Gdansk -- a victory won with discipline

Nineteen ships stand on the stocks and slipways at the Lenin shipyard here in various stages of construction. They are on order -- approximately half and half -- for Western countries and the Soviet Union.

They are due for delivery this year. But after the 17-day strike, it will be a race against time, even if the 16,000-man labor force puts in the extra hour or so daily to "catch up" as they said they would once they had won a satisfactory settlement.

Losses here are only part of an immense bill piled up in the whole strike-bound Baltic region in terms of time lost, immense losses in production, penalties payable for delayed contracts and shipments, and the wastage of perishable cargoes.

Toward the end, the stoppage in the ports and 400 installations and factories in the Gdansk region alone was estimated to be costing Poland up to $75 million daily.

It has been an extraordinary, unforgettable scene here, one that communist Eastern Europe has never experienced before.

A year ago the great shipyard was humming with work on ships for countries in all parts of the world. Order books were full to the end of 1982.

On Aug. 14 this year, it fell silent. The giant cranes, themachinery, and the whole shipbuilding process ground to a halt.

A historymaking strike had begun, and not only Poland but also the rest of the communist bloc held its breath as it looked on.

The workers occupied the yard from the first day. They settled down on a shift basis, day and night, with never fewer than 2,000 men on hand to prevent the authorities taking it over.

Talking with them and observing their mood, one saw just what the beleaguered Communist Party and state leadership was up against.

The determination, the organization, the discipline -- and "solidarnosc" (solidarity) -- were something that no East European government could have broken down unless it was prepared to use massive force. Resolve was writ large on the faces of the men as they stood or sat around on the grass outside the conference hall, either pensive or chatting very quietly in small groups in the intervals at the proceedings inside.

There were reminders, too, in the little plaques fixed to each tree. "21 X tak" (21 times yes), they read, meaning the strikers' 21 demands -- first and foremost of them the independent trade unions on which they rejected any compromise. And, in the end, they won.

Everything that was said in the hall where delegates from all the plants were in almost around-the-clock session and in the little annex where the principal negotiators met was broadcast to the workers over the yard loudspeakers. Throughout the day hundreds of people, wives and other sympathizers -- stood at the gates to listen.

Everything was "open." Nothing was secret or withheld from those most interested, that is, the workers themselves. One of the bitterest complaints against the regime was that for years it has not told the nation at large the truth about the real state of affairs or demonstrated real heed for the needs and difficulties of the working class it it supposed to represent.

"After the 1970 riots [in which there was considerable bloodshed] the unions were very good for three or four years," a strike committee member told me. "Then they went bac to their old ways. After the 1976 strikes and the way the government handled them, we lost all confidence in our leaders.

"We are determined now to have our own unions."

In the first wave of strikes in early July, there were some demonstrative actions. The Lublin railwaymen, for example, blocked the main line between Warsaw and the Soviet union -- the kind of action most likely to provide a pretext for police action.

The shipyard workers here and at the other ports took note. Some initial impulse to go out on the street was quickly checked. The decision was made that staying in the yard and closing the gates was the one tactic the authorities would find it difficult, indeed, to move against.

And so it proved. For 17 days the strike was conducted with the skill and logistics of a well-planned military operation. Just keeping 2,000 men with workers' appetites fed was a formidable operation, but it was done. Daily supplies of bread, butter, sausage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and apples were brought in.And hundreds and hundreds of bottles of mineral water. Tea was made all the time.

But there was no alcohol. Liquor sales were suspended throughout the north. A "no alcohol" order was strictly enforced in the yard. The few who were caught abusing it were embarrassed by having their names and their offense against discipline announced over the loudspeakers.

The propensity of Polish males for heavy drinking is well known. "Drink played quite a large part in the way things go out of hand in 1970," a committee member said. "We were taking no chances this time."

Workers took turns in keeping the yard in good order and followed all the maintenance and safety measures to safeguard its multibillion zlotys worth of installations, much of them high techology bought in the West.

I walked to a slipway where last year I had seen a big container vessel being built for France, a parent fishing craft for Russia, and a large cargo boat for Brazil. New ships are under construction there now. But for the moment they were deserted and silent.

The Lenin yard's order books are full now till mid-1983, I was told, with prospects in all the Baltic ports for orders keeping them at "boom" levels until the end of 1985.

Three valuable weeks will have been lost, however, by the time the usual working rhythm is regained. It is a serious loss -- even with the extra hours -- with only four months of the year to go.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.