Keeping track of Lech Walesa during today's one-hour general strike in Poland was like being in the tailwind of a tornado. The Solidarity leader swept through Warsaw, leaving reporters and onlookers to gasp in his path, charming women strikers, and proclaiming the merits of a newly invented weapon: the working strike.
Walesa's personal day of protest began in the lobby of the Solec, his modest Warsaw hotel. "I'm not telling you where I'm going; just try to keep track of me," he told a mob of photographers as he disappeared into a yellow Polish Fiat.
The car careered off through the city at the head of a convoy of international press vehicles desperately trying to keep up. Headlights blazing and tires screeching, journalists forced other vehicles into the side of the road in a Warsaw version of Starsky and Hutch, a favorite American police series on Polish television.
The Solidarity leader seemed to love it. Puffing away at a newly acquired Sherlock Holmes pipe, he occasionally would be seen grinning widely as traffic discipline collapsed around him. One hapless driver was seen getting out of his car, shaking his fist and busily noting down Walesa's license plate number.
At noon, sirens throughout the city wailed to announce the start of the strike. Buses and trolleys halted in the middle of the street and red-and-white Polish flags fluttered in the chill autumn breeze from many public buildings, including hotels and offices.
Five minutes later, our convoy screeched to a halt outside the Rosa Luxemburg Lightbulb Plant on the outskirts of Warsaw. Dressed in a blue denim jacket and wearing his customary badge depicting the Black Madonna, Poland's patron saint, Walesa strode inside the plant -- a mixture of an America politician on the campaign trail and a movie star handing out autographs to his fans.
Posters in the factory announced that the strike had been called to protest the government's economic policies and alleged harassment of Solidarity activists.
Accompanied by union officials, Walesa went from one department in the factory to another, gathering a growing retinue in his wake. Most of the 4,000 or so workers at the Rosa Luxemburg plant, named after an early German Communist, are women, and Walesa was an immediate hit.
"Jesus Maria, look, he's here, put him up on a chair," the workers squealed as they struggled to get a closer glimpse of the 38-year-old former electrician. There were giggles and squeals of delight as Walesa hugged a pretty girl.
"I didn't come here to make a speech. I came here to take a good look at the girls. You like me and I like you," he joked.
He then went ahead and made a speech. His message was the same in every department: this should be the last strike of its kind. Solidarity must devise new forms of protest so that the workers themselves did not suffer still more economic hardship.
"Look, there's a shortage of detergent and panty hose in Poland." The strikers nodded in agreement. "Well, then, next time we declare a strike at a detergent or panty-hose factory, let's make it an active one. We'll work to our own instructions and distribute what we produce ourselves. That way it will go to where it's most needed."
"We must find ways of striking so as to hurt them, not us. Perhaps we could cut off electricity to local party and government offices." More laughter and singing of "Sto Lat" ("May He Live a Hundred Years").
In some departments, bunches of roses were thrust into Walesa's hands. Some of the women asked him for help. "We don't have proper shoes or anything to wash with. You must do something."
Rushed from one department to another, Walesa was briefed by a union official on the economic difficulties. "It's impossible for us to make any money. We buy materials for dollars and sell our finished products for rubles. What sort of business is that?" he complained.
Some workers asked about the privileges and high salaries that Solidarity leaders are alleged to have received. Walesa said he earned the equivalent of $500 a month, which he thought was reasonable for a family of seven.
He added, "But we must devise mechanisms of control within the union itself. When I visit a factory, I don't want workers to have to paint the grass green . . . as they used to do for Communist Party bosses.
Support for the strike seemed strong at the plant, but some workers conspicuously ignored Walesa's progress through the factory and remained at their work places. One woman assembling lightbulbs, who belonged to the rival, official trade union, said she didn't support the strike since it would solve nothing.
"What good does it do to goof off all the time? There's less and less of anything to buy. In the shops, mice are chasing each other," she said.
The Solidarity branch claimed 95 percent support for the strike at the factory while Communist Party officials insisted it was no more than 80 percent. But the party did admit that almost half its own members had joined the strike in defiance of instructions.