What is a trade union? Trade unions in Poland

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What is a trade union?

A trade union is a grassroots organisation of employees. Employees join together to collectively defend their interests and protect their rights. Trade unions ensure that working conditions are maintained and improved and negotiate wages and workplace issues such as overtime and health and safety.

Trade unions are independent – they decide on their own functioning, rules and procedures. 

How to join a trade union?

As a rule, any company employee can become a trade union member. To do so, you need to apply to the trade union board. Trade unions want their members to be active and increase their numbers. To join a trade union, all that is required is a written request from the employee and the consent of the trade union bodies.

Who can form and join a trade union?

The following qualify to form and join a trade union:

  • employees, regardless of the employment relationship’s basis
  • people employed on civil law contracts (contract of mandate, contract for specific work, B2B),
  • members of agricultural production cooperatives
  • job agencies’ workers, unless they are employers,
  • people who have an additional, non-employment contract (praca nakładcza)
  • unemployed (following the admission rules of particular unions)
  • workers assigned to a substitute service in a given workplace
  • pensioners

How do trade unions work? What rights and powers do they have?

A trade union represents employees in the workplace. What does this mean? 

When an employer wants to make decisions about employees, such as collective or disciplinary dismissal, changes to working conditions or pay rules, they can only do so with the consent of the trade union (if these decisions affect the members of the trade union). 

The trade union can demand changes on behalf of the employees, such as a salary increase or a reduction in working hours. The trade union can organise a strike if the employer is unwilling to negotiate and disagrees with the employees’ proposals. Only a trade union organisation can carry out a legal strike. 

In addition, the trade union participates in decision-making on distributing funds from the company’s Social Benefits Fund. The employer must agree with employees on how these funds will be spent at companies with a trade union. The organisation may also apply for establishing the Fund in companies hiring more than 20 employees (the Fund is mandatory for companies with at least 50 employees). 

The trade union also represents its members individually in cases of discrimination and other individual problems with the employer. It can also represent its members in labour courts. This means that trade union members don’t have to bear the burden of fighting for their rights.

Trade unions have access to information about the company’s situation (including financial aspects). They can check compliance with occupational health and safety rules and participate in and receive the results of labour inspections. 

Members of the trade union council are exceptionally protected, and it is complicated to dismiss them legally. The more employees a union represents, the greater its power. When one or more organisations unite the majority of workers at a company, the employer must consider their voice.

How to set up a trade union?

The first step is a joint decision to form a trade union. At least ten employees may start a trade union. Together, they write the organisation’s statute and elect a founding committee of 3 to 7 members. Then, the trade union must be registered with the National Court Register, and the employer must be notified in writing of the establishment of the organisation. 

The trade union’s statute determines all relevant information about the trade union. It includes the scope of union’s activities, goals and objectives, rules for joining and terminating membership, as well as the rights and obligations of members, 

There are two types of trade unions: single-workplace and inter-workplace. The first type requires at least 10 union members in a single company. An inter-workplace union (międzyzakładowy związek zawodowy) is often formed when a company is too small or too few workers are willing to join the union. It unites workers of multiple companies, for example, on a sectoral basis.

It is often easier to set up an organisation as a branch of a large trade union, such as Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative), Konfederacja Pracy (Confederation of Labour) or Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych (National Alliance of Trade Unions). A trade union branch doesn’t have to register with the National Court Register. It can use the statute of the primary organisation. Employees, in consultation with the chosen organisation, organise a founding assembly and decide on establishing a trade union. Each major union describes this procedure on its website. 

If a trade union cannot be established at the workplace due to, for example, an insufficient number of employees, employees can join an inter-company committee. Such a union brings together employees from different workplaces, usually from the same sector. Inter-enterprise trade unions have the same powers as labour unions.

What is the membership fee for a trade union member?

The membership fee differs among trade unions but is usually between 0,5 and 0,9% of your monthly salary. It can also be a fixed amount, for example, 25 zł. 

You can pay it to the union on your own or agree for the fee to be deducted from your salary by the employer. You do it in writing; when you sign up for the union, they usually offer you the option to agree to the deduction and deal with all the formalities for you. 

Starting 1 January 2022, you can deduct the tax discount for trade union fees. If your employer deducts the trade union fee from your salary, please refer to PIT-11 for information on the deduction. The Personal Income Tax Act increased the deduction limit for paid contributions from PLN 300 to a maximum of PLN 500. The first deduction for the current year will be available in the next payroll, i.e. by the end of April 2023.

The tasks of the company’s trade union organisation include:

  • taking a position in the employee’s personal matters on issues specified in the labour legislation, primarily in support of the employee’s individual rights, including the duration of the employment relationship. 

For example, the employer must consult the intention to terminate an employment contract of a trade union member or of a worker who has applied to the trade union for protection. The trade union will fight for your workplace. Yet, the opinion of trade unions is not binding on the employer. However, in the absence of cooperation with the trade unions in this matter, you can challenge the validity of the notice and apply for reinstatement or compensation in the labour court, 

  • taking a position in the cases of disciplinary dismissal
  • control over compliance with the provisions of labour law, including labour protection at the workplace, 
  • representation of collective interests and rights of employees before the employer and the professional organisations
  • cooperation with the State Labour Inspectorate and manage the Social Labour Inspectorate, 
  • monitoring of living conditions of pensioners and disabled workers (Article 26 of the Trade Unions Law).

Other rights:

  • to influence the working hours and schedules, 
  • to cooperate with the employer in the development of internal company regulations, i.e. labour regulations, remuneration regulations, provisions of the company’s social security fund, 
  • to collective bargaining and to conclude collective agreements, 
  • to hold lawful strikes following the Law on Collective Dispute Resolution, 
  • to monitor compliance with labour laws and occupational safety and health regulations, 
  • to conduct business activities,
  • to represent the interests of employees in the national and international arena – they have a right to give opinions on the prospective legal acts in the area covered by the tasks of trade unions 

Legal basis:

  • Art. 59 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland ensures freedom of association in trade unions. It means that no one, apart from the legislator in exceptional cases, can restrict the right to assemble and act within the union structure. Joining a trade union and participating in its activities cannot result in negative consequences in the workplace, such as termination of the contract, reduction of remuneration or transfer to another, lower position.
  • The Act of 23 May 1991 on trade unions provides that a union is a voluntary and self-governing organisation of workers appointed to represent and defend their rights and professional and social interests. Trade unions are independent of employers but also from the state, local government or other organisations. It is an organisation made up of “working people” and associating with them voluntarily. The definition of ‘working people’ includes not only workers but also the people who are entitled to form a trade union.
  • Article 4 of the Trade Unions Act provides that trade unions represent employees and other trade union members. They defend workers’ dignity, rights and material and moral interests, collective and individual. The responsibilities of trade unions generally include representing employees in front of the employer and protecting employees’ rights. TU controls the employer’s compliance with separate contracts and other conditions, such as health and safety. In particular, trade unions strive to improve working conditions and salaries.
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