In 1970, anger erupted in Poland when, with unerringly crass timing just a fortnight before Christmas, the government increased prices on staple foods like meat, bread, milk and eggs by 36 per cent. There were riots in several Polish cities. The worst were in Gdansk where police fired on unarmed demonstrators outside the Lenin Shipyard. Forty-four workers were killed.
Anna had then stayed out of trouble, as she did in the next big wave of Polish unrest in 1976, during which thousands of people were arrested. But, like so many of her compatriots, she was becoming radicalised the more she saw of everyday life in People’s Poland. She always referred to the workers who had died in 1970 as ‘martyrs’ and was one of a steadily increasing number who would ensure there were candles and flowers by their gravesides on the anniversary of their deaths. She uncovered a racket involving a large-scale fraud from which some leading figures in the official trade union at the plant, run by the Communist Party, personally profited.
On May Day 1978 she took the first step that marked her out by the Communist apparatchiks in Poland as a potential problem. She joined a group created that day with the cumbersome title ‘A Founding Committee of Free Trade Unions on the Coast’. Soon it would gain a more catchy and famous name, Solidarnose, or Solidarity. It started a magazine,Robotnik Wybrzeza
(The Coastal Worker
), that declared on the front page of its first edition its principal, overriding aim: ‘Only independent trades unions, which have the backing of the workers they represent, have a chance of challenging the regime. Only they can represent a power that the authorities will one day . . . have to deal with on equal terms.’ Anna Walentynowycz was one of sixty-five activists who signed the magazine’s charter on its founding day.2
A new round of industrial unrest engulfed Poland in spring and early summer 1980. Strikes hit dozens of factories throughout the country. The railway workers of Lublin, in eastern Poland, blocked the main line that took passengers and goods to the Soviet Union. The strike was settled when the Deputy Prime Minister, Mieczysław Jagielski, went personally to make peace by announcing a government climb-down. But the pattern throughout the 1970s in Poland had been that every time the regime made a concession with one group of workers, it would deal harshly with others somewhere else. This time the regime’s eye alighted on Walentynowycz.
At around noon she was summoned to the shipyard’s personnel department and fired. The pretext was that she had been spotted over the last few nights at various graveyards around Gdansk gathering candle stubs. She was planning to reuse them as fresh candles to light at a memorial ceremony for the forty-four ‘martyrs’ of the 1970 crackdown. A police report accused her of stealing. If she was fired for a disciplinary offence she would lose her pension, even though she was so close to retirement. A low-level official apologised to Anna with the weasel words of cowardly apparatchiks everywhere: ‘I’m sorry, but I have no choice. If I don’t do it I’ll be sacked myself and then somebody else will sack you anyway.’ She replied with the spirit of Solidarity: ‘Well that other one should refuse to do it, then the other one and the one after that. They can’t sack everyone can they?’3
The reaction was swift and bold. Five days later a petition called for a strike at the shipyard ‘to defend the crane operator Anna Walentynowycz . . . If you don’t, many of you will find yourselves in the same dire straits as her.’ The petition was signed by seven people who workers would have recognised as campaigners for better working conditions and, especially, for free trade unions outside the control of the Communist Party. The final crisis of Polish communism had begun, typically in a workers’ state, with a grievous injustice to an honest worker.
Gdansk, Thursday 14 August 1980
THOUGH ANNA WALENTYNOWYCZ was such a popular figure and her treatment had been so clearly unfair, the activists in Gdansk who issued the strike call were uncertain how the workers would react. The big towns on the Baltic coast were relatively quiet throughout the summer. Party chieftains locally were beginning to think that perhaps the worst of the troubles were over. In the days since Walentynowycz was fired, hundreds of copies of the strike appeal had been distributed on the trams and trains which brought workers to the yard from the outlying housing estates. The strike was due to begin at dawn.
