WORLD

Poland’s days of challenge

ANDREW BILSKI May 16 1988
WORLD

Poland’s days of challenge

ANDREW BILSKI May 16 1988

Poland’s days of challenge

WORLD

At first glance, it appeared to be a repeat of events that began unfolding eight years ago, when a strike at Poland’s Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk transformed a series of scattered protests over rising meat prices into a nationwide workers’ reform crusade. Last week Polish workers were again on strike, protesting a 40-percent increase in food prices so far this year. But unlike the situation in 1980, the government refused to seek a compromise settlement. Communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who crushed the briefly legal Solidarity trade union and imposed martial law in 1981, sent in the troops. Then he sent legislation to parliament, giving himself sweeping new powers to stifle dissent.

In a predawn raid on May 5, a government assault force broke down a gate at the Lenin steel plant in Krakow’s industrial suburb of Nowa Huta, where half of the 32,000 employees had been on strike for 10 days. Witnesses said that blackclad troopers of a crack antiterrorist brigade, known as the Tigers, surprised the sleeping strikers and quickly took control of the giant compound. Government spokesman Jerzy Urban said that police arrested 38 people, including all but two of the 15-member Solidarity committee that led the strike. At the same time, massive forces of riot police sealed off the Lenin Shipyard where 3,000 workers—engaged in a sit-in strike since May 2 in sympathy with the Nowa Huta steelworkers—ignored a management-declared shutdown and refused to leave. Said one Western diplomat of the government actions: “This is a terrible mistake. It is the worst thing [the authorities] could have done.”

But last Friday the government went further. It produced a draft bill—

to be debated by the Sejm (parliament) this week, and virtually certain to be passed—giving the authorities power to ban all strikes, including those called by official unions, and punish organizers with one-year jail sentences. It would impose a similar sentence on anyone organizing “any other forms of protest” and also suspend for a year all legal procedures governing labor disputes.

Earlier, Urban defended the May 5 Nowa Huta raid as an “order-restoring operation, without a single person getting a lump on the head.” But Rev. Tadeusz Zaleski, a pro-Solidarity Roman Catholic priest who was in the steel plant at the time, gave a different account. He said workers, stunned by percussion and flash grenades thrown by the assault troops, “lost their bearings and began fleeing in panic.” He added: “They were chased all over the hall and beaten with truncheons. Even after being caught they were still beaten.”

Several hours after the raid, according to opposition sources, hundreds of workers arriving for the morning shift tried to resume the strike but were dispersed by truncheonwielding riot police. More clashes with police were reported in the streets of Nowa Huta later in the

day when angry workers g attempted to march on P the plant. Witnesses said

that some marchers were i beaten unconscious and

thrown bleeding into police trucks. Nowa Huta strike chairman Andrzej Szewczuwaniec, who eluded capture, said that the work stoppage continued late last week in the form of absenteeism.

The latest wave of labor unrest began on April 25 with a transport workers’ strike in the northern city of Bydgoszcz. Under government reforms designed to switch Poland from a centralized economic system to a so-called socialist market economy, prices have

risen dramatically since February. In an attempt to end costly subsidies, the government raised food prices by 40 per cent, rents by 50 per cent, gasoline by 60 per cent, electricity by 100 per cent and coal by 200 per cent. After a 12-hour strike, the Bydgoszcz workers won a 63-per-cent pay raise. Encouraged by that victory, steelworkers in Nowa Huta struck the next day, demanding not only a pay raise for themselves but compensation for workers and retirees across the country and the reinstatement of four Solidarity activists fired in 1981.

On April 30 the government appeared to have contained the spreading unrest by granting striking workers at another big steel and machinery complex, in the southeastern city of Stalowa Wola, a 50-per-cent pay increase. And in a May Day speech in Warsaw, Jaruzelski said that the government would not permit a return to the “anarchy and uproar” of the Solidarity era. But the next day, after Solidarity founder Lech Walesa called for a “day of action,” 7,000 ship workers in Gdansk walked off the job, demanding not only pay raises but the reinstatement of the banned Solidarity union as a legal and independent body.

As in 1980, the main gate of Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard was draped with banners, flags, flowers and pic-

tures of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. And once again, Walesa was the centre of attention. In a reference to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s catchword for his own reform program, the Gdansk electrician told 3,000 workers occupying the shipyard, “If we do not carry out perestroika [restructuring], if we do not make reforms peacefully together with the nation and with compromises, then we are threatened with a revolution, and a bloody one.”

Walesa blamed the labor revolt on the government’s economic policies and its refusal to co-operate with Solidarity. Referring to Poland’s crushing $45-billion foreign debt—the highest among Eastern Bloc nations—he accused the government of making Poles “the beggars of Europe and the world.” Added the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner: “Here, in the birthplace of Solidarity, I state to the authorities that they are forcing Solidarity to lead the nation on to the road to reforms.” But the 44-year-old Walesa said that he would not head the current struggle. “I am tired,” he said. “You have to find for yourself a new Walesa.”

The assault on the Nowa Huta plant cut short efforts by Poland’s Catholic bishops to negotiate an end to the strike wave and defuse the situa-

tion. On May 4 the bishops sent teams of Catholic intellectuals to Gdansk and Nowa Huta to mediate between management and strikers. At around 1 a.m. the next day, plant managers in Nowa Huta told the mediators that talks would proceed with the strike committee. Instead, one hour later troops stormed the compound. Declared one Solidarity supporter: “It was a slap in the face of the church.”

U.S. reaction to the Polish crisis was swift and critical. In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater condemned the government’s use of force and urged Jaruzelski “to begin a productive dialogue with all segments of Polish society, including Solidarity.”

In Moscow, Western diplomats said that continuing labor unrest in Poland could threaten Gorbachev’s program of economic change and political liberalization in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev has repeatedly declared that Moscow respects the right of Eastern Bloc allies to pursue “different paths to socialism.” But the diplomats said that hard-liners in the Kremlin might use the Polish disturbances as an excuse to press for the imposition of greater controls on all activities in the Soviet Union. “If the leadership starts feeling

that the next stage of economic reform could lead to public unrest,” said one diplomat, “there might be some caution about moving too fast.”

At the end of the week, the tense standoff at the Gdansk shipyard seemed near its end. With support for the strike dwindling, the Roman Catholic Church appointed the city’s bishop, Tadeusz Goclowski, as a mediator, and he said that he was sure the dispute would end peacefully. Bishop Goclowski added that police had guaranteed no reprisals against the strikers. But in a sign of the government’s hard line, misdemeanor panels in Gdansk and Warsaw jailed leading Solidarity officials Bogdan Lis and Janusz Onyszkiewicz for three months and six weeks respectively—Lis for calling an illegal strike and Solidarity spokesman Onyszkiewicz for giving false information to reporters. For Walesa, the confrontation posed a personal and political challenge. “I’ll be the last to leave,” he declared. “As a shipyard worker, I must stay with the men for better or for worse, especially for worse.” It seemed more likely to be for worse than for better.

ANDREW BILSKI

BOGDAN TUREG