When he began work at the Lenin Shipyard, Wałesa was amongst the aristocracy of the Polish proletariat. Workers there received the highest industrial wages in the country, but conditions were woeful. Most Polish factories and mines resembled Dickensian England rather than a Marxist utopia. The Lenin Shipyard, said Wałesa, ‘looked like a factory filled with men in filthy rags unable to wash or urinate in lavatories. To get down to the ground floor, where the only lavatories were situated, could take at least half an hour, so we just went anywhere. You can’t imagine how humiliating these working conditions were.’4
Safety standards were appalling. Accidents were common. There seemed to be no regard for the welfare of workers. Soon after he started at the shipyard there was a serious incident on the
, a trawler ship that was being fitted throughout 1967. The job was heavily behind schedule and 2,000 workers were labouring to get the vessel completed. Safety regulations - theoretical at the best of times - were entirely ignored in the final rush. Fuel leaked into the hull and, sparked by a welder’s blowtorch, there was a devastating explosion. Twenty-two of Wałesa’s fellow electricians were burned alive. He was unharmed, but the accident changed him profoundly. He grew more serious and took more interest in politics, especially workers’ rights. For the first time, he became active in the official trade union and joined the health and safety committee in the plant. Living conditions outside the shipyard were equally poor. Younger, unmarried workers lived in hostels, three or four to a room. Kitchens and showers were shared with other dormitories at the end of a long corridor. They were ugly, miserable, squalid places. Fights broke out regularly in the male blocks - particularly on paydays, when in time-honoured fashion Polish workers would drown their sorrows in vodka. Surrounding the hostels were depressing residential zones with unlit, unpaved streets, wastelands of broken glass and uncollected rubbish. Basic public services were scandalously poor.
In 1969 Wałesa met and quickly married a slender, petite, dark-haired woman who appeared frail and fragile but had a strong and determined personality. Mirosława Golos, brown-eyed and pale-skinned, was just twenty but looked even younger. She worked in a florist’s shop near the shipyard. She came from a poor peasant background similar to Wałesa’s in a tiny hamlet, Krypy, a few kilometres from Gdansk. She often missed school because she had to help on the family farm and she barely completed elementary grade. But she was intelligent, practical, down to earth. She too was an extremely devout Catholic and at that time hated communism rather more than he did, principally on the religious grounds that it was an atheistic creed. Soon after their first meeting, Wałesa asked her to use her second name, Danuta (Danka for short).
Wałesa was a new father when the food riots erupted in December 1970. He was a shop steward with the official union, but played a minor role in the strikes. He was not a radical voice, though he was determined to keep alive the memory of the Gdansk shipyard ‘martyrs’. Those protests toppled the Communist Party leader since 1956, Władisław Gomułka, and shook the regime. Gomułka was one of the most interesting of all the East European Marxists - a fiercely intelligent man who began his rule with a courageous effort to steer an independent path from Moscow, but ended as an even more orthodox figure than his masters in the Kremlin. He failed to deal with the systemic disasters of the Polish economy and its state of near-bankruptcy.
When Gomułka was ousted, Wałesa had high hopes for the new Communist oligarch in charge of Poland, Edward Gierek. He admired the straightforward, no-nonsense style adopted by Gierek, who had been a manual labourer. Most leading Polish Communists came from the intelligentsia - a class which on the whole Wałesa treated with contempt and used often to label ‘those stuck-up, snobby jerks’. But Wałesa quickly became disillusioned with Gierek, despite the leader’s proletarian credentials. He could do no more than his predecessor to halt the country’s slide into ruin. Gierek tried to win support by bringing the population a steadily improved standard of living and stable prices. For a while he succeeded. Cynically he would tell his aides in private: ‘Right, we will give them meat and promises and that will shut them up . . . stuff their mouths with sausage.’ But he could do it only for so long and his sole method was by heavy borrowing from the West, which subsidised food and increased workers’ wages.
