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The Women’s Strike in Poland: Freedom of Abortion, Freedom from Exploitation

Interview to Magdą Malinowską and Martą Rozmysłowicz (Workers’ Initiative, Poland)

We publish an interview to Magda and Marta from Workers’ Initiative on the Polish women’s strike against the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal outlawing abortion even in case of foetus malformation. After weeks of massive protests, the Parliament decided to delay turning the ruling into a law, but many hospitals are already applying the most restrictive rules. Therefore, the struggle is not over: each Monday gatherings and demonstrations are taking place asking for free and legal abortion. As we discussed during E.A.S.T. first public assembly, the abortion ban is happening in the midst of a pandemic where women are paying the highest price: there is a clear link between the denial of their freedom not to be mothers and the fact that they are stuck in those essential jobs without which this society would ultimately collapse. In front of this, only an essential strike could help us. In spite of the fact that it is almost illegal to strike in Poland, the women’s strike has presented an opportunity of politicization for young people, women as well as men, and a crucial step, in 2016 as today, to address the link between limitations to women’s freedom and exploitation in the workplaces. The strike movement has also been able to “permeate the warehouses’ walls”, as the recent strike in the Amazon warehouse near Wrocław show, a wildcat strike that would not have happened without the call for insubordination spread by the protests.

After the Constitutional Tribunal declared abortion unconstitutional in case of foetal malformations, all Poland has been stormed by protests. Can you tell us about the ongoing protests and what are the next steps? 

MARTA: Protests have been taking place all over the country, in 400 cities and even in small rural towns, also in conservative areas of the country. The largest protests are said to have included over 100 thousand people (the October 30th demonstration in Warsaw). This has clearly been an uprising of the younger generation, both women and men, who make for a majority of the protestors out in the streets. Of course all of this is happening during Covid-19 emergency, at the height of infections in Poland (about 25 thousand per day at this point) and the young people in the streets are just evidently less afraid of the virus than older folks. The government has passed a series of regulations, which make gatherings of more than 5 people illegal, so all of this has been happening in defiance of the ban.

The steering committee of the Women’s Strike association has been the biggest organization calling for protest and in some places like Warsaw, providing infrastructure. In the past days, they announced that they are creating an advisory council to the women’s strike modeled after what was created in Belarus. At present, the council’s members are in large a reflection of old elites (a former minister of labor, a former parliament member, some intellectuals and activists). Women in the Poznań area have reacted to this by getting together and forming alternative councils with their own demands. We will see how this evolves.

On Wednesday October 28th a strike was called against the tribunal ruling, recalling the women’s strike which took place during the Black Protest in 2016. Can you tell us something about the participation in the strike and the meaning of the strike for the fight against the abortion ban and for women’s freedom? 

MAGDA: As in 2016, no strike was officially registered, so it’s hard to talk about data. However, we do know that tens of thousands of people turned up for the demonstrations that day. Only in Poznań, about 40,000 people took to the streets. More than twice as many as in 2016. “Strikes” were organized in such small towns that no one would have expected. Men and women took the day off to appear at the protest.

Small companies did not operate that day. Similarly to the previous time, women from various workplaces, such as employees of nurseries, universities, schools, hospitals, industry, worked in black and published pictures showing their support and solidarity with people on streets.

MARTA: Calling a general strike in Poland is not an option legally speaking. In our union we responded to this call by encouraging people to take sick days, care days or to give blood in order not to go to work. I know that many of our members used one of these options and went to protest instead.

MAGDA: Yes, formally at the level of workplaces, no employee groups organized a strike. However, it is of great importance that since 2016 women of various political options have called their participation in “black protests” strikes. In this way, we emphasize the role of women in the development of capital, the importance of unpaid reproductive labor and the enormous will to refuse free service and submission to politics and capital.

How has the composition of forces and extension of the protest changed in comparison to the Black Protest in 2016? What are the most significant differences? 

MARTA: These protests differ from the ones in 2016 because their slogans are more radical, and because the demands are more social and economic. “Fuck PiS [the ruling party]” and “fuck off” are the main slogan shouted in the streets. At every protest in different towns the class aspect of banning access to abortion is widely understood. Women know that this ban will affect poor women, not rich women. We as union women have been attending and at times organizing these protests with concrete economic demands because in order for women to be free, we need to be less tied down to work and we need greater economic independence. There has been in my perspective a shift from 2016, as the women and men out in the streets today want concrete social-economic propositions for making our lives collectively better. The demands we have been proposing include shortening working time to 7 hours per day, getting rid of civil law work contracts and temp agencies, more public housing, and keeping the social gains that we were able to win from the government, like the welfare program 500+ for families with children [tax-free benefit of PLN 500 (about EUR 120) per month for the second and any consecutive children until they reach the age of 18], shorter retirement age for women, and consistently increasing minimum wage.

