Poland back from the brink

Michael Dobbs September 1 1980

Poland back from the brink

Michael Dobbs September 1 1980

Poland back from the brink


Michael Dobbs

The unthinkable nightmare for Poland’s Communist rulers finally became reality last week. The workers’ state was faced by a rebellion of its working class—and at week’s end, after days of tense confrontation, it was the rulers’ nerve that cracked. Having said all along that they would have nothing to do with representatives of hundreds of thousands of strikers who had all but brought the country’s battered economy to a halt, the government came around to the strikers’ way of thinking. A secret meeting was convened on neutral ground in the silent port of Gdansk on Friday and, the following day, a commission hopefully appointed earlier to investigate grievances (the strikers at first would have nothing to do with it) finally got together with the workers’ leaders—on the workers’ terms.

Throughout the week the action had been dictated from a large committee hall dominated by a Polish flag and the national symbol, the white eagle. Under the brooding gaze of a statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, strikers’ leaders passed dozens of resolutions calling for sweeping political reforms, including the abolition of censorship and the establishment of free trade unions.

The headquarters of the strike, which

spread rapidly to other parts of the country, was the giant Lenin shipyard in the centre of Gdansk. Here the strike wave in the Baltic ports began with just a handful of workers. By week’s end that handful had grown to more than 100,000 in the Gdansk region alone— with tens of thousands more out in support of the coastal ports and in such vital and, from the Communist standpoint, equally prestigious industrial enterprises as the Nowa Huta steelworks in the south—and the Polish authorities were openly admitting the seriousness of the situation. There was detailed, if slanted, coverage of the strikes in official newspapers; and, an ominous

development, the Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Ludu called for a full-scale political struggle against what it described as “anti-socialist elements” out to destroy the motherland.

Equally ominous was the reported movement of troops along the East German and Soviet borders. Large-scale military manoeuvres were scheduled for later this month. Although they were planned before the unrest, they were quickly associated with a hardline statement by East German Deputy Defence Minister General Strelitz stressing the duty of every socialist country to defend socialism wherever it came under threat. Exactly the same argument was used 12 years ago to justify the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of Alexander Dubcek’s brave experiment in “Socialism With a Human Face.”

In Poland, as the lines outside the nation’s food shops lengthened amid reports of panic buying in the Baltic states, attitudes on both sides appeared to harden during the week. The government refused to recognize the existence of the integrated strike committee set up to negotiate on behalf of the striking workers. To do so would, it feared, be tantamount to recognizing free trade unions. In response, strike leaders forbade their supporters to negotiate directly with a government commission

established to investigate grievances.

Again, in an apparent attempt to sever the grapevine along which strike information from one centre was fed to others (and to foreign journalists), the authorities arrested 14 leading dissidents from the workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Among those detained was Jacek Kuron, KOR’s spokesman, who had been running the information service ever since an increase in meat prices on July 1 touched off the unrest.

For a time, it seemed, events were building up to the Soviet bloc’s worst crisis in a decade. Poland, with its crumbling economy and strongly Catholic population, had always been the Kremlin’s weak point in Eastern Europe. On two previous occasions, in 1956 and 1970, riots caused by political and social unrest brought down governments and this time, too, the country’s Communist rulers appeared to be boxed in. While recognition of the strikers’ grievances would imply the need for drastic changes in the system, they were also aware that even maximum repression might not end the strikes.

For Polish leader Edward Gierek, who survived similar but less widespread unrest in 1976, the unrest represents both his biggest challenge and a personal tragedy. Gierek came to power after the toppling of his predecessor, Wladyslaw Gomulka, in December, 1970. He promised dialogue and consultations with the workers in order to prevent the same situation from recurring. But despite some economic progress in the early 1970s, the promises went largely unfulfilled—earlier this year a secret report to the government admitted the country was in an extremely volatile state—and the current crisis is the result.

As the situation grew worse, pressure was believed to be building up within the party for Gierek’s resignation. This, some members felt, was the last chance to solve the crisis peacefully. As on previous occasions, the psychological impact of a change at the top might induce the strikers back to work long enough for social reforms to be introduced in a gradual and relatively peaceful atmosphere.

But the basic problem facing the authorities was their own credibility. As one striker at the Lenin shipyard put it: “We’ve been lied to for so long that we totally disbelieve whatever we’re told.” “If they say something’s white, we think it’s black,” another remarked. “Since they take no notice of us in normal circumstances, the only way we have of bargaining is striking.”

Inside the shipyard—its gates festooned with flowers from sympathizers and portraits of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who last week led prayers in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square for his home-

Shipyards. La Major Plants.

• Cities affected by strikes

land and sent an emotional message of solidarity to Poland’s Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski—most of the strikers were men in their 20s. They were too young to have known the years of Stalinist terror in the 1940s and early 1950s and, having grown up in a relatively tolerant atmosphere, unlike their parents, were simply no longer afraid of the state’s repressive power.

Asked what he had learned from the previous rounds of labor unrest, one replied: “That there is power in the masses. If we stick to our demands and don’t give in, there is no way in which we can be suppressed.” Another said: “We are better organized now, better disciplined, and there is greater solidarity between us.”

To the accompaniment of boos and catcalls from a massed meeting of workers outside, I asked the manager of the Lenin shipyard, Klemens Gniech, the same question. He was tired and strained from spending night after night on the armchairs in his office. “Yes,” he sighed, “they are better organized this time.”

Public opinion in Gdansk and the other Baltic ports appeared to remain firmly on the side of the strikers— despite the disruption. Citizens encountered in the street were almost unanimous in putting the blame on the government for its inefficient handling of the economy and its lack of openness. Passing motorists gave clenched fist salutes to the strikers as they passed occupied plants.

Aside from the food lines, Poland’s already battered economy had suffered enormous disruption. The port of Szczecin, near the East German border, was losing $2.5 million a day. In Gdansk, the Lenin shipyard was losing $1 million a day. Seventy ships lay at anchor outside the port waiting to be unloaded and the authorities were having to pay penalty fees estimated at $3.5 million while they did so. Among the landlocked vessels were large oil tankers. Ashore, hundreds of railway wagons loaded with coal—Poland’s principal export—were immobilized.

But if the situation at times seemed almost beyond retrieval, there was always one matter on which the government and its rebellious populace stood united: the wish to avoid Soviet intervention. And as the Gdansk provincial governor, Jerzy Kolodziejski (“I’m sure we’re going to have all this settled soon”), got down to substantive talks with strikers’ leader Lech Walesa, it seemed that threat had, for the time being at any rate, been removed. The question that remained to be settled, in what everyone agreed was likely to be several days of hard haggling, was whether the strikers’ emotional response to news of the government cavein—the cry in the Lenin shipyard was “Victory! Victory!”—would be borne out by the settlement.