While Poland was preparing to host the 2012 U.E.F.A. European soccer championship, the world economic crisis erupted. Since that time, there has been a rapid increase in the indebtedness of Polish cities. During the last few years, such cities as Gdańsk, Wrocław, Kraców, and Poznań have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
Municipal budgets are not, as politicians usually describe them, mere business plans for the operations of a country or a city. Not only does a municipal budget define the continuity of policy, it also stipulates which social groups were, are, and are going to be marginalized by municipal authorities—those groups being, of course, the very ones with grounds to expect support from said authorities.
The construction of every budget includes income and spending. In Poznań, a traditionally rich city of 550,000 in western Poland, municipal income has remained more or less unchanged since 2008. On the other hand, spending increased continuously between 2008 and 2012. The resulting deficit was met by borrowing. For an average budget of Polish złoty (PLN) 3 billion ($1 = PLN 3), debt was kept below PLN 600 million until 2008. During the following four years, however, it soared to around PLN 2 billion, reaching the highest acceptable level, 60 percent of the total budget. Such a rapid increase in debt can be traced to, among other factors, spending to fulfill obligations to the European soccer federation, starting in 2008. By itself, the rebuilding of the municipal stadium to showcase three matches during the 2012 European championship (PLN 750 million), together with some related projects (e.g. roads to the stadium) absorbed around PLN 1 billion.
Now the authorities are making the city bear the cost of the loans. The debt per inhabitant, projected to be repaid over the next decade, amounts to more than PLN 4,000 (the minimum monthly wage in Poland, after taxes, is PLN 1300). This means that the inhabitants of Poznań are increasingly linked by their common debt. This debt was incurred by municipal authorities to organize a sports event which did not contribute to resolving any serious social issue. Forced to pay up, we have become a debt-paying community, and not a self-governing one.
Who gains, who loses?
If we compare the city’s short-term policy with its long-term budget policy, including the Euro-2012-related spending, it is clear that the first is not disinterested. Budget savings are made at the cost of specific social groups. One example is the closure of a number of public schools, justified by mayor Ryszard Grobelny (who has occupied his position continuously since 1998) by demographic decline and the inadequacy of some educational units. In reality, the mayor himself is responsible for the worsening state of education, which has been proceeding for years while he and his political crew directed money into exclusive development projects like a loss-generating luxury swimming pool. The same authorities have for years forced head teachers to implement austerity plans, and are now closing schools down because, cash-starved, they fail to meet quality standards.
In the case of school closings, the authorities’ reasoning was based on economics, introducing profit-making programs and cutting unprofitable ones. With the new stadium, everything was different. The municipal stadium built for the 2012 contests—for a private football club—had its yearly rent lowered the following year from PLN 3 million to PLN 800,000 (which means it will take more than 900 years to pay for the stadium), while the tenants of municipal apartments face continual rent increases and hundreds of tenants are evicted for nonpayment of rent. Following the principle, “privatize profits, socialize costs,” the government strives to put the costs of the fiscal crisis—for which they themselves are to blame—on the shoulders of the average Poznań citizen.
Fighting crisis with austerity
Another means by which the Poznań authorities plan to pay off the city’s billions of debt is the sale of municipal property, including public land and housing. They are attempting to privatize the city’s housing administration, with the specter of privatization also haunting the public transportation system. Another way to pay for the massive loans is to cut spending on social services, such as institutions serving the homeless, leading to a persistent shortage of shelters during the coldest periods of the year. Increases in public transportation costs (a decision made by the city council on the basis of fake ticket-sales data manufactured by city bureaucrats, a fraud revealed by an activist group several months after the fare increases). On top of this, there are increased rates for water, sewers, and other city services, depicted—given the city’s calamitous financial position—as an unavoidable necessity.
In short, the costly sports-related construction projects, together with the general economic crisis (unpredicted, as usual, by economists) have led to crisis in various areas of social life. The authorities in Poznań are no different from those in other Polish municipalities, who have for many years gone back on their social obligations. One way to save money is to eliminate social institutions by subcontracting some of their functions to N.G.O.s—thereby, however, causing social conflicts.
Running a city like a company
The retirement of the director of Arsenał, a city-run gallery for contemporary art, served as a pretense for one such change. This is a municipal cultural institution in operation since the end of World War II. The authorities opened a competition for a new director, but at a press conference in late July 2013 the mayor of Poznań cancelled it, asserting that “the best solution would probably be to entrust the gallery to a non-governmental organization.” He justified this decision by the supposedly superior fund-raising skills of N.G.O.s (although current research indicates that N.G.O.s in Poznań do no better at raising funds than local-authority units). In the mayor’s opinion, an N.G.O. would also be more flexible in running cultural activity (he failed to mention that the municipal authorities had become less flexible.) In line with the logic of managing the city as if it was a company, this was an effort to eliminate a fixed budget item that until now had guaranteed a stable operation of the gallery, an institution that generates little income and is therefore perceived as unnecessary. Closing the gallery would free up a sum of money that could later to be assigned, by means of a competition, to occasional cultural programs similar to those presently housed in Arsenał. In other words, funds guaranteed for cultural activity would be replaced by one-off grants, whose size and quantity would be decided by city bureaucrats.
