by Chris Ford
Alongside the Polish elite who died in the Smolensk air crash on 10th April was someone whose passing marks a sad moment in the history of the workers’ movement: Anna Walentynowicz.
Whilst the bourgeois media are marking her death as another opportunity to portray her life as part of the ‘fall of communism’ and a vindication of capitalism, this is not how Walentynowicz should be remembered. She was a true working class heroine: if this class fighter had lived in the West her obituaries would be pure vilification, portraying her as someone from a bygone age.
Walentynowicz was born in 1929 in Western Ukraine: she was orphaned during the Second World War and joined the Polish Workers’ Party, the communist party, as a young woman.
A communist activist, she began work as a welder at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1950 and was given the award ‘Heroine of Socialist Labour’. But Anna’s enthusiasm for the ideals of a genuinely communist society soon came into conflict with the reality of the corrupt, oppressive and exploitative rulers of the Polish People’s Republic.
In 1970 she was an organiser of the workers’ strike wave which saw 200 workers killed. In 1978 she was part of the Committee of Free Trade Unions of the Baltic and editor of the illegal Coastal Worker. In 1980, just before her retirement, the management decided to sack the respected militant crane-driver.
The Lenin Shipyards exploded and she became a central figure in the August revolution which gave birth to the ten-million strong trade union Solidarnosc. This was a model of workers’ democracy which declared ‘full support for the social movement for workers’ self-management’.
However, Walentynowicz came into conflict with the vacillations of some leaders, who were adhering to a ‘self-limiting revolution’. In December 1981 Martial Law was declared and Solidarnosc was forced underground and fragmented. Eventually the clique around Walesa assumed power as a Temporary Coordinating Committee and with western support held onto it. They abandoned the ideals of 1980 for a free market economy: close to the regime’s own market orientation.
In May and August of 1988 there was a new strike wave demanding the legalisation of Solidarnosc and against the austerity policies. The old leaders around Walesa were found wanting, tied to their strategy of compromise with the regime, which came in 1989.
During the years of neo-liberal reforms in Poland Walentynowicz remained a critic of their effects on Polish workers and also of the continuing ‘hagiography of Walesa’. She is immortalised in several movies, notably the powerful Man of Iron directed by Andrzej Wajda in which she plays herself. Just after the 1988 strike wave I had the privilege of conducting an interview with this truly inspiring class fighter, which is republished below:
Interview with Anna Walentynowicz on the situation in Poland, August 1988
CF. How do you assess the recent strikes (May) and what conclusions do you draw?
AW. Solidarnosc wasn’t prepared for such strikes. When it happened Solidarnosc in Nowa Huta [major steel plant in Krakow] took the initiative. Ex-leaders took matters into their hands. It was surprising the workers put forward the protection of health workers and those in education. I believed then it will be the beginning of the end and I hoped the country would take the initiative. It was not so. Support was not as great as expected.
The government attempted to exhaust them psychologically; they gave dates when pacification would take place. They used the moral authority of the church. At the request of the Episcopate three people came to negotiate. They came to soften the stance of the workers and there was a sharp exchange of opinions. The leaders of the occupation said they felt well, ‘How can you feel well if the water is cut off in the canteen block’. Professor Stelmacka of Warsaw University left but Obzewski [a lawyer], he couldn’t leave as I blocked the way.
‘Why did you come here, don’t you think they can talk for steelworkers (Solidarnosc leaders). Are the demands of the steelworkers beyond the competence of management’. During martial law these same people pressurised eleven Solidarnosc leaders to leave the country. Kornel Morawiecka [Leader of the militant organisation Fighting Solidarnosc] was pressurised by the same people when he left. Now they come to play the same role towards the steelworkers. I told the steelworkers who these people were and what they had done during Martial Law. The answer was that they have to give credit as they come on the behalf of the Episcopate. They set the workers thinking there would be no pacification the next day but talks.
It was a mistake. At 12:00-1.45 Anti Terrorist Units, dressed in bullet proof vests and armed with truncheons and bayonets on their backs moved in. Before they entered ZOMO [Paramilitary riot police] began beating their truncheons on their shields and then they used gas grenades. They told the men to lay down, others were made to kneel and sign agreements never to strike again. As a result of the pacification many were beaten unconscious. They were all taken to hospitals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and nobody could visit them. Many were arrested; Giel, the strike leader, was handcuffed and threatened with ten years in prison. The steelworkers however, maintained a strong stance, they didn’t stop protests.
