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Building Ships and a Vision in Gdansk


BRUNON BARONOWSCY should have become a pillar of the ``Socialist Worker's State.'' Born in 1953 at the end of the Stalinist period, he never knew prewar capitalist Poland. His father owned a small farm on the Kasubian plain about 30 miles from Gdansk. Brunon was the 10th of 13 children.

At age 17, he left technical school and began a job as a shipyard worker at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. The shipyard was one of Poland's prides, the type of place where visiting heads of state were taken to see the joys of constructing socialism.

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With his muscular physique, his rugged features, Brunon looked like one of those Stakhanovites who could boast about laying a record number of bricks in a shift.

But Brunon wasn't interested in such records. For a start, he was raised a believing Roman Catholic.

``Growing up in my family, the most important thing was religion,'' he recalls. ``The priest always told us, `Don't believe what you hear on the radio.'''

These teachings nurtured skepticism. The events of 1970, when the Army shot and killed striking workers in front of the shipyard gates, fed anger. Brunon had just begun working at the yard.

``I was riding in a train, and all of a sudden the soldiers started shooting and bullets began smashing into the train wagon,'' he recalls.

``It was at this moment that I started hating this system.''

The more the authorities attempted to suppress the memory of the December dead, the more workers like Brunon remembered. Wasn't this supposed to be a worker's state? How could Poles justify killing other Poles?

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There were no satisfactory answers.

Along with other shipyard workers, Brunon attended St. Brygida's Church, where Father Henryk Jankowski lectured them on God-given human rights and put them in contact with a group of Warsaw intellectuals who had formed a human rights organization, KOR, the Committee for Self-Defense.

On the eve of May Day 1978, a ``Founding Committee of Free Trade Unions on the Coast'' announced its existence in Gdansk. Their pent-up grievances were many. Brunon was shocked by the shipyard's working conditions - welding outside in subfreezing weather - and by the corruption and inefficiency of its management, chosen of course by the Communist Party. ``Parasites,'' Brunon sneers. ``Walking and talking managers.''

By this time, he had married his high-school sweetheart, Jolanta, and they had a baby boy, Grzegorz. Since the shipyard no longer could offer workers an apartment, the Baranowscys squeezed into a miniature, one-room cubbyhole of a worker's hostel.

``It was one small square room, 26 [square] meters large,'' he says - about 16 feet by 16 feet. ``In one corner was a stove, in another, a bathroom - with only cold water.''

When prices were raised on basic foodstuffs in the summer of 1980, Brunon was ready to revolt. To this day, he remembers the ``incredible enthusiasm'' of those remarkable August days when the Gdansk shipyard workers won the right to form the communist world's first independent trade union - Solidarity.

``For the first time, we felt like we were in control of our own destiny,'' he says. ``Solidarity became our second church, something we could trust, something we could believe in.''

After martial law was declared the next year, Brunon was arrested and interned for a total of seven months. On his return home, he resumed his job in the shipyard - and his underground activities for Solidarity, which had been banned.

Two girls, Patrycja and Arleta, soon arrived to add to the Baronowscy clan. Last year, they managed to obtain a two-room apartment in the hostel. For five people, it's still a squeeze. The three children all sleep in one room. The kitchen is in the entrance.

They consider themselves fortunate, though. In Gdansk, the wait for apartments now stretches to 40 years, so newly married shipyard workers must live with their parents. Jolanta worries about where they would go if her husband's political activism cost him his job.

``When he came back from prison, I was fed up,'' she recalls. ``I told him, `If you keep it up, you'll lose your job, and we'll lose this flat.'''

``But this is my responsibility,'' Brunon replies. ``I just couldn't tell my colleagues that I give up my work.''

When strikes broke out again in 1988, Brunon was a member of the shipyard strike committee. During Solidarity's long underground period from 1981 to this year, he admits that he often wondered if they would get the union back.

But the strikes ``showed that the young people cared as much as about Solidarity as we do.''

At age 36, he continues to follow a grueling schedule. Up by 5 a.m. six days a week, he works a full eight-hour shift.

He needs overtime to make ends meet, so often he takes a break for the midday meal and works a second night shift. There's no time for his hobby, fishing.

In his few hours of spare time, he occupies himself with union activities. Solidarity once again is legal and must be organized inside the shipyard. Membership cards must be distributed, pension plans organized, vacation schedules coordinated.

The new union must fight to keep open its shipyard. After the communist regime announced its intention last year to close the shipyard, it signed a letter of intent to sell the property to an American capitalist, Barbara Piasecki Johnson.

Brunon, the quintessential anti-communist, is no lover of capitalism. Though he dreams of the better wages a foreign owner like Mrs. Johnson might pay, he also worries about impending layoffs. Despite all his struggle, he wants to continue working at the yard.

``I don't want unemployment, I don't want people in the street like in the West,'' he says.

``We're good workers, we're skilled workers. There must be a job here which will pay us decent wages, let us get an apartment, and give us hope that the future will be better for our children.''

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