Beneath an eerie calm, Poland's Communist leaders and strikers claiming to represent nearly 100 factories are engaged in a tremendous battle of wills here on the Baltic coast.
The giant Lenin Shipyard in the center of Gdansk, which led Poland's latest and most serious bout of labor unrest last Thursday, has been turned into a headquarters for independent trade unionists. Delegations from virtually all the factories in the region are meeting at the yard in a large committee hall dominated by a statue of Lenin. The gate of the plant is festooned with Polish flags, bouquets of flowers from sympathizers in the town and photographs of the Polish-born pope, John Paul II.
Visiting the plant today, I was struck by the enormous difference in atmosphere since Friday, the second day of the strike, when I attended a negotiating session between workers and management. Despite the gravity of the situation, the authorities have managed to take much of the tension out of the air by their kid-glove approach. From being an occupation by grim-faced workers in dirty overalls, it has taken on the character half of a congress of trade unions, half a student sit-in.
Much of the spontaneity that characterized the early days has evaporated. Workers' representatives, who numbered just a few dozen at the start, now fill the entire conference hall. Applause for speakers is well drilled, and the strikers have even manufactured a rubber stamp to authenticate their documents.
Communist officials, meanwhile, have extended the propaganda campaign by showering the city with unsigned leaflets from a helicopter giving their view of the dispute. Drawings of a revised map of Poland reincorporating territories lost to the Soviet Union after World War II have also been found. Distribution of such a map, with its implied criticism of Poland's Soviet ally, may be regarded as a provocation. It is unclear, however, who was responsible.
Local people talk openly about Warsaw Pact maneuvers being held across the border in the Soviet Union and East Germany. One taxi driver told me he believed it was a scare tactic, adding that he was sure that the Polish Army would resist any Soviet intervention.
The foreign press corps has descended on the Lenin Shipyard in force and is being fed sandwiches prepared by strikers' wives. Polish government information officials are also on hand, outwardly relaxed, and are even prepared to translate the strikers' ever-growing list of demands to foreign journalists. If met, the demands -- ranging from the abolition of censorship to three years' maternity leave -- would amount to a restructuring of Polish society.
The government's tactic appears to be to tire the strikers out, while also seeking to divide them from their leaders. To a certain extent they have succeeded. Out of 16,000 Lenin Shipyard workers, only 1,000 or so now feel strongly enough to continue the occupation of the yard in solidarity with other plants. Most of the more militant strikers are young people in their 20s.
But, as the number of strikers occupying the Lenin yard dwindles, their demands are becoming more political. The unrest is also spreading to more factories. As I drove around Gdansk and the neighboring town of Sopot, it was difficult to find a factory without the red and white Polish flag flying from its gates -- the symbol of a strike in progress.
Among the few workers not on strike were electricity and water employes, who said they did not join out of consideration for the public. Truck drivers also allowed supplies through for sick and elderly people in special trucks with red crosses emblazoned on their sides.
I witnessed a dramatic confrontation between the plant director, Klemens Gniech, and the strike leader, Lech Walesa. The director accused Walesa of breaking a signed agreement to end the strike on Saturday and warned of possible bloodshed unless a solution were found soon. Walesa denied that his agreement had been more than tentative.
Gniech, a 45-year-old naval architect who has spent most of his career at the Lenin Shipyard, is typical of many Polish managers who feel squeezed between the unreasonable demands of the central planners on the one hand and the discontent of their work force on the other. As a massed meeting outside his office chanted for him to come and talk to them, he confessed that he felt terrible about the events in the yard over the last week. "I am worried, sad and moved by what is happening. But I also feel that I have done everything in my power to find a solution," he said.
Gniech criticized government policies over the past decade for leading the country into its present crisis. He said economic reforms were necessary long ago, but that the leadership had failed to act at the right time. Now, with the country heavily in debt to the West, it was very difficult to see a way out of the crisis, he said.
Gniech said he would be prepared to negotiate with an independent trade union after the strike had ended and he praised the Western system of annual rounds of wage bargaining between workers and management. Part of the trouble here, he felt, was that the workers felt that the official Communist-dominated trade unions were not fighting on their behalf.
Nobody, he added, could predict what would happen now, though he was sure the Polish government would not order the use of force to crush the strikes. The trauma of December 1970, when at least 55 persons died after police fired on strikers in the center of Gdansk, is still too great for that, he said.