At six a.m., when the first shift clocked on, about 100 workers began to march through the shipyard. Some held banners demanding the reinstatement of Walentynowycz and others were shouting to their workmates to join them. There were not many, but the management was beginning to feel worried. A half-hour later around 500 had joined the demonstration. They reached the shipyard Gate Two, one of the main exits, and were ready to march into the city. There they hesitated, remembering it was when they marched into central Gdansk that the forty-four workers were killed in December 1970. During this pause the director of the shipyard, Klemens Gniech, climbed on to a crane to address the strikers. Gniech was an energetic, tough but generally fair-minded man who was respected, even well liked, by his workforce. In a smooth speech he promised that he would discuss their demands as long as the workers returned to their jobs. For a while it seemed as if his audience would be appeased. There were mutterings amongst them that they might as well return to work. At this point, a short, squat man with a large moustache clambered up on to the crane next to Gniech. He tapped the manager on the shoulder and began to improvise: ‘Remember me?’ he asked. ‘I worked here for ten years and I still feel I’m a Lenin Shipyard worker. I have the confidence of the workers here, though it’s four years since I lost my job.’ He went on to talk about Walentynowycz and about the need for an independent trade union. To resounding cheers and applause Lech Wałesa called for an ‘occupation strike’. Immediately, a strike committee was formed - with Wałesa at its head - and Gniech beat a retreat. He agreed to negotiations and as a signal of good faith he dispatched his own shiny black Volga limousine to collect Anna Walentynowycz from her home to take part in the negotiations.1
The occupation strike was one of the most successful weapons used by Solidarity over the succeeding years. It was a carefully calculated tactic designed primarily to protect strikers from being attacked on the streets by police. Taking over a factory filled with hundreds of workers would require a military operation - a costly and potentially bloody enterprise only the most brutal governments would adopt. It had other advantages too: in effect, it holds valuable machinery hostage and it prevents the management employing ‘blackleg’ labour. Psychologically, it turned out to be vitally important by holding strikers’ morale together in siege-like conditions and reminding workers that they could control the workplace.
The strike spread rapidly. Within hours workers at factories in Gdynia, a few kilometres away, joined in. They were soon followed by all the other 50,000 workers in the Gdansk region. The government had immediately cut all telephone lines between the Baltic coastal towns and the outside world, in a futile attempt to contain the protests. Naturally, neither television nor radio mentioned the strikes, but everyone in Poland knew about them.
While Wałesa and the other strike leaders were closeted in a lecture room in the shipyard’s health and safety centre negotiating with Gniech, conditions in the rest of the yard were growing increasingly uncomfortable. On the first night more than 2,500 strikers slept on foam mattresses and across benches in the main halls or in the hospital. The mood was uneasy, expectant and fearful. It was not revolutionary. ‘We’re thinking about better working conditions, more money and the right to strike,’ Wałesa declared. Nobody was talking about challenging communism. Support for the strike wavered, depending on the news from the negotiating room. Gniech was under instructions by the Party bosses in Warsaw and locally to play for time, but eventually to make enough concessions to secure a deal. Their aim, as so often in the last decade, was to divide and rule. They wanted to reach separate agreements with different groups of workers so that at no time could they feel united. In August 1980 it nearly worked.2
The key moment came on the third day, the 16th. Early that morning Wałesa’s strike committee accepted a package offered by Gniech. It included the reinstatement of Anna Walentynowycz and Wałesa to their shipyard jobs, a pay rise of 2,000 złoty a month (about 7 per cent), an increase in various family allowances roughly on a par with the police and immunity from prosecution for all the strikers. The major sticking point had been a demand that a memorial should be built to honour the dead workers of December 1970. On that Saturday, with tension growing throughout Poland, the Party bosses were so desperate to reach a settlement that even this big symbolic concession was made.
