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Published:August 31st, 2008 21:56 EST
Trouble at the Shipyard

Trouble at the Shipyard

By Krzys Wasilewski

SZCZECIN, Poland. The Szczecin Shipyard is on the verge of bankruptcy with over four thousand workers uncertain of tomorrow. But the reason why they gathered at the main gate on August 30, 2008, was not the gloomy future. They came here to commemorate the events that 28 years ago shaped Poland and the entire socialist block.


Milling around the city`s biggest shopping gallery it is hard to imagine that in 1980 bread and milk were luxurious articles. "Young people don`t remember it, but back than we wouldn`t even dare to dream about buying the latest French fashion or having a burger at McDonald`s," says Eva, a middle-aged lady who, 28 years ago, secretly delivered food to the striking shipyard workers. "Now it`s like everywhere else in Europe," she adds with a smile.


The strike broke out in the Szczecin Shipyard in early August of 1980. At first, the workers protested against the skyrocketing food prices that made daily existence a formidable task. The government thought the strike a passing interference in work but when other institutions from Szczecin and Gdansk joined the shipyard, the Communists started to worry. Also "Big Brother` in Moscow was growing increasingly restless and some Kremlin hawks wondered whether a military intervention in the mold of Prague 1968 would be necessary.


Within days of an economic protest, the strike turned into a political demonstration. Opposition leaders in Gdansk - Lech Walesa and Bogdan Borusiewicz - supported by intellectuals from all over the country were pushing the government to allow the creation of an independent trade union. If that was not enough, calls for free media appeared on the list of 21 official demands of the striking workers. Although deprived of similar backing, Szczecin adopted the same position.


Only ten years earlier, in December of 1970, a similar standoff resulted in the massacre of shipyard workers in Szczecin and Gdynia. Officially 39 people were killed with over 1,000 wounded in police raids; unofficially these numbers were much higher. When it seemed that no power could undermine the communist regime, Karol Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal, was elected pope in 1978, becoming the first non-Italian head of the Catholic Church in six centuries. His pilgrimage to Poland one year later gathered millions of people who for the first time in decades felt they were one nation.


This unity was instrumental in orchestrating the August 1980 strikes. From Szczecin, located only 30 minutes from the German border, to Gdansk in northern Poland, there were around 300 miles in a country without highways or flight connections. Within the first days of the strikes, both cities were cut off from the rest of the country, together with the Silesia region where miners refused to leave mines in the sign of solidarity with the shipyard workers.


When Europe learned of the strikes in Szczecin and Gdansk, the much awaited help did not come. Even though there were signs of support from writers and second-suit politicians, the official government line in Paris, Berlin, and Rome accepted that Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence. President Reagan lit a candle for the shipyard workers but fell short of pressing the Kremlin for concessions. Again, the country was left alone.


But Poland was not the same as in 1970. The communist regime lacked vitality while Moscow was still involved in Afghanistan and bluntly informed the puppet government in Warsaw that no military solution could be possible. After days of negotiations, on August 30, 1980, the Communists agreed to the Szczecin Shipyard strikers` demands. One day later a similar deal was struck in Gdansk, and on September 3, in the Silesia region. Poland became the first country in the socialist block with an independent trade union and free newspapers.


Many of those who went on strike in 1980 has either retired or lost their jobs. The very shipyard that was on the lips of the much of the world 28 years ago is now inches away from financial collapse. European ships are too expensive to produce as those made in Asia, which dominate the oceans. If this is far from the dreamed picture the strikers had in mind in the besieged shipyard, it doesn`t change the fact that Poland and united Europe are free.



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