A question of ownership: reflections on privatization and the bus drivers' strike

A question of ownership: reflections on privatization and the bus drivers' strike

Thoughts on the options to privatization.

Bus drivers in Gostynin, Poland, are striking against the privatization of their company, demanding its communalization. Demanding communalization instead of privatization is still something rather uncommon here but is naturally seen as an alternative. However, the issue of communalization also requires some analysis.

Criticism of state management of enterprises has had a special potency in Eastern Europe. Although the particulars of this management has varied, state-run enterprises in Poland have been plagued by financial mismanagement and corruption, with assets diverted, with workers forced to face austerity measure "necessitated by economic realities" while the managers create layers of unnecessary but highly-paid positions for their cronies. In some budget sectors, such as health care, the underfunding organized by the state and the mismanagement implemented by those in charge have combined to create such a disastrously poor system that a large portion of both the public and health care workers have convinced themselves that private health care is the only viable option.

Post-PRL economists, politicians and even labour leaders started the demand for privatization as a way to "salvage" the economy, leading to the wild "sweetheart" privatizations of the 90s where state assets were sometimes practically given away, often under suspicious circumstances. Former soidarity activist turned Minister of Labour Jacek Kuron famously invited Jeffrey Sachs to submit a plan for transforming the Polish economy (giving him a few hours overnight to write it up) and went on to argue the need for mass-scale privatization, even advising workers to "tighten their belts" temporarily, and wait for the great effects of the privatization revolution.

As a result of this ideology and economic thinking, throughout the years, Poland has seen many labour protests with unions demanding privatization. From time to time, unions or organized groups of workers have called for ostensibly more "worker-run" forms of privatization: the work buyout or worker or worker-management shareholder schemes.

(There are actually five common forms: owned totally by workers, owned by management, owned by workers and management with management majority, owned by workers and management with worker majority and owned with worker involvement but with outside investors being minority shareholders.)

The words "worker management" certainly can sound attractive to many, but the reality of most companies privatized in this way has been much different. "Management" is assigned to a management board, typically comprised of ex-management; sometimes a company is managed by outside investors who acquired significant stakes. Rarely is there anything approaching real self-management. The assets of the privatized company are sold, as are the liabilities, often straddling the workers with debt; once privatized under "worker management", paying off liabilities and "adjusting to market conditions" becomes a priority and the company still begins restructuring and austerity measures, often similar to the conditions of workers in firms bought by corporate investors.

Workers have felt the realities of the various privatization schemes - and now they are looking for alternatives as the last great wave of privatization takes place in Poland.

Over the past few years, our group has been in contact with, has visited, supported and participated even in some strike actions with bus drivers in a couple of cities. Very interesting, and perhaps, at times somewhat tense interaction happened when municipal bus drivers went on strike in Kielce a few years ago. The workers were fighting to have the company privatized as a worker shareholder scheme. (The precise terms of which not being specified during the struggle.) As we found out, the drivers themselves were not too aware of what the terms of this type of privatization could mean. And they were quite interested in finding out what apparently their future bosses were not telling them.

Nevertheless, the demand for a "worker" privatization of some sort remained dominant amongst the drivers, headed by union leaders who would in the future have certain financial benefits. The workers "won" their battle, although what followed was not as planned.

Not surprisingly, some hailed this form of privatization as a complete victory, even calling it a victory "against privatization". Others called it a victory for workers, but remained cautious about what the future could bring.

Rather quickly it became clear that things were not going to be rosy for the bus company. A raise was initially given to the drivers but then "economic realities" started to sink in. The self-management aspect is largely absent and the company is constantly looking for, ironically, private outside investors to buy out even a majority stake. That is why the next year, bus drivers from PKS (which services short and long-distance buses) started protesting for communalization, not for privatization - even a privatization with worker shares.

Since then, a new option is sometimes proposed to workers or by workers: communalization instead of privatization. This is what the workers of PKS in Gostynin asked for - and did not get, prompting their strike which will now be entering its third week.

As it turns out, bus drivers around Poland have been trying to keep up with the developments and the results of the privatization schemes in other cities, often using the internet to facilitate information sharing and communication. Although the portion of the drivers actually doing so is limited, especially among older drivers and drivers from small cities and villages, the people who do get this information have been wisely disseminating it. Thus many of the workers in the bus companies being privatized in the Mazovian Voivodship seem to have at least a much more realistic idea of the options and what to expect.

But again there is a warning from us - this time about the potential problems of communalization. And there are many.

All public-funded ventures are ultimately precarious in Poland, due to the dominant philosophy behind public spending. Influential business lobbies may also impact on decisions; it is known that both the auto industry and oil and gas industry have been behind the scenes in relation to certain decisions regarding public transport, as, ultimately, their economic interests are in private auto usage. It is not clear whether the "public", as mediated by their elected officials, will choose to maintain subsidized transport to any great extent. This can ultimately pose the same threat as any capitalist private owner, because the logic is exactly the same.

There is also a question of decision making, who decides how communal services are run, and what budget is allocated to them. These questions can ultimately be very influential in determing the drivers' future working conditions, should their company be communalized.

Such issues of course arose not only when ZSP was spreading propaganda amongst bus drivers but also during the public debates (many in the mainstream media) which occured when the comrades in Wroclaw initiated a campaign for free (and collectivized) public transport in their city.

While a campaign for free public transport initially seemed to some to be a little too ambitious for Poland, it turned out that even a few politicians and others commented favourably on the possibilities of such a scheme. (Albeit, they considered it possible only on a temporary basis.) Similar campaigns, based on this one, have since popped up in a couple of cities in Russia.

The main premise is the idea that such collectivized public services might function even in current capitalist relations (which naturally would present significant challenges and burdens, almost certain to limit them in some aspects). They would differ from the proposed "communalization" schemes in several important ways, the main being that decision-making would be made directly by the community and the workers' collective, not by elected and largely unaccountable intermediaries.

Is this something realistic given the social composition and habits widespread in Poland today? It is hard to say. But Gostynin would make a good testing ground. A lovely city of just under 20,000, both the size of the community and the size of the company are manageable enough for worker and civic control. Whether or not people are ready for such a level of involvement has yet to be seen, but there seems to be significant interest in maintaining these jobs and these bus services. And this is something which can be quite motivating.

Significantly, although Gostynin is located in a "rich" area of Poland (near its oil refinery capital) many of those who rely on the bus services are poorer people or those in slightly more isolated locations around the city. For them, it is an essential life line to get to work, for their children to get to school, to get to shops, etc. etc.
Who knows what their potential participation could be, given a chance.

In many countries, we see that sometimes workers fight against privatization by demanding continued state management. But it is worth considering if at all there are any other options for them (besides constant struggle). Of course all forms of business, even cooperatism, are limited by capitalist relations and ultimately, we cannot avoid repeating the basic fact that it is this system, its relations and mechanisms that need to be destroyed.

But, legitimately enough, workers usually ask us, "what about in the meantime"?

Posted By

May 16 2010 15:39


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May 16 2010 17:05

Hm, but what is the difference between state-owned and communalized? That it is paid by the regional/local "government" and not from the budget of a certain ministry? What are the advantages of this scheme for the workers? For example, we can expect situations when politicians say that budgets are empty. In state-owned scheme you can make pressure on the government to find some reserves, in communalized scheme you can make pressure on the city hall (or some regional body I suppose) to find some reserves. The scenario seems to be the same but the potential to gain something thanks to workers' power seem unclear to me from what is written above.

May 16 2010 17:26

Yes, the difference is the source of the budget. Technically, "communalized" is still state owned, although in Poland (and this is generally something I disagree with, even with some anarchists), many do not consider local government to be "the state". This is one thing we often warn about and criticize and something for the bus drivers to consider. However, in this concrete situation, the local government may have more interests to at least preserve the public transport system which has been devasted to a large scale, for example with the railways.

(The railway station in Gostynin, is closed but services a few private local trains. The whole region suffers from a lack of rail transport, even though the main city lies on a direct line to Warsaw - only one train goes per day. So bus transport replaced the trains. )

In terms of being able to influence the local budget, there probably is more chance in a city of this size, but it is not guaranteed also. This is something that we talked about. We had experience last year trying to influence the Warsaw budget - only half successful, but it really took protesting.

So, the potential gain concretely, in this situation is clear only if you believe the intentions and declarations of local politicians who petitioned the State Treasury and have told workers that they are interested in keeping good public transport and these work places. In fact, if the workplaces go, there will also be costs to bear, so there may be every truth in this. Nonetheless, people need to consider the scenarios, which is why we said there are also lots of problems to consider with communalization.

May 16 2010 17:36

Well, some anarchists might also promote co-op? What do you think about this option?