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Solidarity union starts campaign in U.K.

Stephen Beard Jan 15, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Four hundred union workers at a hog slaughterhouse in Fayetteville North Carolina didn’t show up for their shifts today. They were protesting a decision by Smithfield Foods not to designate MLK Day as a paid holiday. The company says the union only requested the day off last week, and that was too late.

Seventeen years ago, the labor union Solidarity helped topple the Communist regime in Poland. Now it’s turned its sights on the worst excesses of Capitalism. Today, the union launched a campaign to stop the exploitation of migrant Polish workers in Britain. From London, Stephen Beard has that story.

STEPHEN BEARD: The red banners once waved outside the shipyards in Gdansk will now appear at Dover and other points of entry into Britain. Solidarity is taking part in a cross-border recruitment drive. It will help a British union, GMB, to sign up Polish migrant workers as they arrive in the UK.

Given the history of Solidarity, it’s a logical move, says Rafael Kipuchevsky, a political analyst in Warsaw.

RAFAEL KIPUCHEVSKY: Solidarity originally campaigned for freedom in Poland. And once Polish people got their freedom to move about and work in another country, it has turned out that it’s become something of a problem.

Since Poland joined the E.U., a million of its citizens have gone to work in Western Europe. Most in Britain. But many haven’t prospered. Kathleen Walker-Shaw of the GMB union says there’s been a lot of exploitation.

KATHLEEN WALKER-SHAW: We’ve had some hair-raising examples of the very low-level accommodations: warehouses hired and beds thrown on the floor. And then a very large proportion of the wage being taken off them for, you know, accommodation and subsistence.

GMB believes it can raise the migrants’ wages, and that will reduce the downward pressure on the pay of indigenous workers. And, says Christine Buckley of the Times, the union’s also hoping that by joining forces with Solidarity, it’ll export Britain’s more robust unionism back to Poland.

CHRISTINE BUCKLEY: They want to form cross-border links in order to work together to take on the multinationals. It’s a global workplace now and they’ve got to operate in a similar fashion.

Solidarity’s role in this is ironic. The union that did most to undermine Communism may now breathe life into Karl Marx’s most famous rallying call: “Workers of the world unite.”

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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