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Tens of thousands protest labor reforms in Poland

Polish workers have taken to the streets of Warsaw in mass protests against the pro-market government's labor policies. Prime Minister Donald Tusk's popularity has plunged as Poland's once robust economy has weakened.

At least 100,000 workers marched through Warsaw on Saturday in protest against Prime Minister Tusk's labor reforms, which have raised the retirement age, placed some private pension funds under state control, and lengthened the work week.

Led by the iconic Solidarity trade union and the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), workers from across Poland have descended on the capital to participate in the demonstrations, which began four days ago. Some protesters have pitched camp in front of parliament since Wednesday.

"We want pensions at the age of 65 as before and not at the age of 67 as Tusk's reform would have it," said Marek Lewandowski, a spokesman for Solidarity. "We want better social policy and guarantees for employees."

Calls for higher wages and security

The trade union is calling on the government to raise the minimum wage and public sector wages as well as bolster job security, particularly for Poland's youth. Many companies offer short-term contracts without social security benefits. Workers complain that their average monthly salaries of 3,700 zlotys ($1,150, 880 euros) before taxes are among Europe's lowest.

"We want a government that will take care of our interests, so we can live in dignity," Solidarity protester Ryszard Czyska told the news agency AFP.

Tusk's hold on power weakened

Solidarity led massive labor strikes in the 1980s that ultimately forced the communist government to implement democratic reforms. The trade union has close ties to the opposition nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), led by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Recent polls have placed PiS well ahead of Tusk's liberal Civic Platform (PO).

Poland's economy, which grew by 4.5 percent in 2011, slowed to just 1.9 percent growth last year. The slowdown has hit Tusk's political and popular standing hard. After several defections from Civic Platform this year, the coalition government's parliamentary majority has been reduced to a razor-thin margin of just four seats.

Tusk's weakened majority has raised the possibility of a minority government and early elections before the set date of 2015.

slk/ch (AP, AFP)