It was a scene that caught the world's inmagination. A 37-year-old worker named Lech Walsea climbed onto the gate of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk and announced to jubilant crowds the formation of the first independent labor union in a communist-ruled country.
Today, almost seven months later, the crowds are gone. Walesa spends much of his time traveling about the country trying to defuse unrest rather than provoke it. The Lenin Shipyard has become a symbol of Poland's tortured steps toward a new, more pluralistic form of communism.
At one level, Poland has appeared to be a land of permanent crisis since those August strikes. The conflict between entrenched interest groups within the Communist Party and state bureaucracy and the independent trade union federation Solidarity has sometimes seemed unending. It is as if an irresistible force has met an immovable object. This has been the dominating image of Poland projected abroad.
In fact that is only the most obvious part of the picture. A psychological revolution has taken place in Poland in the last few months. Its effects are visible everywhere, but nowhere more so than here in Gdansk. Workers simply no longer retreat before the kind of repressive power that communist authorities here and elsewhere have unleashed in the past to break resistance to their control.
The change is summed up by a notice near the shipyard gate. In it, students at the film academy in Lodz appeal to workers to recreate scenes from the 18-day occupation strike that resulted in the first accord recognizing the union and outlining a broad range of "rights" for Poles. Workers interested in taking part are reminded that, despite the freezing temperature, they should wear T-shirts for the filming.
The contrast with the first days of the strikes is enormous. Then, workers were afraid of having their pictures taken. They remembered only too well the repression and police harassment that followed previous upheavals.
The change has been more than psychological, however.
In a sequence of dramatic events that has dominated headlines around the world, the Gdansk workers started a process that brought down Communist Party leader Edward Gierek, forced out one government and then forced its successor to accept changes unprecendented in a socialist country, and sent shock waves reverberating through all communist capitals. At least at one point, a Soviet military invasion seemed imminent, along with the collapse of East-West relations.
The world has been spared such disastrous events, at least thus far. With the threat of outside intervention ever present, the Poles have continued to wrestle with the internal crisis of communism being played out in their country in a slow, tortured and unsteady process of change that could have profound consequence far beyond Poland's borders.
The economic and social tensions that boiled over in Poland last year are present in less dramatic form elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Similar crises could hit other Soviet Bloc countries. Poland's experiment, which involves nothing less than a test of the ideological frontiers of communism, inevitably holds clues for the ability of socialist societies to adjust to a changing world.
Traditionally, social conflicts have been suppressed in communist nations, but not eliminated altogether. This is why -- as events in Eastern Europe since World War II suggest -- hidden tensions were likely to burst to the surface with such force. The question before Polish reformers now is not how to suppress the conflicts again, but how to manage them in a more orderly fashion.
Here in Gdansk, representatives of all sides agree that it is unrealistic to expect complete social peace in Poland in the artificial sense in which this exists in other communist countries. In a pluralist society such as the one emerging in Poland, strikes are accepted as legitimate means for resolving conflicts of interest. What is important, however, is that they do not threaten the stability of the system that tolerates them.
A return visit to the Lenin Shipyard, then, is a valuable experience -- if only because it disproves a widespread assumption that the attempt to graft independent unions onto a one-party state necessarily has resulted in chaos and anarchy.
In many Polish cities, the power struggle between the Solidarity union organization and entrenched interest groups in the state bureaucracy has created a sense of permanent crisis.
By contrast, here in Gdansk where it all began, there is a remarkably large measure of agreement on a solution to Poland's present problems. Independent trade unions may well be incompatible with the traditional model of centralized bureaucratic communism. But it is conceivable that the oney-party state can evolve so as to accommodate the new pluralistic institutions.
This is what has happened in microcosm in Gdansk since last august.
At the Lenin Shipyard, all losses caused by the strike have been made up. The yard's director, Klemens Gniech, claims that -- despite the disruption -- last year's output was 10 percent higher than in 1979 and labor productivity was also up by 10 percent. Thanks in part to Solidarity, work discipline has improved.
Local Solidarity officials paint a similar picture. Before last August, the atmosphere at the shipyard was a mixture of fear, apathy and constant pressure to meet unrealistic production targets. Today the work is better organized. More is accomplished in a shorter time.
The underlying reason for the shipyard's success is not hard to find. The management was quick to come to terms with Solidarity's proven hold over the work force. Or, as Gniech put it, "I think we were the first to understand the changes that have taken place in Poland and the authenticity of this new movement."
As it is, the Lenin Shipyard has been remarkably free of labor unrest. Since the signing of the Gdansk agreement last Aug. 31, there have been only two token strikes. Neither concerned local grievances. The first, a one-hour walkout last November, was over Solidarity's legal registration.In January, there was a four-hour "solidarity" stike on the issue of work-free Saturdays.
Elsewhere this issue became a trial of strength between Solidarity and the communist authorities. Gniech, however, insisted that the workers decide the matter for themselves. As a result, on the two disputed Saturdays when most of the rest of the country remained idle, the shipyard worked normally.