Those arrested were fined in 48 hours. All had 81,000 Zloty fines. One of the workers paid and then met with-the director of Nowa Huta. He wanted to leave the job. ‘Don’t, everyone will get the pay increase and nobody will be persecuted’. He wouldn’t agree to work where people were beaten. Many workers were brought to break the strike and paid 7,000 Zloty a day. The workers didn’t want to train them as they didn’t know the plant at Katowice where they came from. The stance of the workers was that everyone be released and Giel not tried. He was released.
CF. Workers also took action in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk and Ursus [tractor factory] in Warsaw. Why were they not successful in building a second front?
AW. Solidarnosc was not prepared. They were never planned, in Gdansk 10% of the work force participated mainly young people. The demand was to legalise Solidarnosc only for the shipyard. The people didn’t feel unified. They left after ten days. I think it was proper, even if they didn’t achieve these demands. They showed they were ready and would fight. These were people who didn’t participate in 1980. The government is afraid of this. (The people who made August 1980 were more or less not involved)
CF. So what today is the result of this?
AW. In Ursus there are also young people organising Bujak [A Solidarnosc leader] who ‘’came from this factory and was a leader in 1980 wouldn’t go to the strikers. He is a head of Mazowsze region. Bujak got some money from the Kennedy award and made his own private enterprise employing people who can’t get work. This stops him from doing radical things or the government will interfere in business. The government has them in its hand.
The [leadership] should be elected but instead [the old leadership] choose themselves. This is against the Solidarnosc statutes, yet they are still at the top. Why do we have these leaders when they didn’t call for strikes? Each factory fought independently, there was no coordination.
CF. How do you view this process, since for example Bydgoszcz in 1981, of the Solidarnosc leadership distancing itself from the workers?
AW. This distance between Solidarnosc and the workers is the major reason for my disagreement with Walesa. The Temporary Committee of Solidarnosc is something new. It is structured too much like the PZPR [Poland’s ruling Communist Party]. They have privileges so the ideas of Solidarnosc have been dropped. During the seven years since Martial Law there have been no meetings with workers. They meet amongst themselves, on whose behalf?
In 1986 it was a surprise that such people as Bujak and Barusiewicz instead of calling a National Commission nominated themselves. The opposition surprised even the Government. At this moment they broke the statutes. In the fall of 1987 Solidarnosc members, including myself, during the pilgrimage to Czestohowa sent a petition to Walesa to call a National Commission meeting. But Walesa wouldn’t accept it. So there have been no meetings, except amongst themselves.
CF. What attempts are being made to rebuild the workers’ organisations in the opposition?
AW. Almost no attempts, the masses still trust the leaders who elected themselves. Youth like WiP [Freedom & Peace, a direct action movement] for’ example, are more effective in achieving their aims. It was they who replaced the military oath and it was they who took up ecological problems.
There is another way out, women. There is a huge army of women in inhuman conditions, for example in the textile industry in Lodz In 1971 after the pacification of the coast, women in Lodz demonstrated against the price increases. At the coast, which was so bloodily suppressed nothing was achieved in comparison to Lodz. At my initiative a seminar in Gdansk took place entitled ‘caring for Our Homeland’. There is great interest in the material of this seminar and there will be another in September. Maybe it will establish a womans’ organisation. In this respect there will be a chance for women to organise something. They think we are too low to fight.
CF. What kind of organisation do women in Poland need?
AW. Not a Party, maybe a branch of Solidarnosc, a women’s section. I see no chances in Solidarnosc as it is now. What faces Poland is plenty of conflicts. The youth will bring about conflicts which will create something new. Social pressure is needed.
CF. What is your view of the struggle between the radical opposition and the Liberals?
AW. The advisers live in different conditions from the workers and when they negotiate they believe they will benefit. It is impossible to negotiate with the government we have. They don’t respect their own agreements. We simply have to take what belongs to us. We shouldn’t ask for negotiations, there are international agreements which are binding for us.
CF. What is your opinion of Gorbachev’s reforms programme, do you have hope it will bring benefits?
AW. No hope, I am afraid.
CF. What is your opinion of those in the opposition who have sympathy for Gorbachev?
AW. We must be open in our opposition to Gorbachev. We can’t go to the USSR, but we can organise solidarity protests with the opposition there and do whatever is possible.