“polish jobs for polish workers”?

by Chris Kane

The leaders of global capitalism, gathered at the G20 summit in London, declared: “We have committed ourselves to work together with urgency”, in their response, they espouse unity around “an open world economy based on market principles”.[i]  In contrast global labour is not yet unified in its response to the crisis: our trade unions are organised at the level of the heavily bureaucratised European TUC and IFTU. These have tended to retard rather than unify and advance the militant struggles taking place in separate countries. This lack of effective organisation at an international level has also had a corrosive effect on the principles based on the necessity of solidarity amongst workers of all nationalities to advance our common interests.  Rather than match the unity of global capital we are seeing the labour bureaucrats, yet again, actively fragmenting and undermining the global solidarity necessary to respond to the crisis.

Symptomatic of this trend has been Derek Simpson a leader of the trade union UNITE in the United Kingdom; he recently joined with the tabloid newspaper The Star to campaign for “British Jobs for British Workers”.  This was opportunistically timed to coincide with his own efforts to secure his own re-election.  The chauvinist antics of a single British union bureaucrat are not however an isolated incident: they have been surpassed in magnitude by the stance of Jan Guz, President of the “left-wing” All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) a federation of 2.5 million workers. Guz complains a feature of the economic crisis is that: 

“Movement of the work force is visible in time of crisis, especially in former Soviet Union countries, when there are less jobs, when the crisis has hit our friends in Ukraine. Involvement of workers and companies from Asia can also be observed and this has caused the formation of groups of workers who want to work here. This obviously disrupts the labour market not only in Poland, but in the whole of Europe.”[ii] 

The solution Guz has in mind is to reinforce the ‘Fortress Europe’ EU controls on immigration with even tighter controls on workers:   

“Within Europe we should keep the possibility of free movement to places with better working conditions for the citizens, the workers. We should be careful about non-EU countries, though. We should employ safety measures which would guarantee employment for workers from within the EU”[iii]

Guz is clear which workers he has in mind:   “We are not talking about Germans or other European Union citizens…We are talking of Ukrainians, Belarusian’s, Chinese. Employers tend to pick them because they work for peanuts.”[iv]  According to one estimate there are up to 300,000 Ukrainians working in Poland mostly in the semi-legal informal economy.  They are in the lowest paid, flexible labour strata of the economy.  A special report by the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged that their semi-legal status left them open to being discriminated against and exploited.  Though recognizing these workers are exploited the solution of OPZZ is not to organise these workers into trade unions but blame the victims of the current economic crisis.  Previously Poland was appealing for Ukrainian workers to come and work in the country, now with unemployment in rising, currently at 10.9 percent, the leader of the OPZZ is giving vent to old prejudices. Guz demands: “The Polish government should consider limiting the inflow of foreigners because there cannot be wage and employment ‘dumping;”.[v] 

These statements by the OPZZ leader are not just irresponsible outbursts but consistent with previous positions with regard to Ukrainian workers; indeed in 2006 when regulations were put forward to allow Ukrainians to work in Poland as seasonal labourers without a work permit, OPZZ opposed the opening of the Polish labour market.  However this was not on the grounds they were exploited and the wages for this work should be increased, but on the narrow nationalist grounds that the jobs should go to Polish workers.

The attitude of the OPZZ  leader could not be more hypocritical, only on 19  February 2009 he spoke at a conference in Lviv, West Ukraine, entitled “Trade Unions of Ukraine: past, present and future”.  During this visit Guz discussed the need for cooperation between Polish and Ukrainian trade unions which he said was especially important in a time of economic crisis.  This has now shown itself to nothing more than empty rhetoric!  As opposed to the spirit of trade union solidarity the attitude of the leader OPZZ has gained widespread media coverage and given encouragement to extreme right-wing and fascist politicians.  In the UK the fascist British National Party is ecstatic about his position, using it as chance to attack trade union policies of organising migrant workers, the BNP say: 

“The move is ironic as more than one million Poles moved to Britain and Ireland to “work for peanuts” and undercut British and Irish people from many jobs.”   

