About 30.7 percent of Poland’s estimated population of 38.3 million lived in urban centers with populations of 100,000 or more. The priority given urbanization and industrialization in postwar Poland caused the urban working class to grow dramatically and the rural working class to shrink proportionately in the first decade of communist rule. This process slowed considerably over the next three decades.
Nearly 22 million Poles were of working age: 11.3 million men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four years and 10.6 million women between ages eighteen and fifty-nine. The population was relatively well educated.About 1.8 million people had a postsecondary education, another 7.0 million had a secondary education, and 6.7 million had a basic trade education .
The total labor force of 18.4 million included 36.8 percent employed in manufacturing, mining, and construction; 25.7 percent in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; and 7.1 percent in transport and communications. About 12 million workers, or 70 percent of the work force, worked in the state sector.
The communist system was marked by major inequality of labor allocation. In spite of considerable overstaffing in both production and administrative units, labor shortages were a perennial problem in other areas of the economy. Unemployment began to grow in January 1990, partly as the result of the reform policies of the postcommunist governments and partly because of the collapse of markets in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which were Poland’s most important trading partners in Comecon. At the end of 1991, unemployment had reached 11.4 percent. Unemployment benefits, an unemployment insurance system, and some retraining were introduced in early 1990.
Wage increases in the state sector were controlled by a very steep tax on wages that exceeded prescribed levels. In the private sector, the labor market operated without such restrictions, however. Wages generally were low in the first reform years. In 1991 the average monthly wage was 2,301,200 zloty (for value of the zloty–see Glossary), not including agricultural labor and positions in education, health and social services, culture, law and order, national defense, and public administration. At that time, however, rents were low, electricity, gas, and fuels remained partly subsidized, and medical services were free.
In 1992 two nationwide labor unions existed. The Solidarity labor union (Solidarnosc) was internationally known for the decade of strikes and efforts to achieve reform that finally thrust it into a central political role in 1989. The National Coalition of Labor Unions, originally established by the communist government after the suppression of Solidarity in the early 1980s, became independent of state control in 1990 and began to compete with Solidarity for members.