For a brief moment, the scene outside the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk last week seemed like an eerie flashback to the great strike in August 1980 that gave birth to Solidarity. The shipyard gates were decorated with flowers, red-and-white Polish flags and portraits of Pope John Paul II. Behind the gates stood hundreds of striking workers in grimy overalls and yellow hard hats waiting patiently for something to happen.
The terse accounts of the unrest in the local press were also drearily familiar. Now, as then, the simple word "strike" was replaced by euphemisms such as "lively discussions," "work stoppages" or "futile attempts by enemies of socialism to disturb the rhythm of production."
In fact, despite the superficial similarities between the two strikes, the contrasts proved much more significant. They provide an insight into how Poland changed during the past 26 months and help explain why in 1980 the strike succeeded and toppled a government, while this week's strike was quickly broken by determined security forces.
The most obvious difference this time was the strikers' lack of visible leadership. Frightened of being singled out for special repression by the martial-law government, the instigators of the strike remained in the shadows. They were unable to fulfill Lech Walesa's vital role of 1980, when he acted as a rallying point for the workers and devised a strategy for negotiating with the authorities.
Walesa managed to impose his personality on that strike from the start. Fired from the shipyard three years earlier, he deliberately projected himself as a victim of repression and a symbol of popular hopes for a fairer, more just society. His witty and impromptu speeches boosted the morale of the strikers, assuring them that their struggle would end in victory.
But Walesa has been interned by the Polish authorities since martial law was imposed in December. And one reason that no Walesa emerged to lead the Gdansk strikers this week was that the military government has managed to weed out many of the natural leaders--through internment, arrest or forced transfer to less sensitive factories elsewhere. Another, perhaps even more important reason lies in the draconian prison sentences meted out to strike leaders during the past 10 months.
By contrast with 1980, the latest strikes appear to have blown up almost spontaneously in reaction to the government's disbanding this month of Solidarity, the first legally recognized independent trade union in the communist world. The strike leaders' role was limited to preparing and distributing leaflets calling for protests and then letting events take their course.
There is evidence that, initially at least, Solidarity's national underground leadership was caught unaware by this week's protests. The shipyard strikes along the Baltic and demonstrations in the south were organized by factory-level activists who tend to be much more impatient than Solidarity's recognized leaders. It was not until Wednesday, when the Gdansk strike had already collapsed, that workers in other towns such as Nowa Huta and Wroclaw began protests.
Underground Solidarity leaders have called, somewhat belatedly, for sympathy strikes in support of the Lenin Shipyard workers next week. But their main effort has been directed at organizing a nationwide four-hour strike on Nov. 10, the second anniversary of Solidarity's legal registration.
The second contrast between August 1980 and this week was the strikers' choice of tactics. Under Walesa's leadership, the workers actually took control of the shipyard and remained there until their demands were met. This technique -- the occupation strike, sometimes dubbed a "Polish strike" -- was used by Polish Communists in the 1920s and 1930s in struggles against capitalist factory owners. It was Solidarity's principal weapon during the union's heyday.
The advantage of the occupation strike, from the point of view of the strike leaders, is that it makes it much easier for the workers to maintain unity and discipline in the face of attempts by management to divide them. The disadvantage became apparent following the imposition of martial law when riot police first isolated the striking plants from each other and then stormed them one by one.
It was this experience that led the Lenin Shipyard workers to devise a new form of strike last week. After reporting for duty, they spent the next eight hours twiddling their thumbs. Then, rather than allowing themselves to become sitting targets for police assault, they simply went home. The process was to have been repeated day after day.
At first this technique seemed foolproof, but its weakness soon became apparent. Since they did not have full control of the yard, the strikers were unable to prevent foremen and secret police from putting pressure on individual workers to return to work. The strike collapsed rapidly once military discipline was imposed on the shipyard.
The failure of the strike is likely to lead Solidarity activists throughout Poland to consider yet another change of tactics. As they left the premises dejectedly on Wednesday, some workers suggested that next time they should revert to the occupation strike technique but should be prepared to defend themselves from attack.
There is considerable doubt whether any form of protest can be effective, given the present tough mood of the authorities. And here lies the most significant difference between the strikes that resulted in the Gdansk agreement legalizing free trade unions and this week's almost desperate outburst.
The labor upheavals of August 1980 served the interests of a significant group within the Communist Party establishment in a way that was not really appreciated at the time by the outside world. Many party members were disillusioned with the 10-year rule of Edward Gierek and, in the absence of any democratic mechanisms within the party, viewed the strikes as a convenient way of securing his downfall.
As it turned out, the emotions and political forces that were unleashed in 1980 proved impossible to stop once the initial objective of overthrowing Gierek had been accomplished. The revolution acquired a momentum of its own and eventually threatened the political survival of the very people who had initially tolerated it.
In August 1980, Poland's Communist leaders were prepared to experiment with limited democracy as a possible solution to the country's mounting problems. By contrast, the present government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski believes that, in the short term at least, the only course left open is repression. The alternative -- in the government's view -- is the collapse of the communist system of government, leading, almost inevitably, to a Soviet invasion.
This explains the marked difference in atmosphere in Gdansk between August 1980 and October 1982. Then, the two sides faced each other across a negotiating table in the conference hall of the Lenin Shipyard. It was possible to sense a mood of steadily growing confidence among the strikers, a feeling that perhaps the Communist government could be reformed.
This time, there was no attempt at negotiation. The mood of the strikers seemed fatalistic, as if they were not expecting to win but were nonetheless compelled to undertake some form of protest for their own dignity. Reasoned argument was replaced by tear-gas bombs and concussion grenades, stones and barricades. The greater force prevailed, and both sides lost.