Britain’s Unite union even arranged an “initiative for Polish workers” to welcome them in this country and to “provide support with housing, health care, the financial services, employment rights and legal rights.”  OPPZ and Unite recently concluded a cooperation agreement but it is not known what will become of this now. Unlike Unite, the Polish union has realised that it is not in its members’ interests to encourage population movement which lead to job losses.  The British National Party supports the concept of Polish people being given preference for Polish jobs – and the concept of British people being given preference for British jobs

How can we explain this anti-Ukrainian campaign by a “left-wing” trade union giving such encouragement to the worst sort of reactionaries?  The explanation is partly the legacy of history and partly in recent events, including events in the United Kingdom.

When the President of OPZZ gave his lecture in Lviv he said a lot about Polish trade unions organised in what the magazine, tygodnik popularny reminds us was the “third city of Poland after Warsaw and Lodz” but noticeably we find nothing about the history of oppression of Ukrainian workers and peasants by the Polish ruling classes over the centuries in Ukraine.[vi] This is symptomatic of a problem OPZZ seem to have inherited.

OPZZ was founded in 1984 by the regime of General Jaruzelski, this coincided with a state sponsored anti-Ukrainian campaign.   The focus of this campaign was the struggle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the years 1943-1951 against Hitler and Stalin.  This movement was portrayed hysterically as “savage executioners” and “fascist cutthroats out of the forests”.  All press of the various factions of the state-socialist bureaucracy participated in the hysteria, Polityka controlled by the then deputy premier Rakovski, Rzeczywitstosc, of the hard-line Stalinists, and Slowo Pweszechne the magazine of “socially progressive Catholics”.  The press of “Peoples Poland” endorsed the statements of the 1943 National Party the most chauvinist wing of the Polish bourgeoisie and big landowners -“Ukrainian society, showing its immaturity or its degeneracy by mass criminality condemns itself. The weakness and primitivism of Ukrainian society are obstructing its own development.”[vii]

In order to understand these recurrent anti-Ukrainian campaigns, it is necessary to review the historic events which are being exploited by the personnel of the post-war regime, and underpin the prejudices of their heirs today. 

Historic roots of anti-Ukrainian chauvinism

It is well known that until the revolution of 1648 half of Ukraine was held in servitude by the Polish aristocracy, only to be re-partitioned between Russia and Austria. Nevertheless the Polish upper class maintained a longstanding position in right-bank Ukraine even after the defeat of the Rzeczpospolita, a factor of no small importance in the mind of Polish nationalism – this was territory to be recaptured with the reconstitution of the Polish state.  This attitude was to constantly vitiate the Polish struggles against social and national oppression. 

When the West Ukrainian Peoples Republic was established in 1918 with its capital in Lviv it was recognised by the Social-Democrat-Communist government of Hungary, independent Lithuania and the Ukrainian SSR.  But the newly independent Poland led by “Polish socialist” Pilsudski responded with a war to re-conquer West Ukraine.  In  “liberated Poland” thousands of Ukrainians died in the internment camps from starvation and beatings – this was fully reported even in the Polish socialist paper Robotnik at the time. Following the Polish invasion of Ukraine and subsequent defeat of the Red Army in Poland in 1920, Western Ukraine was fully incorporated into the Polish state.  The new state continued the traditional policy of the Polish ruling classes toward the local Ukrainian population, of national oppression, cultural discrimination, economic exploitation and forced assimilation.

 In 1930 in response to the guerrilla war by Ukrainian Communists and nationalists Marshal Pilsudski, head of state, ordered the “pacification” of the Ukrainian villages.  In a [Samizdat] book published in the Polish underground in 1984, historian Kazimierz Podlaski states:  “It was this that gave the fundamental shape to the experience of an entire people of Poland and Poles”, he concluded, “It was a crime, one that we had to pay for.”[viii]   It is sad a fact that the Ukrainian movement in West Ukraine turned sharply to the right in response to the experience of Stalinism in Soviet Ukraine. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists with its penchant for fascism became hegemonic, but it too changed as a result of the experience of the Nazi occupation and discussions with the populace of Soviet Ukraine.  This has complicated and confused analysis to this day.  

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army which arose in 1943 fought “against both Hitler and Stalin” on the basis of a revolutionary democratic programme.[ix]  This coincided with a bloody nationalist conflict already underway in Volyn and Polesia between Ukrainian peasants and Polish settlers, atrocities being committed on both sides.  The German authorities with Polish and Ukrainian collaborators poured oil on the flames.   In taking up arms against the Germans the Ukrainian partisans also sought to prevent a reassertion of Polish authority, taking revenge for previous years of oppression. This was exacerbated by the attitude of the Polish ‘underground government’ and Armija Krajowa who waged a fratricidal struggle to maintain the territorial gains of the inter-war state. Thus they rejected UPA proposals for cooperation based on recognition of Ukraine’s rights to independence. 

