The Working Classes

Poland Table of Contents

In the years following World War II, the composition of the Polish working classes changed significantly. Agriculture, which underwent several major changes in government policy during this period, consistently lost stature as an occupation and as a lifestyle in competition with expanded urban industrial opportunities. The postwar rural exodus left an aging farm population, split apart the traditional multigenerational families upon which rural society had been based, and fragmented landholdings into inefficient plots. In the same period, the augmented Polish industrial work force struggled to achieve the social gains promised in Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the early days, the central planning system yielded impressive gains in the education level and living standards of many industrial workers. Later in the communist era, this group made less tangible gains in social status and began actively opposing the regressive government policies that prevented its further progress. In the early postcommunist era, industrial workers faced high unemployment as privatization and the drive for efficiency restructured their enterprises. By the early 1980s, the working population reached a stable proportion of 40 percent in industry, 30 percent in agriculture, and 30 percent in the service sector (which, like industry, had tripled in size in the postwar era).

Agricultural Workers

Although the communist leadership's economic agenda was the immediate cause of large-scale shifts from agriculture to industry, prewar conditions also contributed to this trend. Contrary to the nineteenth-century romanticization of the Polish peasant class as a homogeneous repository of national virtue, agricultural workers in the interwar period were stratified economically. A few peasants had large farms, many more farmed small plots, and fully 20 percent of peasants did not own the land they farmed. In 1921 only 43 percent of peasants owned their own house. The depression of the 1930s hit the peasants especially hard because much of their income depended on world commodity prices. By the late 1930s, Poland had several million superfluous agricultural workers, but industry had not developed sufficiently to offer alternative employment.

At the close of World War II, little had changed in the society of rural Poland. At that time, Poland's peasants made up 60 percent of the population. Although many villages were wrecked or diminished and 500,000 farms were destroyed, war dead included a much higher proportion of urban Poles. After the war, the large estates owned by former noblemen and rich peasants and worked by rural proletarians still dominated the rural social structures. The first step of the postwar communist regime was confiscation of the largest estates. Those lands were redistributed to private owners, although to avoid alienating the peasants, plots smaller than fifty hectares were allowed to remain with their original owners. At this point, rapidly expanding local industry began to offer peasants supplementary income, and industrial expansion in urban centers relieved prewar overpopulation and starvation in many rural areas. After the war, rural life increasingly was transformed by electrification, improved roads, and statesupplied equipment and materials. Nevertheless, on most Polish farms the fundamental relationship of the peasant to the land remained as it was before World War II.

Although Soviet-style collectivization remained a nominal state goal until 1956, early attempts caused precipitous declines in production and an estimated 1 million farmers to leave the land. As a result of the decollectivization program of the late 1950s, only 6 percent of farms remained collectivized. In the long term, the state's attempts at collectivization fostered a permanent resistance among peasants to direct state interference. In the next thirty years, the peasant family farm, whose value system made distribution of farm products to the rest of society clearly subordinate to immediate household needs, continued to be the dominant form of agricultural organization. Improved communications and agricultural education programs gradually broke the isolation of rural existence, however; as more contact with the outside world brought new values, it weakened the family cohesion and the inherited patterns of life that were the foundations of the purely domestic farm.

Immediately after the collectivization drive ended in 1956, mid-sized farms (those between five and fifteen hectares) predominated in the private sector, but in the next decades farms of that size were split repeatedly. By 1986 nearly 60 percent of private farms were smaller than five hectares. Furthermore, the holdings of individual farmers often were scattered across considerable distances. In the late 1980s, state efforts to stimulate reconcentration were stalled by peasant suspicion and by ideological disagreements among communist policy makers over the solution to agricultural problems. Prevented by government inertia and distribution policies from obtaining tractors and other equipment, many small landowners used horses for cultivation or simply ignored portions of their land. Frequent reliance on nonagricultural employment for a livelihood further reduced peasants' concentration on improving the use of their rural plots.