But almost as soon as hands were shaken on the deal it fell apart amidst confusion and chaos. Gniech announced on the shipyard’s loudspeaker system that the strike was over. Wałesa punched his fist in the air and declared: ‘We’ve won.’ He quickly sensed something was wrong. Scores of workers started to head for the gates - and home. But some people in the crowd began yelling ‘traitor’ and ‘sell-out’. The crowd was wavering. They were swayed by a representative of other local workers who were also on strike. They depended on the Lenin plant - the region’s biggest employer - as the flagship of Gdansk industry to secure a deal that would be favourable for all of them. A big, burly woman with short cropped hair, Henryka Krzywonos, had been leader of the Gdansk tram drivers for years. She was not a great speaker but she was able to make her point forcibly. She pleaded with the shipyard workers not to ‘sell out too cheaply and leave your comrades in the lurch’. She said they must not allow workers in different industries to be picked off by the regime one by one. ‘If you abandon us we’ll be lost. Buses can’t face tanks.’ Cheers echoed throughout the yard.
‘All right then,’ said Wałesa, ‘if the majority decide then we’ll carry on striking. Who wants to carry on?’
The entire hall resounded with the cry ‘We do.’
‘Who does not want to strike?’ There was silence.
‘So we will strike . . . It will be a solidarity strike. I will be the last to leave the yard.’3
Lech Wałesa led the first real workers’ revolution in history. The Bolsheviks in October 1917 had grabbed power for themselves in the name of the proletariat. It took Wałesa, an ordinary worker with extraordinary gifts, to see how authentic workers’ power could be used against the Bolsheviks’ heirs.
He was born on 29 September 1943, in the small village of Popowo, about 150 kilometres north-west of Warsaw. He never knew his father. Soon after the baby’s birth, Boelek Wałesa, a carpenter, was hauled off to a Nazi labour camp, where he died eighteen months later. Lech’s mother, Feliksa, remarried her late husband’s brother, Stanisław, as was quite common practice in Poland at the time. Lech loathed his stepfather, whom he used to call a ‘money-grabber’. He and his three natural siblings got on badly with his three stepbrothers. The split in the family ‘was a burden that cast a shadow over my whole childhood’, he said.
Feliksa was extremely devout. Wałesa used to say repeatedly, ‘I sucked in religion from my mother’s breast.’ He hated the countryside from an early age. His maternal grandparents had originally bought 150 hectares of land, but it had all gone during the German occupation. He was brought up in peasant poverty. Home was a shack with a wooden roof that was cracked but was never repaired. There were just two rooms for all of them - two adults and seven children.
Wałesa was a typical child of the People’s Republic, with all its soaring hopes and bitter disappointments. The relationship started with a seemingly sweet deal. He, along with so many young Poles, wanted to get away from rural misery. The Party/State dreamed of reordering everything and aimed to depopulate the countryside to create an urban working class which, unlike the peasantry, would be loyal to communism. The first part worked - Poland industrialised at breakneck speed. The second never did.
Wałesa did badly at school. He had quick intelligence but poor powers of concentration and was demotivated. As soon as he could after graduating - just - from elementary school, he left Popowo, never to return. He went to the nearest big town, Lipno, where he attended a vocational school to learn a trade. He trained originally as a mechanic and later as an electrician. In Lipno, he found work at the POM, a depot that serviced farm equipment. In 1964 he started two years of military service during which he rose to become a corporal. He toyed with the idea of staying in the army but decided against it. Instead, he moved to Gdansk - formerly the free-port of Danzig - in the footsteps of millions of Poles who went to the city in two waves of postwar migration. The first, immediately after 1945 when the territory was reclaimed by Poland following Nazi occupation, resettled Poles into areas where the German population had been brutally forced out. The second, in the 1960s, brought people like Wałesa into the city as part of the Communists’ programme to transform Poland into a modern, industrial socialist state. In 1967 Wałesa found work at the fast-expanding Lenin Shipyard. People who knew him then remember an energetic, talkative, wise-cracking young man, with few political opinions. He had some basic ideas which had not changed much from his teens. He was a strict Catholic, instinctively anti-Russian like most Poles, and sceptical of official propaganda. In those days he was a socialist, but not in any ideological way. He would not, probably could not, spout Marxist-Leninist dogma. Yet he took seriously one part of socialism and the ideology of the workers’ state. He believed in the primacy of the working class and continued to do so for two decades.