It was twice as big as expected. Many thousands of workers felt angry and determined enough to travel to the capital from across the country. The scale of opposition showed not just the government but also the workers themselves that they are a force to be reckoned with. The streets of Warsaw belonged to the working class that day.
The three big trade union federations Solidarity, OPZZ, and FZZ have organised joint protests in the last couple of years, but on a much smaller scale. Before that they tended to organise separately.
But the scale of the government’s attacks changed that. Piotr Duda, the Solidarity leader, even joked that prime minister Donald Tusk should be thanked for uniting the unions. The government coalition is dominated by Tusk’s centre-right liberal Civic Platform.
Poland was the only country in the European Union to avoid recession in the years since the crash of 2008. This helped Tusk’s government to be the only one since the 1989 transition to have lasted more than one term in office. But now Tusk is losing by-elections and dropping in the polls.
The economy may have grown but it has slowed down dramatically. Unemployment is now 13 percent. Ongoing cuts and privatisation of hospitals has not been enough for Tusk.
Last year he attacked workers’ pensions by extending the retirement age to 67. This led to a 30,000 strong demonstration outside parliament after which the union leaders backed down.
Their retreat only encouraged the government to launch more attacks this year with the introduction of flexible working hours. It means flexibility for the bosses and the destruction of workers’ free time. It also means no extra pay for overtime.
The political scene is dominated by the centre-right government liberals and the catholic conservatives of the Law and Justice Party. The post-communist social democrats are a weak third. To their left is a very small radical and revolutionary left.
But there is a feeling among workers of “enough is enough”. Some 7,000 teachers are threatened with redundancy in the current school year. Last month 16 teachers were sacked from a Warsaw school. They and their colleagues occupied and won their jobs back with support from parents and pupils.
Nurses in Staszow struck for two hours over pay and conditions the day before the huge Warsaw demonstration.Also this month, railway workers in one company have won a jobs guarantee following a 95 percent strike vote. In another they are threatening strike action to save jobs.
Many workers are ready for a general strike. Solidarity, which is involved in the most industrial disputes, organised a strike vote in all industries in the summer. The result was 84 percent in favour.
The union leaders threaten to organise one but have not set a definite date. It is not at clear how far they are prepared to go following the success of the recent demonstration. But workers have tasted their own power and want more of it.