As the Polish journalist surveyed the committee hall at the Lenin Shipyard crammed with strikers' delegates from about 500 factories, he kept repeating one sentence, "I never thought I would live to see such a scene in Poland."
In Poland during the last two weeks much that was previously unthinkable has become thinkable. The extraordinary scenes of conflict, of uninhibited free speech, of unity and discipline among the strikers here are a measure of that change.
The movement for independent trade unions in Poland has grown from scattered groups of dissident activists to what can only be described as a huge and efficient mass organization. So large has the movement become that it is difficult to see how it can either be crushed by force or gently persuaded to disband.
Two weeks ago, Lech Walesa, 37, was an unemployed electrician harassed by the police because of his dissident activities and struggling to support his wife and six children. Hearing reports of protests at the Lenin Shipyard because at the Lenin Shipyard because of the dismissal of another free trade union activist, Anna Walentynowicz, he climbed over the wall and began organizing the workers. Today, he is the effective leader of hundreds of thousands of strikers along Poland's northern Baltic Coast.
A short man with a large mustache, he is greeted with cheers and chants wherever he appears in the yard. As he approaches the podium, his bodyguard clears reporters out of the way. He greets representatives of foreign trade unions with a clenched-fist salute and berates senior government ministers and Communist Party officials with his rasping voice.
Walesa's story is a measure of the speed with which events have moved in Poland.So, too, is the original placard waved by protesters at the Lenin yard, demanding simply Walentynowicz's reinstatement and a $32 a month pay raise. Stuck forlornly to a buildozer by the main entrance of the yard, it has been ripped apart by the Baltic winds.
So organized have the strikers become that they have set up their own secretarial unit, refreshment service, information office and "free printing press of the Gdansk shipyard." A well-produced, four-page bulletin of strike news called Solidarnosc appears daily. Earlier this week it produced its first scoop -- what was claimed to be a letter from Gdansk communist officials to the central Committee in Warsaw.
The letter, which was dated several days ago, complained that attempts by party activists to talk to individual groups of strikers were getting nowhere. Concern also was expressed at the negative influence of the strikes on young people's attitudes.
Also published by Solidarnosc are jokes that shed light on the workers' grievances. One was entitled "Polish recipe: Take some ingredients in short supply, add a little salt, and mix well with something that is temporarily not on the market. Add what we cannot afford. The mixture can be fried, baked or grilled."
More sarcastically, it added, "we have all been eating this meal here. There is enough always for everybody. It is what the Polish economic miracle consists of."
The formal negotiations take place in a small, glass-paneled room off the main committee hall at the yard. As the cameras of Western television networks whir outside the glass, the two teams face each other. Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski sits opposite Walesa and both men are flanked by their advisers. The strike committee includes a team of seven "experts," mainly Catholic intellectuals who have been advising the workers to concentrate on their demand for free trade unions.
Small and bespectacled, Walentynowicz sits in the third pew of the strike committee.
The television floodlights so disturbed Jagielski that he asked for them to be switched off, saying that they reminded him of his time in a German concentration camp. After a few minutes, they were.
Foreign journalists, the television networks included, have been given virtual carte blanche to go where they like and film what they want. Asked by a visiting correspondent if rooms were available at the local hotel, an obliging reception clerk answered, "Certainly sir, I presume you want one with a view of the shipyard."
The main problem for the press is telephone and telex communications which -- although the government says they have been restored -- are still difficult. After spending part of the day here, I, like many other correspondents, had to commute to Warsaw to relay my reports.
To reach Warsaw, correspondents are obliged to commute in tiny Soviet-built propeller airplanes used by the Polish airline Lot for its domestic services. On several occasions, the planes have broken down before takeoff, leaving an irate Western press corps stranded.
In some ways, the negotiations have been turned into a media extravaganza with even the censored Polish press participating. The strikers demanded that accurate reports of the proceedings be broadcast on local radio stations, and the authorities have complied. One Polish journalist said she was covering the strike for a women's monthly magazine.
Strike sympathizers in Gdansk have organized a translation service for foreign visitors, with interpreters distinguished by red armbands. I used the service to talk to some of the delegates who were listening to a relay of the negotiations by loudspeaker at long, cluttered tables in the smoke-filled committee room.
One of the delegates said he represented 2,500 workers at a local construction company, another worked at the intercity bus company. Both expressed amazement at the course of events, and said their enterprises would not have gone on strike without the Lenin Shipyard, with its 16,000 workers leading the way.
I asked if they were afraid.
"Of what?" they replied, laughing at the question.
The Soviets perhaps?
"First of all, we've given the Russians no reason to intervene; we're not against socialism," one replied. "Secondly, they have enough problems of their own already."
We talked about the workers' riots in December 1970, when at least 55 persons were killed by police in the streets of Gdansk.
A middle-aged delegate commented: "We've learned some important lessons from 1970. Then the workers staged a public demonstration in the streets, which gave the authorities an excuse for using force. This time we're better organized. We've stayed in the factories, and they're more of us."
All the delegates were recording the proceedings of the meeting on cassettes in order to play them back to workers in their own factories. One of the delegates remarked, "This is history."
Another delegate said, "In 1970, [newly appointed communist leader Edward] Gierek asked us to help him. We helped him and look what happened. eThis time we won't be satisfied with promises. We want free trade unions."
In the hall, delegates were unanimous in saying the strike would continue until the key demand for independent unions was met. I got a different view outside from a mechanic who said that while he sympathized with the strikers' grievances, he thought that they should now accept the government's considerable concessions and return to work.
Meanwhile, a professional sculptor has drawn up plans for a monument to commemorate the workers killed in 1970. This is one of the strikers' demands already accepted in principle by the authorities, but there may well still be arguments about the form the monument will take.
According to the strikers design, which is pasted up throughout the shipyard, it will consist of four huge crosses soaring about 60 feet into the air. At the top of each cross is an anchor, symobolizing the dashed hopes for political and economic reform in the past. Beneath is a huge flame representing Poland's eternal optimism.
Like the paper monument, the strikers' ambitions reach higher every day. But one wonders which will prove the more lasting symbol of Poland's current agony: The soaring crosses or the huge anchors?