In the mid-1980s, only 50 percent of Poland's rural population was involved in agriculture. The other 50 percent commuted to jobs in towns. Of the private farmers in the first group, 33 percent were full-time farmers, 34 percent earned most of their income from agricultural employment, and more than 21 percent earned most of their income from nonagricultural sources. The remaining 11 percent worked for institutions with land allotments smaller than 0.5 hectare. The large group of landless rural laborers of the interwar years had virtually disappeared by 1980.

In the postcommunist era, experts projected large numbers of peasants would continue their split lifestyles unless major investments were made to upgrade Poland's rural infrastructure. In the late 1980s, new housing units and water mains were still extremely rare and sewage lines virtually nonexistent in rural areas. Only half of Polish villages were accessible by paved roads, and many poorer villages lacked a retail store of any type. An important failure of the collectivization effort had been the exclusion of peasants from the broad social welfare benefits instituted by the socialist state for urban workers. Although the peasantry received nominal coverage under the state medical system beginning in 1972, rural education and health services remained far behind those in the cities for the next twenty years.

The lack of rural amenities caused the most promising young Poles from rural families to move to the cities. As the traditional rural extended family began to collapse, the aging population that remained behind further strained the inadequate rural social services. The communist state modified its pension and inheritance policies in the 1970s to encourage older peasants to pass their rural plots to the next generation, but the overall disparity in allocation of benefits continued through the 1980s. In the early postcommunist era, however, urban unemployment and housing shortages began to drive workers back to rural areas. Experts predicted that as many as 1 million people might return to rural areas if urban employment continued to fall.

Industrial Workers

Between 1947 and 1958, the number of agricultural workers moving to industrial jobs increased by 10 percent each year. In those years, most industrial jobs did not require even basic education. Therefore, over 40 percent of recruits from agriculture were basically illiterate in 1958. From that time, however, the level of education among Polish industrial workers rose steadily. By 1978 only 5 percent of workers lacked a complete elementary education. A fundamental change in the social status of workers was heralded by the first workers' councils, founded in the late 1950s to voice opinions on industrial policy. Those increasingly articulate leadership groups, dominated by the 5 percent of the work force that had a secondary education at that time, led to the formidable labor organizations that shook Poland's political structure in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, workers age thirty-five and younger were better educated and more likely to come from urban families than their elders. Also, unlike their elders, the young workers had been raised under a communist regime and were accustomed to the social status conferred by membership in workers' organizations. Many saw their laborer status as an intermediate social step between their agricultural past and anticipated advancement to whitecollar employment. Conversely, association with the working class was an important qualification for advancement into social leadership positions both during and after the communist era. Labor's active role in the political and social life of the 1980s revived the self-esteem and prestige of workers. On the other hand, a 1985 study showed that 70 percent of workers did not wish their children to pursue a manual occupation.

In the late 1980s, some 45 percent of industrial workers had second jobs. Increasing numbers of moonlighting workers sharply stratified the working class, as workers without supplementary income were less able to maintain their living standard. Major inequities were inherent in the wage system as well. In 1986 the best-paid workers earned nearly five times the pay of the average Polish worker, while 33 percent of workers received less than 65 percent of the average wage. Postcommunist reforms brought new financial risk to industrial workers by lowering the upper end of the pay scale. That change, combined with the scarcity of supplementary jobs, pulled a significant new section of Polish workers below the official poverty line in the early 1990s.

In 1992 workers in many industries, including coal and copper mining, aviation, and automobiles, organized strikes to protest lower wages and the displacement caused by economic reform. Outside the jurisdiction of Solidarity, which advocated negotiation with the government, the strikes escalated under the leadership of radical labor leaders. Coal miners, who had enjoyed the highest pay and the best perquisites throughout the communist era because of coal's importance as a hard-currency export, played a central role in the strikes as they sought to protect their privileges.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress