100,000 Poles in anti-govt march, threaten strike

Monika Scislowska (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2013 - 3:47am

WARSAW - Threatening a general strike, throwing smoke grenades and blowing whistles, around 100,000 Polish union members marched through Warsaw on yesterday to vent their anger against the government's labor and wage policies.

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

City authorities have blocked traffic in central Warsaw to allow the demonstrators to march to the historic Castle Square with flags and balloons in national white-and-red colors, and banners saying "We are Coming to Get You", "Tusk's government Must Go," and individual plaques reading: "I am Tusk's Slave."

They converged on Warsaw from all over Poland on the last of four days of major, peaceful protests in the city that also included meetings with politicians and debates with labor 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 yesterday. 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, in his second term and sixth year in office, is Poland's longest-serving premier since the fall of communism in 1989.

A protester, Andrzej Kulig, said the government never listens to workers' needs.

"Our situation is getting worse and worse, and our government doesn't listen to us," Kulig told AP Television News. "We want them to hear us today, to hear our protest and to know that they don't govern very well."

A nurse interviewed on Polish private 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.

A prominent member of Tusk's Civic Platform party, Rafal Grupinski, said the workers have every right to express their discontent, but they should primarily return to the long-established negotiations with the government and employees, which they broke off in the summer over changes to the labor code.

The marchers complained of large-scale layoffs after economic growth slowed down to 1.9 percent of gross domestic product last year from 4.5 percent in 2011. They want job security and contracts that guarantee health care and retirement benefits at a time when unemployment is at 13 percent 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 center-liberal party and a peasant party is 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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