It could not last. In June 1976 Gierek was faced with a fresh cash crisis. Although he knew the political risks involved he could think of no alternative but to raise prices - by 60 per cent on bread and milk, 69 per cent on meat, 100 per cent on sugar. Even on official calculations the cost of living would rise by nearly a fifth. Predictably, a wave of strikes began, along the Baltic coast, in Warsaw and elsewhere. This time Wałesa was at the centre of events. He began to speak regularly in front of large crowds and found that for an uneducated man he had a gift of eloquence. He was shrewd, witty, coarse at times, passionate at others and always sounded like an average worker, a man of the people. He was brilliant at off-the-cuff extempore performances. But when he tried to read from a prepared text he sounded curiously wooden and stilted. He loudly criticised the official trade unions, which he said were representing not workers but the bosses. One particularly fiery speech that summer landed him in trouble. He was summoned to the director’s office where Klemens Gniech, then new to his job, was flanked by two officers from the SB, the Polish Secret Service. They told him to keep quiet in public. He refused. Shipyard security guards arrived and dragged him out of the main gate. His dismissal notice arrived a month later.5
Elsewhere in Poland, industry was in a state of siege. Workers from the vast Ursus tractor plant in the suburbs of Warsaw, one of the biggest factories in the country, marched to the transcontinental railway lines and halted the Paris-to-Moscow Express. In Radom, a city in south-west Poland, workers from the weapons factory struck. On 25 June, when they demonstrated on the streets demanding negotiations with their management, police opened fire with semi-automatic rifles. In the riot that followed a huge crowd went on the rampage and burned down the Communist Party headquarters. Seventeen people were killed and more than 2,000 arrested. That evening the Prime Minister, Piotr Jaroszewicz, looking deeply worried, appeared on television and announced he was withdrawing the price rises ‘for more consideration and consultation with the workers’. That restored the peace and workers drifted back to their factories. But the police and security services took their revenge on the Ursus and Radom workers. During the following weeks, at various prisons and hastily established ‘centres of special rehabilitation’, most of the thousand or so who had been arrested were beaten and tortured. Hundreds were forced to run a gauntlet through two lines of truncheon-wielding thugs, called with a deliberately malicious irony the ‘path of health’. Wałesa escaped that punishment but in the next few years, by his own admission, ‘I must have been picked up by the police at least 100 times.’ Usually it was for short periods of interrogation; sometimes, along with scores of other trade union activists, he would be locked up on forty-eight-hour warrants. He found odd jobs as an electrician, but it was a struggle making ends meet for his growing family. Eventually, he landed regular work as an engine mechanic with the ZREMB works, which made agricultural machinery. To raise extra money he moonlighted, repairing old cars.
He began to educate himself - in political theory, economics, history and law. Though contemptuous of intellectuals, he had a strong belief in learning. He was much cleverer and better-informed than he looked or sounded. Wałesa began to attend meetings organised by a group of dissident thinkers, KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników), the Committee for the Defence of Workers. KOR’s leading figures were the brilliant philosopher Jacek Kuron and the historian and journalist Adam Michnik. Both had been Communists but were jailed on charges of sedition, principally for criticising the Party from the idealistic left. Kuron, for example, argued that the Soviet empire was in the hands of a new class of bureaucrat whose efforts were benefiting no one but themselves. He wanted a revolution that would rid society of ‘parasitic apparatchiks’ and create a true workers’ state. The parasites took their revenge and he was sent to prison for three years.
The immediate aim of KOR was to help the Radom and Ursus workers who had been jailed after the 1976 riots. It was the first organisation of its kind in the socialist world. KOR activists - there were quickly about 150 - offered the families financial help and legal assistance. The organisation’s longer-term vision was to forge a unity between intellectuals and workers - the only way Kuron and his associates believed that the Communists could ultimately be challenged. It was an idea that appealed strongly to the fledgling workers’ leader Lech Wałesa. One of KOR’s most successful ventures was to establish ‘flying universities’. Teaching at the official universities was rigidly orthodox and the lecturers were carefully watched. KOR established a roster of supportive writers, academics and thinkers who toured the country holding discussion groups with workers. ‘Lectures’ were held unofficially at private homes.
Karol Wojtyła and a few other Catholic priests began to forge links with KOR leaders - the Archbishop used to travel regularly from Kraków in plain-clothes disguise to meet them at the Warsaw flat of the writer Bohdan Cywinski. This was significant because clerics from a church that was traditionally conservative, and leftist intellectuals, often Jewish, were generally wary of each other. Word of the Archbishop’s support gradually became more public. In May 1978 when Stanisław Pyjas, a student KOR activist in Kraków, died in the custody of the secret police, the Archbishop held a special mass for him in front of a congregation said to number 20,000 people.