As I write, it has been about 2 weeks since the women’s strike started. A few days ago, fork-lift drivers at one of the Amazon warehouses near Wrocław stopped work for 3 minutes. 115 workers pulled over their fork-lifts (this is a big item warehouse), congregated in one place, honked their horns and shouted out their demand of a 2 thousand zloty (about 450 euro) bonus for all workers. The night shift followed up and stopped work for an hour. These are wildcat work stoppages that have not happened before. Although the workers’ demands aren’t the same as the women’s, it is clear to me that their strike is an extension, or an effect of the protests in the streets. “Fuck the government” has permeated the warehouse walls. I hope in the next weeks there will be more literal strikes and more social-economic demands.

MAGDA: As Marta mentioned, it is significant that a lot of very young people, teenagers, participate in these protests. They are extremely committed, they make banners, invent slogans and disguises, they sing songs, they are very lively and active in protests. It’s good that this experience will stay with young people. Unfortunately, the dominant slogan became “Fuck Pis” And “Fuck out”. Very convenient for the media and old political elites that do not want any major changes other than a change of people in power. It was easy to push young people onto these tracks. In 2016, we screamed “women’s strike now”, regularly recalling the economic context of the abortion ban. We developed the postulates about which Marta writes at the Social Congress of Women, which was created based on the energy that was born in 2016. Since then, we have regularly reminded of them. The current situation is much more difficult because the decision to tighten the right to abortion was made this time. Therefore, protests last much longer, are more numerous and more intense, as well as women’s anger at the authorities and a deep desire to change. If, however, the only consequence of the current demonstrations is the restoration of the old power and the removal of PIS, we will deny a huge chance for real material changes. The only thing that will remain is the awareness that the new government will rule with the feeling that if it pisses us off, we will overthrow them too.

The Tribunal’s sentence comes during the second wave of a pandemic that is hitting women particularly hard. What are the main problems that specifically women are facing during the pandemic? 

MAGDA: Above all, women are more loaded with work. Schools were closed, so more responsibilities fell on their shoulders. In addition, the feminized industries were affected: gastronomy, hotel industry, tourism, education, services such as cosmetics. Surprisingly, according to the Central Statistical Office (GUS) data, official unemployment among women did not increase and even slightly decreased. This does not coincide with the survey of feelings among women, according to which women complain about the additional burden of duties and an increase in working hours without an increase in salary or even with a reduction in salary or loss of job. Perhaps the decrease in official unemployment concerns to a large extent women who previously worked in the shadow economy, e.g. in gastronomy, while being formally unemployed, but during the pandemic they had to take up another job, taking up official employment, e.g. in production or logistics, where they are still recruiting.

Do you see a link between the intensified exploitation of women working in essential sectors (health) care workers, cleaners, logistics and agricultural workers  and this open attack to women’s sexual freedom and self-determination?

MAGDA: Of course. For women, this means greater compliance on many different levels. Greater submission and social insecurity mean greater exploitation. This applies not only to women, but to proletarian families in general. It is well known that it is mainly working-class families who have limited access to abortions abroad or pills. At the same time, we all know that no one will support us if we give birth to a disabled child. We won 500+, but it’s still not enough. Over the past twenty years, successive governments in Poland have made a lot of cuts, which largely affected women. This policy was pursued by both liberals, conservatives and social democrats. In the 90s, 75% of nurseries and 40% of kindergartens, clubhouses and canteens were closed. From year to year, the functioning of the health service was limited, and communal and social housing resources were privatized, leading to a huge increase in rents. Allowances and various types of social support were cut, such as subsidizing milk bars, benefits for families with children, etc. The entire welfare state was dismantled over the years. At the same time, subsidies for business are not stretched out, a lot of possibilities of exempting capital from taxes have been introduced. To sum up, there is no social security, pensions make people starve, the public health service is in a deplorable state, the cost of living is high (prices in shops are similar to those in Western countries) and salaries in Poland remain low. We work too hard to survive, often overtime. Poles are leading in Europe in terms of the number of hours worked per month. It is difficult for us to fight for better wages because we have been deprived of the right to legally strike, many rights have been taken away from trade unions, labor law is constantly changing to the disadvantage of employees, and institutions potentially supporting the world of work remain passive. With a huge amount of contracted work, we cannot afford a babysitter, a private nursery (only 5% of children in Poland can find a place in a public nursery), food in a bar, additional lessons for children etc. It’s us who make all these caring and educational responsibilities. Not only for children, but also for the elderly, for whom nothing is guaranteed, neither places in hospitals nor in nursing homes. As a consequence, after returning from work, we have a lot of other tasks to do. This is the context in which we are forced to bear disabled children. And this is done by the party which, not so long ago, wanted to deprive disabled children of the possibility of going to an ordinary public school. Last summer they also sparked a wave of protests by worsening the rules for financial aid for disabled children and their carers, which was already pitifully small. Living in fear and degradation, extreme overwork is not conducive to the development of a healthy, equal society. It rather leads to political and social exclusion. We will never agree to that.