These events were to be revived and exploited by the post-war “Communist” regime in Poland.  The whole liberation movement of the 1940s was portrayed as fascists allied to Hitler, the UPA equated with the SS-Galicia Division and Auxiliary Police as if they were all sections of the same movement.  The Polish historian Jerzy Tomaszewski was pilloried by the regime for daring to say that actions by the Polish resistance against Ukrainian peasants should not be considered as self-defence. Such ideas it was said by the then Polish press were branded “pure Zionist inventions” – code language of official anti-Semitism.[x]

The hysteria of the mid-1980’s was consistent with the birth of the post-war Polish Peoples Republic which from the outset followed a chauvinist policy toward national minorities, particularly Jews and Ukrainians. In 1945 it proclaimed the “ideal” of a “nationally homogenous state”, and in line with this ideal several hundred thousand Ukrainians were forcibly deported to Soviet Ukraine.  UPA detachments mounted armed resistance to these deportations against the pogroms and atrocities of the armed forces.  After this brutal struggle the Polish state claimed the Ukrainian question was finally “solved”.  The last outpost of Ukrainian resistance was the Lemkos in the Carpathians. During Action Vistula, during which General Jaruzelski became an officer, 150,000 were deported to northern and western Poland to “achieve a higher degree of Polishness”, forced assimilation.

In the years of the “Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa” it was forbidden to discuss the fate of these Ukrainians, only the papers Po Prostu organ of the “October left” opposition in 1956 and Tygodnik Solidarnosc, of the free trade union broke the mould and recalled the tragedy.  Overall in “Peoples Poland” the Ukrainian minority was systematically discriminated against, denied the right to develop its culture and language.  In these years all organisations of the system of state-socialism, ranging from ruling Party (the PZPR) to the OPZZ were permeated with these national chauvinist prejudices. 

The democratic and internationalist tradition

There is another tradition in Poland as regards Ukraine, an internationalist and democratic tradition, one which has opposed national chauvinism and discrimination.  We can find examples of it in the attitude of sections of Polish socialism such as Stanislaw Brzozowksi and Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, those partisans who came out of the Armija Krajowa and broke from previous policy and sought to assist the Ukrainians from persecution and took a democratic position, and the example of Solidarnosc in 1981 who advocated a “republic of nations”

After the military suppression of the self-governing trade union Solidarnosc in 1981 with the arrest of 10,000 activists all its assets were transferred to the state sponsored union OPZZ.  But in the networks of the Polish underground new approaches to the Ukrainian question developed across the spectrum of opinion in defiance of the chauvinism of the rulers.  The Ukrainian émigré journals Meta, and Suchasnist were distributed in Poland, the Polish Marxist journal Inprekor and the respected liberal journal Kultura argued against narrow nationalism.  Activists in Poland gave direct assistance to Ukrainian dissidents, in 1989 the Polish Socialist Party (DR) held a demonstration to commemorate the Hitler-Stalin pact with Ukrainian radicals in Warsaw.  (This author was a direct participant in these activities).

This all represented a break from old stereotypes and prejudices against Ukrainians; OPZZ too has significantly changed since that period when it was an organ of the regime.  However the recent actions of OPZZ represent retrogression, whilst not explicitly referring to the traditional historical issues Jan Guz in swimming in the same pool of chauvinism.   But there is not only an historical context to these anti-Ukrainian sentiments there is a contemporary one related to the economic crisis.

The Kyiv Post’s and others’ lies

A number of media reports have linked the statements of OPZZ to the recent wave of strikes in the United Kingdom; symptomatic is the conservative English language paper the Kyiv Post:  “The union’s concerns mirror those of other countries.  In Britain, protesters demanding ‘British jobs for British workers’ have complained about foreigners, including Poles, undercutting the local workforce by accepting lower wages.” [xi] 

Such justifications for are based on a  distortion of the situation in the British labour movement and the recent strike wave.  There is no doubt that with globalisation the problem of exploitation of migrant workers has grown in importance.   A number of trade unions in the UK have responded by seeking to organise these workers.  The unions UNITE and rail workers union RMT have sought to organise mainly African and South American cleaners, whilst the union GMB has organised Polish workers, establishing a Polish Branch of their union.  The Trade Union Congress has also established a vulnerable workers project aimed at migrant labour, in 2008 it signed a protocol with the two Polish union confederations to help support Polish workers in the UK.  These are positive initiatives even though suffering from many of the endemic problems of the British trade union bureaucracy. 

