The second-floor flat at Marchlewskiego 13 in Gdansk was once a doctor’s home and surgery. Now crowds of a different kind tramp the bare floorboards of the almost unfurnished rooms. This is the proud headquarters of the first free-trade union to be set up in a Communist country. Outside, people stand and stare at the old terraced building as if it had just fallen from the moon.
There was never a doubt about who would be the new union’s leaders: strike boss Lech Walesa, the man with the droopy moustache and the baggy suits who dared to tackle the system at its roots; and a comfortable grandmother, Anna Walentynowicz, whose benign appearance and self-effacing tweed suits cloak her true nature—that of the La Pasionaria* of the movement. Both have suffered years of persecution in their fight for workers’ rights, and both are ready for further sacrifice to ensure that the unions are properly established.
“I sleep less now then I did during the strike,” says Walentynowicz. “I am so tired, but happy, oh so happy. This is the Baltic miracle. We never thought it could happen, and even now people just don’t believe it.”
Walentynowicz knows there are going to be attempts to sabotage the union’s activities. “Just look at it,” she says. “We expect to register half a million members by the weekend. This place is too small, we have only one phone and no paper to print our bulletins. Then there’s the money.
*La Pasionaria, alias Dolores Ibárruri, became a household name for her resistance to Franco during the Spanish civil war. She is now president of the Spanish Communist Party.
We’ve no financial problems, but we don’t have a bank account for all these contributions from all over Poland and the whole world. To open a bank account an organization has to have a rubber stamp, and the censor in Gdansk has rejected our design for one. It’s typical.”
Elsewhere Walesa sat slumped on a wooden chair, drinking strong tea and trying to keep his bleary eyes open. “We are not yet a trade union,” he said sharply. “We are a trade union in state of formation. We are drafting our statutes. We have to be careful about foreign advisers. Of course, we’re grateful for all the advice we get, but if we let foreign advisers in on the act they’ll accuse us of bringing in the cia. We have to find our own way, a Polish way.”
Walesa does not want to form a central union. He wants separate unions in all branches of industry, to make sure they remain competitive. “They keep ringing up from all over the country, the people who want to form the other unions, asking us for instructions. I don’t have any instructions. We haven’t sorted ourselves out yet.”
Life is changing for Walesa, too. Three weeks ago he was unemployed, slumming it in a dilapidated two-room flat with his wife and six children, the youngest only weeks old. Last week they were all sick, because of the damp and overcrowding. But Walesa is getting a new apartment, a car and even a chauffeur from his new union.
He’s a very rough diamond, and it’s questionable how he’ll stand up to the pressures at the top. But the workers would lay down their lives for him, as they would for Walentynowicz. In the middle of the crowd someone pressed a bunch of fresh flowers into her hand. She stood silent, looking at it, and two great tears trickled down her cheeks. “I don’t believe it,” she said quietly. "It's all just too good to be true ” Sue Masterman/Anton Koene
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.