In Gdansk, Polish workers are cautious but defiant

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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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.

The unions. After Solidarity was banned, the government formed new ``independent'' unions, giving them the right to self-government and the right to strike -- but the latter applied only after an extensive arbitration procedure had been exhausted.

Henryk Koscielski was elected chairman of the Shipyard Trade Association. He had been a member of Solidarity -- and the Communist Party.

``Solidarity was good until it became political,'' Mr. Koscielski explains at his office in a small new building placed against the shipyard gate. ``We stick to concrete work problems.''

The new association helps workers find apartments. It offers them cheap vacations. It arranges training courses. Koscielski says such perks have convinced 4,500 of the yard's 12,000 workers to join, most of them former members of Solidarity like him.

That leaves about two-thirds of the workers without representation.

``The new unions act like shipyard social sections,'' Zygmunt explains. ``We need an organization that really supports the worker, a free union.''

So what do Zygmunt and his friends have left to believe in?

The Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, St. Brigitta's Church, a modest red brick structure, located just a few blocks from the shipyard entrance. Here banners hung from the rafters proclaim a different message.

One reads, ``Shipyard workers faithful to the ideals of August.'' Another calls for ``Solidarity of hope through faith and love toward victory.''

At St. Brigitta's, the Rev. Henryk Jankowski preaches. Lech Walesa prays. Dissident leaders meet openly to attend mass -- and to discuss politics.

``The church's role is to support human rights, working people's rights,'' Fr. Jankowski says. ``Working people don't feel like they can participate in governing.''

At his modest apartment in a huge housing project on the outskirts of town, Walesa echoes that message. General Jaruzelski treats him ``as if we don't exist,'' he says. But Walesa says that eventually the general will have to compromise with the people. That means negotiations.

``All wars end at the table,'' he says.

The problem is how to force the government to talk. Walesa favors wearing the government down by slowly building up mass support. As the economy provokes discontent, the government will need an agreement.

But the former Solidarity leader sees a danger in his own ranks. Some of his supporters, he says, want to call strikes and mass protests, even if that leads to violence.

At the shipyard, for example, Piotr, a young worker, asserts, ``Force is the only way to end the communist terror.'' His friends Miroslaw and Adam explain that they speak as ``believing Catholics.''

Walesa also speaks as a believing Catholic. He wears a badge with a picture of the Virgin Mary as he explains that the opposition does not now have sufficient strength to provoke a show of force.

Older workers such as Zygmunt are patient. When he joined the shipyard 33 years ago, Zygmunt says, he believed his work ``would lead to something.'' Today, he earns 24,000 zlotys a month -- $160 at the official exchange rate, $40 on the black market -- and that includes 60 hours of overtime.

``All I have is an apartment, some furniture, a wife, and children,'' he says. ``I have no savings.''

He is cautious about another work action because of what he calls ``the unpleasant consequences'' of past demonstrations, but he says he might dare once again ``if the situation is right.''

Never, he explains, will he let the government trick him. At that moment, he spies another banner ahead of him. It reads, ``Better work improves productivity.''

He laughs. ``That's like saying bread is made of flour.''

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