What is being cited to justify the stance of OPZZ is the emergence of the nationalist slogan of ‘British Jobs for British workers’ during a wave of illegal strikes in January-February of engineering construction workers’.  This dispute was however a completely different issue.

The dispute which began at the Lindsey oil refinery concerned the practice of the company IREM (an Italian non-union company) of exclusively using Italian and Portuguese workers and not permitting any other workers, whether British or non-British, to apply for this work. This was not a strike against the use of foreign workers. The strikers were not calling for the expulsion or dismissal of ‘foreign’ workers.   Furthermore it was a strike in defence of an established National Agreement to cover all workers.  The strikers initially raised the slogan ‘British Jobs for British workers’, they did so to throw it back at Prime Minister Gordon Brown who made this promise in 2007. As the strike spread involving up to 6,500 workers this soon changed. In recognition it was being exploited by the media and fascists the strikers began raising new slogans.  Furthermore hundreds of Polish workers at Langage Power Station were also participating in this strike wave, indicating that this was strike about the right to work for all workers who are resident in the UK. Very soon the workers adopted as their demands:

“no victimisation of workers taking solidarity action; all workers in Britain to be covered by the NAECI agreement; union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available; government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people; all migrant labour to be unionised; union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to union advice to promote active integrated union members; and build links with construction unions on the continent.”

This is not to suggest that there was no racism or xenophobia amongst the workers because these workers are a reflection of workers (and people in Britain in) in general who, in turn, reflect some of the dominant views that exist in society.  However efforts to hijack the dispute by the far-right and racist media, and on etrade union leader they were not successful, contrary to the Kyiv Post there has been no protests in Britain of the nature portrayed.  These strikes were about fair access to jobs and preventing gains made by trade unions being broken by global capitalists.


In the current situation of crisis of in the world economy the stand that has been taken by OPZZ towards Ukrainian workers is dangerous and the complete opposite of what is necessary for the European labour movement as a whole and for Ukrainian and Polish workers in particular.

The problems Jan Guz identifies within the European Union demand a change in the EU’s policies, laws and court decisions in favour of all workers.  To achieve this outcome requires a united workers front against the EU’s neo-liberalism.    To blame Ukrainian workers leads in the opposite direction –  it is reactionary and self-defeating.  The OPZZ could do well to rediscover the slogan of some Solidarnosc activists in Upper Silesia in 1986 which was an amalgam of an old Polish slogan- ‘workers of the world unite for your freedom and ours!’[xii]


[i] G20 Communiqué, London Summit – Leaders’ Statement, 2 April 2009

[ii] Poland frets over foreign workers as economy slows,  Reuters, Warsaw, 16.03.2009

[iii]Reuters, Warsaw, 16.03.2009

[iv] Reuters, Warsaw, 16.03.2009

[v] Reuters, Warsaw, 16.03.2009

[vi] Nowy Tygodnik Popularny, Wizyta Jana Guza we Lwowie, 16.3.2009

[vii] Jedrzej Seret, Tragedia Kresow, Rzeczywistosc, no.32, 1984.

[viii] Kazimierz Podlaski, Bialorussini, Litwini, Ukraincy: nasi wrogowie czy bracie, Slowo, Warsaw, 1984, p.75. [Are Ukrainian, Lihuanians, Ukrainians our brothers and sisters].

[ix] As Petro Poltava pointed out: “The democratic system in the future Ukrainian state, in which the government will be elected by the people and under its control, will make it impossible for exploiting classes to form on the basis of political privelages”.

[x] Przeglad Tygoniowy, no.26, 1984.

[xi] Kyiv Post, (Ukraine) 17 March 2009

[xii] This was raised by members of the Zwiazek Rad Pracownieczych Polskiego Ruchu Oporu in Upper Silesia.  Who also supported ‘national independence of Ukraine from the totalitarian bureaucracy’.