LECH WALESA arrived. He strode up to the director and asked in a sharp voice: "Do you recognise me? I worked ten years in this shipyard. I still consider myself a shipyard worker, I have the workers' confidence and we are going to occupy this shipyard." Everyone cheered and we began our demands.
From the diary of a shipyard worker Lenin Shipyard, Gdansk. Poland. August 14, 1980
A STRIKE broke out in a shipyard on the Baltic Sea last August that shook the world. It was not the first strike in .Poland's recent history, but it was the most powerful. It set off a chain reaction of strikes across the country which led to the creation of Solidarity, a free trade union movement which now has 10 million members. The strike catapulted Lech Walesa to leadership of Solidarity and international fame.
The strike was dangerous and the workers knew it. Twice before, in Poznan in 1956 and in Gdansk in 1970, the security police opened fire on demonstrating workers and many died. Now the strikers erected a makeshift timber cross outside the main gate of the Lenin shipyard where the first three workers were shot down in December 1970.
The contradictions were clear. In a so-called workers' state, where the Party claimed to embody the interests of the workers, the workers were demanding the freedom to build their own trade union to protect their interests. In a state that promoted atheism for decades, the workers were calling on the Catholic Church as an ally and were publicly displaying practices of their faith. Shipyard workers went to confession in the open air and gathered in the thousands to celebrate the Eucharist in the occupied shipyard.
As the first anniversary of the Gdansk shipyard strike approached, I began an assessment of Solidarity's stormy progress. I sought out Lech Walesa himself, and found him in Malmo. Sweden. He was there to receive the "Let Live" prize 1981 from Arbetet, a Swedish Labour daily newspaper. He had turned down an invitation to President
Francois Mitterrand•s inauguration to be with his trade union friends.
Lech Walesa is 38, He's 5ft 7in tall and his pale face is dominated by a wide moustache, a large nose and a jutting jaw. (Gillette has offered him over a million dollars to shave off his famous moustache with . one of their razors, but he refused.) His briar pipe is always present either in the corner of his mouth or in his hand, He projects authority tempered with good humour 4nd humility. He doesn't suffer fools gladly.
He was born during the Nazi occupation in the village of Popow between Gdansk and Warsaw. He received vocational training in a state school in nearby Lipno. His father died in 1945 from the privations he suffered in a Nazi extermination camp. His mother married her brother-in-law, Stanislaw Walesa. Lech had a devout Catholic upbringing. His mother was later killed in a car accident on holiday in the United States.
The stepfather went to live in Jersey City, New Jersey where he works as a lumberman. Lech had many times refused his stepfather's invitations to emigrate to America. The two met earlier this year in Rome. where Lech had gone to visit Pope John Paul II, There is a strain in the relationship over the stepfather's relative affluence and the attitudes that go with it. Anyway Lech says he couldn't leave Poland. "A man must live where he was born and grew up, in order to give back to the country what he got from it," he says.
He assured me that "the Poland of last August would never return." Solidarity would work to solve problems other than the wages and working conditions of its members. It would continue to help spawn other organisations, like the farmers' union. It would involve itself in the larger problems of the country — social and economic and political reforms leading to free elections.
"When Solidarity started last August," he said, "we chose young leaders spoiling for a fight. We still need them, but we have a greater need for reasonable leaders who are tacticians and strategists and are able to carry on the wider dialogue."
Solidarity poses a double threat to the Soviet Union precisely because it is both a free trade union and a larger movement with aims to help democratize the Polish Communist Party. the fear is that 'the Polish threat' will spread to central European satellites under its domination — Hungary, Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. There is also worry about the potential disruption suob activities may have within the Soviet Union itself. Ukrainian coal miners tried to organise a free trade union in 1978 and Like all successful leaders of revolutions, Lech Walesa served a difficult apprenticeship. His preparation period lasted ten years. He became a strike leader at the Lenin Shipyard where he worked as an electrician during the December 1970 food price riots. In the words of the participants themselves, these riots were described as "a spasm of uncontrolled rage."
When the strikers were denied a meeting with the local Cornmunist Party boss, they took to the streets. There they were met by security police who fired point blank into the crowd. Fifty-five
people were killed according to the official report.
Later that month the Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was forced to resign — after suffering a heart attack. He was replaced by Edward Gierek, who promised open government and better living conditions. The promises impressed Lech Walesa, who had already spent nine years of his life at the Lenin shipyard, and he decided to stay on.
Things actually did get better. Workers began to see a real improvement in the quality of their lives — their wages rose and there was more to buy in the shops. Even the official trade union showed signs of independence. The economic boom, however, had been funded on money borrowed from abroad and was short-lived.
By 1976, the shortages returned upsetting the workers. By midsummer workers in several Polish cities rioted over increases in meat prices. Although Gdansk wasn't involved in the riots. Walesa, as a delegate to the official trade union, drew up a list of workers' grievances. His employer saw him as a union troublemaker, disregarded his 15 years of service to the company, and dismissed him. He found work in a machine repair shop and helped start the underground Baltic Free Trade Union Movement.
He found another job with the Elektromontaz engineering plant. His colleagues found him "friendly and reliable ... an excellent worker." He went down as well with the management and was officially declared the cornoanv's outstanding electrician. His only fault was his persistent trade union organising.
Walesa took part in a demonstration in December 1979 outside the Lenin shipyard to commemorate the workers killed in 1970. Over 5,000 workers gathered and he spoke to them about free trade unions. Several weeks later he was fired from Elektromontaz, allegedly for taking a day off without permission.
He now describes this pre
paration period without heroics. "The) have been tough years, tough on my wife and children. But I couldn't give up," As soon as he was informed of developments ut the Lenin shipyard on August 14, he went there eluding the four policemen posted to watch his every move.
"I got there at a crucial moment. In fact there was a meeting of 2,000 workers and the big boss was asking them to leave, making his promises. And nobody cared to oppose him. As a matter of fact they were already leaving. I felt my blood boil. I elbowed my way through the crowd. I set myself in front of him ... I shouted at him that the workers wouldn't go anywhere if they weren't sure to have obtained what they wanted. So they felt strong and I became their leader. And I still am."
It is not surprising that Lech Walesa chooses to make his stand on the firmest ground in Poland — the bedrock of the Catholic Church. "I am a union man and not a socialist," he said. -My religion helps now — it has helped me all my life. A man without religion is a dangerous man and without religion, I would be a dangerous man."
His many opponents would argue that his religious nature actually makes him more dangerous not less. He is determined not to sell-out and to speak the truth where conventional wisdom has always encouraged duplicity. Recently when asked if Communism had failed in Poland, Walesa said: "If you choose the example of what we Polish have in our shops, then I answer that Communism has done very little for us. If you choose the example of what is in our souls instead. I answer that Communism has done very much for us. In fact, our souls contain exactly the contrary of what they wanted. They wanted us to be materialistic and incapable of sacrifices, we are antimaterialistic. capable of sacrifice. They wanted us to be afraid of the tanks, of the guns, and instead we don't fear them at all."