Solidarity's offices at the shipyard are in a prefabricated building by the plant gate. The union claims a membership of 14,500 out a total work force of 16,000. About 500 workers still belong to the communist-dominated "branch" union that has its office down the hallway. Another 30 or so workers joined a newly established "autonomous" union, a splinter group stubbornly independent of both Solidarity and the Communist Party.
Inside Solidarity's offices, a group of workers stopped to talk. Imagine a colleague of theirs who had gone to sleep for a year and had just awakened, they were asked. What changes would he notice? At first there was laughter at the question and then everybody agreed that the first shock would be to see four soaring crosses outside the main gate.
Topped by anchors, the 140-foot-high crosses were unveiled last December to commemorate workers shot dead by security forces 10 years earlier during food riots along the Baltic Coast. It is believed to be the first monument erected in a communist state to honor victims of communism.
The next shock, the workers agreed, would be for their now wide-awake colleague to hear them talk. At first he would probably be frightened, then amazed. Before, such open talk might have led to a man's dismissal. Sullen and apathetic, workers kept their opinions to themselves or confided in only a few close friends.
Jozef Rzeszutek, who has worked in the shipyard for 28 years, remarked: "The biggest change is that we trust each other now. We know that there are 10 million more Solidarity members out there to support us, so we're not afraid of the governments tricks. Previously, we were divided against each other. When the strike began last August, we were even suspicious of the workers in the next shipyard."
Jan Kosziatek, the local Solidarity leader, believes that the new climate of mutual trust has had a beneficial effect on productivity.
"If a man is under psychological stress, the standard of his work will obviously deteriorate. But if he knows he has a union behind him, then he feels secure and works better," he said.
Other workers commented that there is less vulgarity and cursing to be heard about the shipyard nowadays. Greater care is taken with tools and there is less waste.
Solidarity itself has taken a strong stand on such issues as drunkeness. The union has decided that the first time one of its members turns up drunk for work, it will defend him against dismissal. The next time, it will not.
The imporvement in morale at the shipyard has taken place gradually. In the first days after the strike, there was still great excitment and nervousness. Workers spent much time discussing their grievances and nervousness. Workers spent much time discussing their grievances and Poland's political problems. Even today, the workers still sense opposition to the changes within the shipyard.
Alojzy Szablewski, 57, a finance officer, said a few workers -- mainly party members -- had received special privleges before the strike and were reluctant to give them up.
"They see power slipping through their hands and don't like it. Of course they realize that the situation has changed, but they are not willing to accept their new position. They go around whispering that Solidarity is just a temporary phenomenon."
Last month, in a bizarre episode a leading Solidarity activist, Marek Mikloajczuk, disappeared without explanation for six days. When he turned up, he said he had been kidnapped -- a story local police accepted. He said that he had been held in what appeared to be a prison cell and questioned about relations between Solidarity leaders and dissidents.
It has proved impossible to establish who kidnaped Mikolajczuk. But local Solidarity leaders believe it was the work of a faction with the security service opposed to the conciliatory policies of Poland's Communist Party leader Stanislaw Kania. They speculate that some disgruntled officials wanted to provoke a shipyard strike in order to discredit the new government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
One of the reasons for Gniech's success is that he has been able to convince the workers that he at least believes the changes are permanent. By doing so, he has encouraged the work force to concentrate on production rather than fighting management.
Some communist officials have accused Solidarity of seeking to promote a dual authority in Poland. On the basis of his own experience at the shipyard, Gniech dismisses the charge as nonsense.
"This all depends on whether the legally constituted authorities take the initiative or whether they act as if they are paralyzed. Generally speaking the workers recognize the need for strong government as long as the authorities behave as the represenatives of the nation and execute its wishes," he said.
Thanks to the strike, Gniech has gained considerably more autonomy from the central planning authorities. Previously, planners in Warsaw would send him hundreds of directives coverding every branch of production. The directives were frequently impossible to implement, but apperances had to be maintained.
Today the mechanism of the command economy has largely fallen apart. The emphasis at the shipyard has switched from meeting production targets to cutting costs and, perhaps eventually making profits. In practice the only directives that still matter are those dealing with the overall level of exports and restrictions on the supply of raw materials.
The shipyard's main problem now is not labor unrest but shortages of essential materials such as steel plates, hatch covers, and marine engines.
Gniech, and other managers like him, are pressing for still greater autonomy. He wants, for example, control over the use of foreign currency earned by the shipyard. He is also in favor of price reforms so a more national, cost-effective basis. Ultimately, he would like to negotiate a streamlining of the labor force with Solidarity.
Just six months ago, all these goals seemed impossible. Since the workers had no real represenatives, nobody could predict whether or not they would explode pent-up anger when asked to change their habits. The central planners, too, were set in their ways.
To turn the Lenin Shipyard into a profitable, efficient and harmonious enterprise is still an awesome task. But the fact that is is now more than a dream is another measure of Poland's psychological revolution.