Monday, 7 December 2009

Victory for Polish agency workers

[By Willem Dekker] – “I have a headline for your piece,” Bart Plaatje, retail sector organiser with FNV Bondgenoten, said: “The Polish warm up quicker than you think.”
A few days before, he had had the most intense union experience in his life so far. It had all started with a telephone call.
The call came from a Polish agency worker, someone Bart had met earlier when networking in a church. It was a Sunday, and there was to be a meeting at the same church that day. The Polish agency workers are staying at a camping, in caravans, about four people per caravan. Panic could be sensed through the telephone, one of the caravans had burned down, those inside had narrowly escaped, only the wheels and a smouldering carcass remained.

With his Polish-speaking fellow organiser, Bart hurried to camping De Droomgaard [‘The Dream Garden’] after the short meeting at the church. When he arrived, he met a confused man covered in soot, staring vacantly into space. Police, fire brigade and ambulance had come, put out the fire, the man was still alive, everything OK - and left again.
There was great indignation at the camping. But one has to be careful. Talk openly to the union, and before you know it, your on the bus back to Warsaw; the boss at work keeps an eye on you at ‘home’ as well. However, this was a matter of life and death. It is an axiom of organising: the only antidote to fear is anger. Polish co-workers assembled around the caravan, they were pissed, there was talk of going on strike.

Lost everything
“I order you to leave the premises NOW!” the camping owner said. The organisers did not think this was a good idea. “The group around the caravan must become larger,” they told the people. And the group grew; at one point there were seventy men and women. Being put on a bus back to Poland does not sound as bad as being burned alive in a caravan. Meanwhile, continuous phone calls were going on between the work agency, the director and the camping owner. The agency workers sought support from each other, held on to each other. One of the leaders, a Polish woman, had collected three hundred euros from co-workers for the man who had lost his caravan, clothes and other possessions.
It turned out that the director had also visited the site just before the organisers had arrived. “Yes, I understand, you came over, simply left the confused man from Poland and then drove off in your car,” Plaatje cynically commented.
Attempts to intimidate the union proved unsuccessful. “Sure, call the police, I’ve got a good story for them.” The message from the group around the caravan was clear, we’re not going away before negotiations have taken place and a solution has been found. And so it happened.

That same night, a new caravan was brought, as well as new clothes. It was agreed that no one would be put on the bus back home the next day. The people at the camping will be allowed to meet with the union; two meetings were planned for the subsequent day.
Smoke detectors will be installed in the caravans and from now, no more than three people will live in a caravan. If you choose to share one among four people, the rent will be lowered. The fire brigade is going to inspect the camping and the caravans. In short, a complete victory. Poles do warm up quicker than you think.
And so Solidarnosc made a short comeback. At the De Droogwaard camping.

This article originally appeared on the Solidariteit webzine for a militant union movement.

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