Walesa, disclaiming interest in politics, remains a union man at heart

Five years have passed since the Aug. 14th that Lech Walesa shinned over the 12-foot perimeter fence at Gdansk's shipyard to lead the 17-day occupation strike that resulted in the formation of the Solidarity trade union. He wastes few words on bitterness or anger over the past, concentrating instead on its lessons for the future.

From the start of the upheavel of the summer of 1980, Mr. Walesa spoke the workers' language and showed that he knew them in a way no communist leader ever had. Yet he had no political ambitions.

During a long talk in November 1980, when Solidarity was already bursting at the seams of organization, I asked him how he saw his job as union leader.

``I have no wish to be even a `leader,' '' he replied. ``I have only one goal: independent, self-governed trade unions throughout Poland.''

He wanted a robust, fighting union but not a confrontational one that some of the radicals already seemed to be seeking. ``I am not interested in politics,'' he said: ``I am a union man.''

Of his more militant followers he said: ``We are a nonpolitical organization, as agreed with the authorities [in the Aug. 31, 1980, strike settlement] and we shall do everything to avoid involvement in politics.''

He saw himself in a ``middle role,'' one of ``cooling the hot heads and encouraging the timid.''

Not many months later he just managed to defuse the first big national crisis -- the police brutality at Bydgoszcz, which would have had far less impact had the government moved faster and more convincingly to identify those responsible.

With hindsight, some ``moderates'' in the Polish government today privately admit the truth of that.

Walesa never set himself against the ``socialist'' principles or the system of state control of the means of production. Like a majority of Polish workers, certainly of his generation, he seems to accept the basic aspects of the system in which he grew up.

But he visualized -- and still does -- the workers, through their self-governing unions, being partners of government and the overseers of the system's management. In this recent talk it seemed he still believes in a kind of ``socialism.'' But which kind, he asked. He answered his own question with a typically quick Walesa analogy about three bakeries.

One, he said, was private, one state-owned, and the third a self-governed cooperative.

``The one that produces the best bread for the workers and the cheapest is `socialism!' '' he said. His own belief in that was clear.

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