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42 Program on Central and Eastern Europe

Unionists Against Unions: Towards Hierarchical Management in Postcommunist Poland

1997 – David Ost and Marc Weinstein


Contrary to standard assumptions about union opposition to economic reform, our survey of firm-level deci sion makers in ninety-five manufacturing enterprises shows that Polish trade union leaders have strong pro-market leanings, and are profoundly skeptical of the utility of institutionalized employee influence in a market economy. This skepticism towards unions is shared by rank-and-file workers, as reported in other surveys. Industrial relations institutions in Poland are becoming less participatory and increasingly hierar chical according to a number of indicators, and this is due not just to coercion from above but acquies cence from below. At the same time, unionists in practice maintain a strong presence in non-private firms. This lingering employee influence stems, paradoxically, from a belief in property rights: unionists believe that private owners should be able to manage their assets as they choose, for this will allegedly benefit workers; but where private owners are lacking, unionists feel employees must act as temporary watchdogs. Long-term prospects for unions thus appear weak, and the weakness of institutions articulating labor inter ests can lead toward the delegitimation of democratic institutions in general. Finally, rational choice and historical institutionalist approaches are seen as unable to explain our findings. An ideational explanation appears to be the most plausible.