The last time Anna Walentynowicz lost her job as a crane operator was in August 1980. Her fellow workers at the Lenin Shipyard here went on strike to secure her reinstatement. The strike resulted in a revolution that shook the communist world.
This week Walentynowicz, who has just spent seven months in an internment camp for women Solidarity activists, tried to get her old job back again. The guards at the shipyard gate were surprised to see her, but allowed her in. After chatting with her colleagues for an hour or so, she was summoned to the personnel department and told that in the future she would not be allowed to work at the yard.
There were no protests, no strikes. Walentynowicz, who has worked for 32 years at the shipyard and is known to everyone there as "Pani Anna" ("Mrs. Anna"), said she would think about the management's offer of a parttime job somewhere else and generous retirement benefits. She also agreed to take a three-week paid vacation.
Her cautious reaction to an offer which would have brought half of Poland to a standstill a year ago is a measure of the change in the balance of power here since the imposition of martial law last December. But she herself has changed little as a result of her detention--an experience which, she says, convinced her that Poland's Communist rulers were determined to crush Solidarity right from the start.
"They succeeded in crushing us as an organization because we did not appreciate our opponent. But, in the long run, we are stronger than they are. It's not the name that matters but the authentic feeling of solidarity among us. During internment, we learned to serve each other. We became closer to each other," she said in an interview in her tiny one-room apartment soon after arriving back in Gdansk.
A 52-year-old grandmother, Walentynowicz became a household name in Poland because of her part in the August 1980 strike. Before the strike, she and Lech Walesa were among a small group of workers in Gdansk who organized free trade union cells. Her dismissal from the shipyard in retaliation for her political activities led to the strike.
Like many of the founders of the free trade union movement in Gdansk, Walentynowicz later quarreled with Walesa. She accused him of being too conciliatory toward the Communist authorities and of using undemocratic methods to run Solidarity. She was not elected to the union's national leadership at its congress last year, but remained a symbol of what the workers had fought for in August 1980.
Her release, therefore, is being seen as a test case for the government, which is aware of her popularity in Gdansk. The police are watching carefully to see whether she still poses a danger--particularly next month, when workers will mark the second anniversary of the agreement that ended the Gdansk shipyard strike.
Radical though she is, Walentynowicz admits that it is difficult to organize protests as long as martial law is in force.
"People are afraid. They know that they can now be sent to prison for several years for the slightest offense. Before the shipyard strike, they used to pick us up for only 48 hours," she said.
Before going back to the shipyard, Walentynowicz received well-wishers at her Gdansk apartment, which is decorated with Solidarity Posters and pictures of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II. Another former woman internee brought her 13 white roses--to symbolize Dec. 13, the date of the military crackdown.
When a Western news agency called from Warsaw to ask her reaction to the latest relaxation in martial law, Walentynowicz slipped naturally into her old political role. "They keep preaching national agreement, but there can't be any agreement as long as a single Solidarity activist remains in prison," she said.
Someone else in the room commented timidly that phone conversations were monitored these days, and you had to be careful what you said. Walentynowicz snorted in disgust, replying that she at least would continue to say whatever she pleased.
Walentynowicz was arrested several days after martial law was declared. She escaped the initial swoop and helped organize the strike at the Lenin Shipyard, where she was in charge of the defense of Gate No. 2--the gate seen on television screens around the world in August 1980 when Walesa addressed the crowds. When riot police stormed in, Walentynowicz was smuggled out of the yard but later captured by an alert policeman.
After a month in an overcrowded prison near Bydgoszcz, she was transferred to Goldap in northwestern Poland. Here conditions were better and the women internees allowed to move around freely within the camp. Walentynowicz describes it as "a women's republic," with the Solidarity prisoners holding frequent political discussions, running their own clandestine newspaper and arguing with the camp commandant about their rights.
"We had a repertoire of 57 political songs, many of them very rude about the Communist authorities and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. If they maltreated us, we would sing the whole repertoire," she said.
According to her account, the internees had a frosty relationship with the prison staff but were friendly with some of the army conscripts stationed outside the prison. Sometimes they would make sandwiches for the soldiers, lowering them down the walls by thread. The soldiers gave them information about what was happening outside.
Before being released, Walentynowicz had several interviews with plainclothes security men. She says it was hinted that she could become head of a revived Solidarity organization if she agreed to cooperate with the authorities. She refused.
She also refused to promise that she would refrain from illegal trade union activity after her release.
Now that she is free, Walentynowicz says she intends to continue the struggle for free unions in Poland. She admits, though, that it may be necessary to "change tactics."