Polish mine closures averted


After 11 days striking underground, thousands of Polish miners ended their protest and came to the surface on 17 January.

It followed an announcement that the mines, and their jobs, had been saved.

After days of failed talks, a deal was finally reached between unions and the government to keep the state-owned mines open, despite being deemed unprofitable by the government.

The Solidarnosc trade union, which represents many of the miners, said around 2,000 miners began underground strikes on 7 January after the government outlined its plan to close four mines in the southern Polish region of Silesia, a move which would have put some 5,000 miners out of work.

According to the government, the state-controlled Kompania Weglowa (the Coal Company) is making a loss of around US$18 (€15) on every metric ton of coal produced, with falling global coal prices and rising operating costs pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy.

The government says restructuring is needed to save the company, which employs almost half of the country’s 100,000 coal miners.

Those on strike underground were supported by thousands more miners and supporters above ground.

In Katowice, train tracks were blocked by demonstrations. A general strike had been planned for 20 January if an agreement hadn’t been reached.

But further action was averted when a deal was announced on Saturday night.

In a joint statement with Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, Dominik Kolorz of Solidarnosc announced that investors would be found and the mines would not be closed.

No details of the deal were given, but Kolorz said the restructuring plan will now involve linking the mines with electricity producers.

Another state-owned energy firm, Tauron Group, is one of the prospective investors.

Prime Minister Kopacz said in a statement: “I am convinced that, thanks to the determination of both sides, we can tell more than 47,000 miners employed by Kompania Weglowa that this stressful time is over”.


Only the beginning

But Kopacz added that this is “only the beginning” of changes in Poland’s mining industry.

For the miners, joy was mixed with uncertainty. Many are concerned that this won’t be the end of their problems.

Some politicians voiced similar concerns following the agreement, describing it as “a stalling tactic.”

“The agreement is only buying the government time, it is not a solution in itself,” Andrzej Olechowski, a founder of the ruling Civic Platform party, said on Polish news channel TVN 24.

Solidarnosc president Piotr Duda described the agreement as a “defeat” for the government.

“This was a lesson in humility for the Prime Minister, and the whole government,” he said in a statement.

“Now they try to conceal everything, they say it was ‘historical’. But I’m saying it was hysterical – there was hysteria from their side. They were afraid that the protests in Silesia would spread to the whole country.”

He added that the government’s claim that the agreement was reached through dialogue was “unacceptable.”

“Two thousand people sitting in the mines, a strike alert across the country, people marching in protests across Silesia, and this, in their opinion, is an agreement reached by ‘dialogue’? It’s an agreement achieved only and exclusively by the pressure of the trade unions, and the popular uprising in Silesia,” he said.

Kopacz, leading an interim government put in place in November, was likened to Margaret Thatcher by some commentators after vowing to defeat the unions and stop subsidising the coal mining industry.

But Olechowski said this is the second instance of Kopacz “giving in to unions’ demands” in the few months she has headed the government, after Polish doctors took industrial action earlier this month in a dispute over contracts.

As it continues with plans for restructuring, the government says it will consult with trade unions “on the question of structure and quality of employment.”

It will also apply to the European Commission for EU funding.

According to environmental campaigners, restructuring the country’s energy sector is inevitable. They say Poland needs to move away from its coal dependency and towards renewable energy if it is to meet EU emission reduction targets.

Warsaw has opposed the EU’s new 2030 targets, fearing that reduced coal usage will increase energy costs in the country. Poland currently relies on coal for more than 90 per cent of its electricity.

Iwo Los, an energy campaigner at Greenpeace Poland, told Equal Times that “cheap energy from coal is an expensive illusion which we simply cannot afford.”

“The Polish energy sector must undergo a transformation,” he said. “After many years of problems for the mining sector and huge amounts paid for the industry, thoughtful reforms are unavoidable.”

He added that there is widespread public support for renewable energy in Poland, with one poll finding 89 per cent in favour.

“However, the government should have a plan to transform the energy sector by increasing the share of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and creating jobs in these sectors – jobs which could go to people now employed in the mining industry.”