Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In Gdansk, Polish workers are cautious but defiant

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 1985

Gdansk, Poland

From the roof of the Lenin Shipyard's K2 assembly line, a big red banner proclaims, ``Work is the basis of socialism.'' Zygmunt, a welder, snaps, ``Work is the basis of capitalism, too.''

Skip to next paragraph

That quip hints at the unbreakable spirit of Poland's workers. In August 1980, workers at this shipyard launched the strike that gave birth to the Solidarity trade union. Almost five years later, despite the banning of the union and a period of martial law, the same workers remain defiant.

This does not mean they are going to strike. Caution tempers their defiance. Zygmunt ignored his foreman's warnings about ``behaving himself'' and stopped work briefly July 1 in response to the underground's call to protest the hike in meat prices.

But he remains wary of a longer protest. Like many other workers, he says he fears a repetition of either martial law or the events of 1970 and 1976, when police killed workers following work actions protesting price hikes.

``Our possibilities are limited,'' Solidarity leader Lech Walesa told the Monitor. Mr. Walesa, who is back at the shipyard working as an electrician, urges restraint.

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's government aims to rebuild the battered Communist Party, establish strong new party-dominated unions, and spur economic growth through market-oriented reforms. A visit to the Lenin Shipyard shows limited success on each count:

The economy. On the surface, the shipyard seems to be prospering. Since emerging from the ashes of the war, the Lenin yard has become the country's largest, exporting 620 boats and propelling Poland into the ranks of the world's top 10 shipbuilders. Orders are booked full through 1988.

By Western standards, though, the facility faces bankruptcy. During the 1970s, an ambitious investment program was launched, only to be called off when Poland's debt soared and labor unrest swelled in 1980. Since then, no new money has been found for modernization. Welders and other workers use ancient, rusty tools.

The result is a miserable record of productivity. Building a ship here, export manager Witold Ciemiega says, takes three times as long as in the West -- using one-third more workers.

Impressive-sounding economic reforms have not helped. The yard now has self-financing powers and employees are offered salary incentives to work longer and harder. But more than 80 percent of its boats still are sold to the Soviet Union, earning rubles that cannot be used to buy needed Western machinery.

``A Dutch company was interested in buying a boat,'' Mr. Ciemiega says. ``They needed it in six months. We could only promise to deliver it in three years.''

The Communist Party. Restoring discipline has proved as illusory as restoring economic viability.

Solidarity dealt a deep blow to the Communist Party's strength in the yard. First secretary Wiktov Bovcuch says 900 of the 3,300 party members here before 1980 resigned or were expelled by 1982.

Martial law reinforced party confidence. Mr. Bovcuch believes he has succeeded in stopping ``the anarchy'' that pervaded the plant when ``Solidarity was threatening to strike every day.'' Since 1983, he says, no working time has been lost because of work stoppages.

The underground challenges that assertion, and Zygmunt exemplifies worker distrust. As he sees it, the central authorities in Warsaw made all the important decisions, leaving the local director as a powerless ``clown.''

Bovcuch himself admits his control of the plant remains far from firm. He offers a startling figure: The average worker claims six weeks of sick leave a year.

Membership in the party also lags. In 1984, Bovcuch says, the party recruited only 21 new members. This year, the figure has reached 23.