Early in August, workers at the endangered gallery held a conference at which they criticized the decision to cancel the competition for the post of director. (The day before the conference, unknown perpetrators decorated the gallery façade with the logo of a Polish grocery chain, as an allusion to the commercialization of municipal institutions.) They accused the authorities of deciding to cancel the competition without discussion with either the citizens of Poznań or even the competition jury. They argued that the authorities’ proposition amounted to making the non-governmental sector, which should act on its own initiative, responsible for replacing institutions for whose operation the municipal authorities are responsible. The move to an N.G.O., the gallery workers argued, would mean that there would be no public institution devoted to contemporary art. None of the present employees of the gallery could be sure of their jobs or working conditions. The project-based financing mode of N.G.O.s precludes setting long-term goals, and also facilitates precarious forms of employment along with unpaid volunteer work. N.G.O. projects are usually short-term, and so far less complex than the kind of multi-year archival, publishing, and educational activity which Arsenał has undertaken, to say nothing of exhibitions that take a long time to prepare. In view of the rule that closing down a cultural institution which belongs to a local government must be justified by the authorities in great detail, one of the workers stated: “The city says we do a good job, but could do better. We ask them to explain—what do ‘good’ and ‘better’ mean? What are their criteria for assessment?”
According to the mayor, if the proposed solution to the city’s fiscal problems works, similar transformations could be introduced in other municipal cultural institutions. But of course, this solution is hardly new: the same “reform” was pushed through in 2011 with regard to the city’s day care. In that situation, the resistance of the unionized day care center workers, along with other efforts, blocked the mayor’s initiative—in fact, during the next two years they won two pay raises!
One week after the mayor’s announcement, the administrative, accounting, content, and technical workers of the gallery founded a branch of the anarchist labor union Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative). At the same time the gallery mounted a series of debates regarding its future, with the participation of artists, scientists, municipal activists, local politicians, and other inhabitants of the city. Simultaneously a range of artistic actions were organized that raised the issue of Arsenał’s difficult situation. In fall the gallery launched a series of debates concerning the operations of cultural institutions, the work of artists, and work as such. In this way the gallery workers gained citizen support, while the campaign in defense of Arsenał provoked wider public debate regarding the anti-social policy pursued by the municipal authorities.
Gallery workers raised the matter with city councilors during meetings of the municipal council’s cultural commission. During one of those discussions some of the councilors said that not many people visit the gallery (of course, election to the city council in some cases requires no more than 1,000 votes—in a city of 550,000, hardly a strong legitimization of authorities trying to close down publicly accessible institutions). Finally, the issue was not decided by the city council meeting, because in early October the mayor suspended the closure of the gallery due to “legal obstacles.”
Then the mayor, bypassing the competition, proposed a director for Arsenał. His choice was Piotr Bernatowicz, a conservative art historian known for signing a clericalist statement asserting that critics of “gender theory” are discriminated against in Poland. (“Gender theory” is the name given in Poland to attempts to discuss and combat sexism and homophobia; the statement Bernatowicz signed was a response to a scandal touched off by a lecture entitled “Does ‘Gender’ Destroy Humanity and Family?” given by a priest at Poznań University of Economics.) According to the mayor, his choice constituted a compromise between the municipal authority and oppositional circles. The compromise was to make Arsenał compliant with the city’s cultural policy and to close the gallery down within three years. Bernatowicz stands for hard-line rule. In an interview several hours after the mayor’s decision was announced, he responded to the argument that appointment by the mayor is not a strong mandate with the claim that “the mayor has a strong democratic legitimization—stronger than the group speaking up in this matter, which was obviously not elected in democratic elections.” (It is to be noted that the present mayor, like the city council, was elected by about 16 percent of the total number of citizens eligible to vote.)
In response to this action, the gallery union local sent a letter to the Minister of Culture stating that the workers had received no information as to the mayor-appointed director’s qualifications for managing a gallery; they demanded, given the months-long conflict, that another director be chosen competitively. In addition, city activists and artists sent an open letter to the Ministry of Culture, protesting the appointment of a director without a competition. According to media information from early December, the Minister phoned the mayor of Poznań, ordering him to invite entries for a competition for a new director of the gallery. In late January, 2014, the competition jury chose the candidate selected by the mayor. A few days later two gallery workers, who had been members of the jury, sent a letter to the mayor, asking for a recording of the jury meeting, which in their opinion would show that the choice was made on the basis of the candidate’s political views rather than substantive issues. In mid-February Bernatowicz started as the new director.
Who will survive the crisis?
Regardless of further events, this was one more occasion when the authorities’ actions, aimed at worsening the situation of the city’s inhabitants, contributed to their consolidation and strengthened resistance to austerity measures. Founding the branch of a labor union enabled the gallery workers to increase their workplace bargaining power. In conflict with the authorities, who are highly and formally organized, they are much weaker as individuals than as members of a union (for instance, the authorities are legally obliged to answer the letters of a union or ask its opinion, while they need not react to the requests of individual workers). At present, the workers’ voice has a dual character, at once individual and unionized, which adds to its strength. Depending on the situation, they can issue statements or write formal requests representing the whole staff, while preserving the possibility of raising individual voices.
The founding of this local union is part of a wider process of unionization in artistic and cultural circles carried on by Inicjatywa Pracownicza in Poznań and throughout the country. Working conditions in the cultural industries are very precarious; it is the norm to live without stable employment, health insurance, or paid vacation days for a dozen or so years. This group of workers is also very divided when it comes to promoting their common interests. The union provides a platform for communication, increasing their collective bargaining power. For example, the Arsenał branch has acted several times in alliance with theater and nursery workers to defend their common interest as municipal employees.
Poznań has been going through a financial crisis for several years now. This weakened business circles and the political authorities who represent their interests. Both groups are trying to direct the destructive effects of the crisis at the poorest, to make them pay for it. In this way the rulers may turn the crisis into a solution to their problems, increasing their social authority. The fundamental question is to what extent society’s resistance against the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, effected variously by both local government and business, may lead to a situation when the inhabitants of the city reclaim what has been taken from them by municipal authorities in cooperation with capital.
KRZYSZTOF KRÓL is a member of the union Inicjatywa Pracownicza and a participant in the Rozbrat squat in Poznan (www.rozbrat.org).