“This is war” – unionists from LOT Polish Airlines struggle against a devout boss

“They’ve given in, haven’t they? They must have been afraid of messing up people’s flights for the early May holiday. Not surprising, is it? ” – says the taxi driver who is driving me to the Warsaw head office of LOT Polish Airlines at 5.30 in the morning on May 1st. I try to explain to him that the strike planned for that day by LOT employees had been called off due to a betrayal by the Solidarność trade union. On the eve of International Workers’ Solidarity Day, as May Day is known in Poland, Solidarność had decided to withdraw its support for a strike intended to force the LOT company’s management to reinstate normality.

“What’s normality?” replies the taxi driver. “A contract of employment? They don’t want to be self-employed? Well, I’ve been running my own one-man taxi business for 10 years now” – he tries to catch my eye in his rear view mirror.

I’m unsure how to respond. Should I tell him that pilots need proper employment contracts because if they are overworked it puts many more people at risk than a tired taxi driver does? On the other hand, shouldn’t my cabbie also have what are called “decent working conditions”? But probably everyone has accepted the impossibility of that scenario. And that includes the taxi drivers themselves, which is why they are surprised anyone is still putting up a fight. I don’t get round to actually answering him because we’re now drawing up at the LOT office building.

About a hundred staff are already standing in front of the building. I wander around feeling a little lost. They are all in their uniforms. In civvies I stand out like a sore thumb which will make it harder to gain their trust.

“Awful time of day for a protest, isn’t it?” – I say with a smile to one of the flight attendants.
“Maybe for you it is. For me, this is just normal working hours” – dressed in a perfectly pressed uniform and impeccably tied red scarf, she looks at me with a touch of amusement and quite a bit of disapproval. I’ve made a bad start.

Then I notice something odd: there are no banners and no chants. Instead, the staff have brought cake. You can see that this is the first protest organized by the unions at LOT for a very long time.

I see someone familiar in the uniformed crowd, wearing a beaming smile and the blue scarf of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), the ostensibly leftist counterpart to the clerical Solidarność. The gentleman in question is Jan Guz, OPZZ’s national boss. I wonder if he looks as out of place to the protesters as I feel. He tells them that he has come to convey “respect and greetings”. And also “to praise them for their dignified behaviour”. He mumbles something about the dialogue that has begun “on this special May Day”. He clearly hasn’t done much preparation. Using polite phrases like at a distant relative’s birthday sounds fake when speaking to people desperately struggling for their livelihoods. I look at the affected smile on the face of the leader of Poland largest trade union and I’m just ashamed. “I am here because workers’ rights come first” – after these words I’ve had enough. Nevertheless I can’t avoid hearing “for the victory will be ours, mine and yours”. This isn’t firing the people up to fight, instead it’s dampening their spirits.

Then I’m told by one of the pilots that Guz has been against the strike from the beginning.
The LOT building is located in the Warsaw district of Włochy on 17 January Street some 2.5 km from the airport. Its massive rectangular shape makes an impression. Seven storeys high. Glass and metal. Cold and imposing. The flight attendant from before tells me they call it Alcatraz. Or “the aquarium”.

“Full of piranhas, right?” – I attempt a joke, but she’s already looking away. “Look, here comes a crocodile” – the attendant nods in the direction of a portly male of indeterminate age.

Rafał Milczarski, the chairman of LOT has just arrived because… Holy Mass is about to begin. I exchanged startled looks with the leftist activists from the Syrena squat in Warsaw who have joined the protest. They whisper that maybe there is a method in it. After all, the government will find it difficult to turn their propaganda guns on workers who are on strike with a crucifix in their hands.

“I will be happy to talk to you, it’s great that you are here, but after Mass, because the priest has just come” says Monika Żelazik, head of LOT’s Cabin Crew Trade Union (ZZPP, an OPZZ affiliate) and the key leader in this struggle. She’s probably decided that the protest requires a tactical alliance with God. The service begins. Outdoor conditions. Mosquitoes attacking without mercy. Some of the staff listen attentively to clichés about unity and dialogue, while others succumb to boredom and mosquitoes. When necessary, everyone kneels, including the LOT chairman together with his escort, the company’s Solidarnosc boss. The priest reminds those assembled that May is not only the month of Joseph the carpenter, but also of Mary. After hymns in honour of the Holy Virgin, the time comes for Communion. The sacrament is also taken by Milczarski, the LOT chairman. As I see him receive the body of Christ I wonder if he really has confessed all his sins.

A few moments later I know that whatever was on his mind during Mass it couldn’t have been true repentance as when surrounded by journalists from the mainstream media, he didn’t hesitate to mercilessly smear his staff. With the classic arguments: while he is doing all he can to save the company from bankruptcy the protesters are putting forward irresponsible and ignorant demands which could send LOT to its grave. And, if that wasn’t enough they are also breaking the law.

The journalists listen to the chairman’s monologue in silence. Finally, Marta, one of the Syrena activists, can’t resist intervening. She asks about pilots employed on “junk contracts”, the popular name in Poland for civil law contracts on which workers are hired instead of employment contracts.

“It’s not true that our pilots are employed on junk contracts” – answers Milczarski. Yet another falsehood to add to his collection.

I quickly jump in with my question. “Why is it that the LOT Board has awarded itself huge bonuses, totalling 2.5 million zloty (over 500,000 Euros) when there’s no money to raise wages and meet the union’s demands?”

He answers in the spirit of Leszek Balcerowicz, the Polish Margaret Thatcher: “Ladies and gentlemen these questions are pure demagogy…” – and goes on to patiently explain that the Management Board does not award itself any bonuses at all. LOT is a state-owned enterprise whose Supervisory Board is responsible for such decisions. So everything is perfectly in order.

Meanwhile, a few metres away on the company’s grounds a spontaneous staff meeting begins. One of the flight attendants is speaking. A few minutes before she was assisting in the Mass.

“We can’t allow our voice to be suppressed and our fellow employees to be separated from us. They want to play individual employees against us and convince them that’s how to conduct negotiations – individually. Don’t be taken in by them! Remember that the trade unions are your voice!” – her speech receives resounding applause.

After her Piotr Szumlewicz, the new local area OPZZ chairperson, speaks. He is a talented communicator and underlines clearly that workers have the right to stable employment conditions, and they have the right to strike.

“The situation here is shocking. This is a state airline, and yet all the pathologies of the Polish labour market are on full display. Collective bargaining has been abolished, the official pay scale has been binned, salaries lowered, and half of the staff have been shifted onto junk contracts” – Szumlewicz systematically lays out the problems. Behind him the large familiar body of Milczarski slowly steps out from among a group of pilots, and in his wake the local Solidarność leader giving out some anti-strike propaganda. When Szumlewicz gets to the subject of bonuses, Milczarski nervously plays with his fingers. The crowd, on the contrary, cheers. This is the subject which arouses the greatest feeling of injustice.

“Sometimes I get the feeling that guy thinks we’re idiots. Or that he’s so sure of himself that he doesn’t even have to pretend” – one of the pilots says to me.

When Milczarski tries to speak, he is shouted down by the crowd with the chant “Give back your bonus!”. He finally manages to get out some words about unity and certain differences between the Board and the staff. “The bonuses are the biggest difference!” – is the angry sentiment that boomerangs right back at him. At last, discouraged by the antipathy of his staff and the attacks of the mosquitoes, he decides to leave the protest.

The pilots and flight attendants long hoped that this was just a moment of crisis in their professional lives. The rotten boss would realise he had to change or leave the company and then everything would return to normal. Now there’s no longer any doubt: “This is war” says Monika Żelazik, the local cabin crew union leader.

She talks about surveillance of email, tapped smartphones, and members of her union who have experienced harassment from officers of the Polish Border Guard. This takes the form of rigorous contraband inspections applied to flight attendants returning from overseas destinations. It’s something like an employer’s go-slow strike. This has been happening since 2016. It’s humiliating, it’s an attack on her members’ dignity. Finally she criticises management for sacking experienced staff who are trade union members and replacing them with young people just out of training for whom a contract of employment is just a pipe dream.

Currently, the biggest curse and symbol of Rafał Milczarski’s reign is what’s known as “the B2B system”. Business to business. That means a single-person business (i.e. a self-employed pilot) works for LOT Polish Airlines on the basis of a business contract. It’s a free and equal agreement, the essence of capitalism.

What do the protesters want? Employment contracts, reinstated pay scales, and something else very important – respect. They do not want a boss who reports on and spies against staff. They want someone in charge who will value the years of commitment shown by flight attendants and will not tolerate a situation where pilots are afraid of rupturing their eardrums because they are forced to fly with heavy colds. They want normality.

After the impromptu rally has come to an end, a small group remains. Somebody says the police have arrived. After a while a sergeant appears and announces that the gathering is illegal. This is the same gathering at which Holy Mass was celebrated. No one is in any doubt as to who made the call.

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