Union Busting in Poland
|Hello. I'm a member of a Polish union (KFP) and a political group called ZSP.
Attached please find an article about a case which is underway in Poland...
Thank you very much for your consideration.
One Corporation's Public Secrets: Lionbridge Case to be Closely Observed
In January I published an article entitled "Lionbridge, the Globalization of Low Wages" on the internet. Lionbridge is the largest corporation in the globalization industry, which, among other things, translates and localizes software for giants such as Microsoft, Google and Adobe, provides Microsoft hotline services and even, controversially, provides interpreters to the Irish courts. As the company is not a household name, the article did not, at first, generate any real interest and probably would have gone unnoticed had people from that company not read it and had it not lead to the firing of a unionist in their Polish office.
In January workers in the Warsaw office of that firm created a trade union. The article in question addressed some of the labour practices in that company - but did not at all cover any of the particular issues at the Warsaw office. If one adheres to the logic of the company, nobody from outside the company should know anything about the working conditions there, much less write about them since this would imply that some employee had talked - and that could be considered "revealing corporate secrets".
The article in question, published in Polish and then in a slightly different English version, is in fact based entirely on information available on the internet. Lionbridge is on Lou Dobbs' "Exporting America" list of companies "sending American jobs overseas, or choosing to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers", as Dobbs puts it, although now that the dollar's value has dropped so drastically the firm plans more and more job cuts in Europe. (This is also public knowledge - from their shareholders' meeting.) Lionbridge publically announced its plans a few years ago to shift some 40% of jobs from the US and UK to India and China.
When Lionbridge purchased Mentorix, an Indian firm, some years ago, it filed a plan of reorganization with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). I was led to these documents by conducting a Google search with the words "Lionbridge trade union". Once on the pages of SEC one reads about Mentorix that:
Mentorix is not and has never been a party to or bound by any union contract, collective bargaining agreement or similar contract. There has never been any lockout, strike, slowdown, work stoppage, labor dispute or union organizing activity, or any similar activity or dispute, affecting Mentorix or any of their employees. None of the employees of Mentorix are “workmen” as defined in Section 2(s) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, of India and no notice or other consultation with any trade union in India is required as to any employee of Mentorix in India as a result of the Merger and the other transactions contemplated hereby.
Such information about employee relations is hardly surprising in the corporate world where investors look on this as good news. Similar information is often part of corporate marketing and is often to be found in investor material. Of course, should one imply that outsourcing work to low cost centers, (which the corporations market to investors as an opportunity for increasing profits), is somehow related to "the globalization of low wages", you could wind up with high-priced corporate lawyers calling your article "biased", full of incorrect information or somehow detrimental to the company.
Shortly after the corporate bigwigs at Lionbridge read "Lionbridge, the Globalization of Low Wages" on the internet, they charged that the author of the article was Jakub G., one of the openly-named union reps in the newly formed Warsaw union. As required by law, the company informed the union that they would like to fire Jakub for "revealing corporate secrets, acting to the detriment of the company", etc.
I immediately informed the company that I had been the one to publish the article and that all information there was in fact taken from the Internet - there was no "disclosure" of any secrets on Jakub's part. As evidence I printed out all of the source material, together with the URLs of the pages where they were found. Despite this, Jakub wound up getting fired.
One might think that this is a classic example of union busting; there have been many similar cases in Poland. But implying such might considered a libelous offence thus I will stick to the official corporate explanation: "corporate secrets" have been leaked. The biggest problem with the explanation is that, according to Polish law (and to common sense), information which is publically available does not generally qualify as a secret.
Jakub decided to take the case to court. As a union rep, he was one of a couple of union members whose names were known to the management. Under Polish law, such people are protected against dismissal - except in the case of gross misconduct. The company is arguing that Jakub's conduct was such an offence that it qualified for immediate dismissal and that his protected status should be ignored. Prior to this, Jakub was considered a good employee who had been promoted, sent abroad and was being considered for a new promotion just prior to getting the sack.
The arguments against him are best understood in the context of recent activity by the employers' lobby and neoliberal establishment which seek to limit union rights. There are legal attempts being made to grant employers access to lists of union members; it has been long held that employers should not have access to this information since they may be tempted to discriminate against them. The employers also frequently attack the provisions which protect union activists from dismissal, arguing that they must be able to fire who they want. Thus in Jakub's case, the corporate lawyers have argued that he should not be protected against dismissal since he has, in their opinion, revealed corporate secrets (even though he didn't).
This protection was invented partly to discourage the firing of union reps, which is unfortunately a common practice in Poland. ITUC has recorded many dozens of instances of unionists being dismissed shortly after announcing the formation of a new union. "Acting to the detriment of the company" and "disclosing secrets" are typical charges. It seems that the "birthplace of Solidarity" is now famous in European labour circles for firing unionists. Among the famous incidents in recent years have been the cases of Dariusz Skrzypczak (Goplana) and Slawomir Kaczmarek (Uniontex), both fired for giving interviews to the press about the situation in their companies. (Both won subsequent cases against their dismissals in court.)
The Lionbridge case will be closely looked at not only by unionists, but also by human rights organizations and even legal observers. That is, if the company manages to present any convincing arguments to the court; the burden of proof will lie on the company to show that Jakub disclosed secret information but they are unlikely to produce any evidence which would prove that any of the information in the article came from him. What will be interesting for legal observers is to see how the corporate lawyers will try to argue that public information, available on the internet, may be considered at the same time "confidential". The lawyers for Lionbridge have claimed that they find it highly unlikely that I would be able to have this information and that it must have been leaked by Jakub.
The case may seem so absurd that it would never get off the ground but many employers tend to abuse the concept of the "corporate secret". They are already trying to create the concept of "public secrets" - that is they would like certain information which is publically available to be treated by employees and other parties as "trade secrets". It is interesting where they will decide to draw the line on the allegedly confidential nature of information.
Those who seek to protect corporate property may ultimately find legal relief to prevent the disemination of IP such as source codes, formulas or design plans but will they manage to also surpress disemination of information on issues such as salaries or work conditions?
In the US, the National Labour Relations Act states that employers cannot interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in exercising their rights under section 8 (a) (1) of the NLRA, which protects the employees' right to discuss their 'wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment' for their 'mutual aid or protection. If an employee is dismissed for discussing or "disclosing" their salary, they can sue their employer under the NLRA - and they have excellent chances for successful legal recourse.
In other parts of the world, employers may enjoy more absolute rights than their employees. With the NLRA, an employee's right to make sure, among other things, that they are not being discriminated against in terms of salary, overweighs the employers claims that this is "confidential information" since companies cannot generally provide compelling arguments why salary information should be considered a vital trade secret. In other countries, employees may have no means to address the issue of pay descrimination because they have, under confidentiality undertakings, no right to know what a co-worker performing identical work is actually earning. Thus confidentiality clauses may be used to help hide unfair labour practices.
As the limits of confidentiality are under discussion in Poland, the Lionbridge case will be of interest to legal observers who are interested in seeing how the company will argue its case. Yet for unionists, this will undoubtedly be viewed as another example of dismissal under false pretexts, similar to previous ones - only this time it was a third party, me, who published the information and who managed to "uncover" Lionbridge's public trade "secrets" by reading the newspapers, some professional journals, their own corporate reports and using the search engine of one of their leading clients, Google.
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