the shop floor.

There is also the worker evaluation system. Technically speaking you are guaranteed a pay raise after five years of work. But there are workers who haven’t gotten a pay raise for seven years because they happened to get sick in that time period. Those who graduated from a vocational school affiliated with VW are also cheated. After graduation, VW promises a level 3 job position and work in the discipline studied at school. In reality, graduates are often hired in entry-level positions and forced to work on the production line, for which they are overqualified.

For years now growing numbers of people in the factory were discouraged by Solidarność. In 2010 the time came for wage negotiations, which didn’t bring any results. Solidarność announced a strike, what seemed hard to believe. In the end, it turned out that it was all part of the show. The strike meant that production went full steam ahead and under no circumstances was it allowed to stop. In the meantime, about 30 people from the union stood under the boss’s window inside the factory and made noise. The sort of noise that nobody outside of the factory was sure to hear. Later on it only got worse. Solidarność made concessions on everything: austerity measures and flexible work schedules, where after long weeks of stagnation in production we had to make up time on Saturdays. Unlike other factories, we didn’t get standby pay. In 2011, they forced us to work weekends and it just stayed that way. They kept telling us that there was a crisis. Production was increasing, meanwhile they decreased the Sunday bonus by 50%. In 2014, workers on the shop floor came up with the idea of starting a union that would be independent of the management. When Solidarność got wind of it they spread a rumor that only one union was allowed at the factory. And many workers believed it. Wage negotiations came up again in 2015 – and nothing. The whole show in repeat and “saving jobs”, which really only meant making job conditions worse. People were growing more and more frustrated.

In the summer of this year we heard that workers at VW in Bratislava went on strike. When we felt that this was also our fight, the union sided with the company. They said it was better to sit quiet than to stand up and fight. People said enough, and in spite of the obstacles, started an independent trade union. The worker, or really the hero, who was 18 years on the job and who finally convinced the shop floor using social media to organize independently of the management, was immediately fired. Two others were fired right after him. In spite of everything, the crew didn’t give up and the new union was founded. As for Solidarność, instead of standing up for the fired workers it made a show in the press of siding with the management. Not long after the Workers’ Initiative [Inicjatywa Pracownicza] commission was founded, Solidarność entered another round of wage negotiations. It started reporting on their progress for the first time since I’ve been working at VW. Up until then, Solidarność had insisted that the union leadership couldn’t release any details while in the process of negotiations, but that we “would be satisfied in the end”. In result, the shop floor was kept disoriented. It didn’t know whether it was better to support the union negotiators, or to demand more.

In October the time came for the management to sum up the past year. They called for a meeting of the workers. This only made the situation more heated. The meeting began with one of the personnel directors, Jolanta Musielak, who tried to tell us how good things were in the company. She seems to believe that we earn around 6 thousand zlotys [~1,425 euros], while in reality we only get about 3 thousand zlotys after taxes [712 euros]. Later on came the now classic flowcharts showing wage increases over the past years. Where do they get those numbers from? The truth of the matter is that this year workers started comparing their old tax forms and realized that their wages, instead of increasing, have in fact decreased. That was the moment when something broke. People couldn’t take it any longer. Too much cheating and lying. They started whistling, booing and throwing papers around. They felt confident. The shop floor already knew that Solidarność had reached an agreement with the management and that it was about to start its little show. When the Solidarność chairman proclaimed that we must care for the company’s financial liquidity and save jobs, people started laughing in disbelief. In the past year the management, along with its ally, Solidarność, have been under greater pressure from the shop floor, and the existence of the new union has only served to intensify that pressure.

This text was published anonymously because of the considerable likelihood that the company would fire its author were his name and last name provided.

OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza
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