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Health Care Workers Strike in Bielsko-Biała

On May 12, workers from a number of hospitals in Poland went on strike to protest the tragic situation of health care workers. Mostly this was an action of nurses unionized in the OZZPiP and was made to coincide with International Nurses' Day, but the ZSP Health Care Workers Union also took part in the strike, as did the Union of Psychiatric and Rehab Workers in the city of Bielsko-Biała. 30 workers went on strike in the psychiatric hospital, hanging a red and black flag on the hospital. They are demanding a 400 zloty raise (about 100 euros). Currently, many of the workers make around 450 euros a month, gross. Some earn a little more, depending on their profession.

Organized labor in the health care services is usually divided into profession. Therefore the nurses and midwives have their own union and when they protest, they are only protesting about their condition. Other professions usually do not support the protests. Our union is the only one we know which is not like this. Different workers participated in the strike: cleaners, orderlies, physical therapists, nurses and even a psychiatrist.

During the day, part of the striking workers went to the Starosta office. These politicians are responsible for overseeing the hospitals in the city. They were joined by nurses and midwives from OZZPiP from the Voivodship Hospital that also went on strike.

The nurses aims are similar: to get decent working conditions. The ZSP and the OZZPiP handed out material emphasising some alarming facts about health care in Poland. For example, in this country, there are only 5.2 nurses per 1000 people, whereas the EU average is more than 11, with some wealthier countries having 15-16 nurses per 1000. Statistics also show that there is an extreme drop in the number of nurses in Poland under 35 years old. Most nurses are over 45. The reason for this is two-fold: the salaries are poor, so people do not want to become nurses and secondly, younger people go abroad to work, where the salaries are usually 200-400 percent higher.

The workers would like to escalate their protests and there is talk of a general strike in the fall. Some nurses complained of the outright sexism they feel in their struggle and that they are not taken seriously because they are women. The ZSP union contains some men which are nurses, something rather rare in Poland. They are in the same situation – the fact is that it is a feminized profession and such professions are greatly undervalued.

A few comrades from the ZSP went to support the strike: a member of the Health Care Workers Union from Krakow and members from Warsaw and Wroclaw who had taken part in organizing radical actions together with nurses and other hospital workers at the beginnings of the 2000s. The comrades spoke to the workers about the protests then, how they looked, why they were successful and supported by many people. They called on the workers to escalate their protests, next time taking more direct action and to strike until they win. One of the comrades, current IWA Secretary, also spoke about the situation with austerity measures in other countries which have met with strikes and protests, calling for internationally coordinated struggle and solidarity. This call was met with big applause from both the workers and the public who were listening.

Despite the fact that workers from two hospitals in the city went on strike, those responsible at the Starosta office did not want to meet, sending out an underling instead. He basically brushed the workers off, which met with the appropriate reaction. The angry workers began to discuss what can be done so that their situation would be treated more seriously. After the action, there were some discussions.

The ZSP and the Union of Psychiatric and Rehab Workers will be following this up and is pushing the idea of a general strike in health care, to include not only nurses.