KOR was the godfather of the Free Trade Union organisation which Lech Wałesa joined, along with Walentynowycz, as soon as it was founded. But although he was well known among workers in Gdansk, at first Wałesa was not marked out as the obvious leader. That seemed to be Andrzej Gwiazda, a reserved, unbending forty-five-year-old who had planned the shipyard strike and laid most of the groundwork for it. Over the last two years he was the main spokesman for the free trade union movement in Gdansk. The two men hated each other on sight. They could not have been more different. Gwiazda had intense, piercing eyes, a passionate nature and was a true radical. Wałesa’s relaxed, hail-fellow-well-met manner revealed a pragmatic man who could cut deals and who understood the art of compromise. ‘Lech’s 100 per cent a politician,’ Michnik used to say.6
Gwiazda and his equally inflexible wife Joanna organised the Union meetings, worked the phones, operated copying machines. He wrote the rousing call urging workers to support Anna Walentynowycz and he ensured people knew about it. He imagined he would be the strike leader. But all that changed the moment Wałesa climbed over the perimeter fence of the Lenin Shipyard early on the morning of 14 August 1980 and returned to his former workmates. Now and for the next decade he was the unchallenged leader of Polish labour.
It had been easy to outmanoeuvre Gwiazda. The far harder task was to come. Wałesa’s goal was to inflict enough damage on the regime to win the right for free trade union recognition, but not to bring down the system. His main fear was that the Soviets would intervene with tanks as they had done every other time since the war when they felt their empire was under serious threat. Wałesa and his advisers were careful not to demand too much. They emphasised they were not leading an insurrection, but essentially an industrial dispute and they had no wish for yet more Polish workers to become martyrs.7
Over the next three weeks Poland practically ground to a halt in a general strike. With no trains working or lorries on the roads, Warsaw and the other cities were receiving no food deliveries. This time the strike was solid - the regime was unable to split the workers, as always before, or reach separate local settlements. An increasingly desperate Gierek, nervous about his own position, dispatched his top officials to Gdansk to negotiate a deal. This gave Wałesa status as the acknowledged leader of the strikers. He proved to be a shrewd, wily dealmaker. Despite his own personal views on intellectuals, he summoned two of them from Warsaw to act as advisers and check on the small print of the agreements. ‘We are only workers,’ he used to say withfaux
modesty and purely for public consumption. ‘These government negotiators are clever men. We need someone to help us.’ Bronisław Geremek, a pipe-smoking scholar of medieval history, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, editor of the Catholic magazineWiez
who had good relations with the Pope, went to Gdansk and began acting as Wałesa’s close advisers.8
A historic agreement was finally signed on 31 August. The Gdansk Accords gave workers, for the first time in the Soviet bloc, the right to be led by representatives they chose for themselves, the right to form free associations, and the right to strike. To Wałesa, these were the vital concessions by the Communists. ‘We wouldn’t have risked our necks for a few thousand złoty. But this was really worth winning,’ he said. A month later the Polish government legalised the new free trade union, which now called itself Solidarity. Wałesa had won a unique victory and become a household name throughout the world.
The magnates in the Kremlin were appalled. The Poles were challenging the most sacred myth which underpinned their empire - that the Soviet Union acted for the working class. They were horrified and scared by the slogan adopted by Solidarity, with its deliberate echo of Marx and Engels: ‘Workers of all enterprises - Unite’. They were furious with the satraps they had installed in Warsaw, supposedly to rule on Moscow’s behalf. The Polish Communists were showing weakness and incompetence. There was nothing unusual in that, from the Kremlin’s point of view. For years Poland had been their most troublesome colony, the hardest to keep in any sort of socialist order. But it was the biggest, with a population of forty million, and it bordered neighbouring Soviet republics whose loyalty to the Union was suspect. The Party chieftains were worried that the ‘contagion’ of Solidarity would spread and take root inside the USSR itself. Already in Lithuania and Latvia there were some dissidents uttering heresies such as demands for free trade unions in the Baltic republics. By the military, Poland was seen as vital strategically as the main supply route for the Soviets’ 200,000-strong army in East Germany.