Younger workers revive Poland's Solidarity. New generation of protesters join ranks of outlawed trade union
When Solidarity was born in August 1980, Miroslaw Zak was 16 years old. Grzegorz Szrejder was 19. Both attended high school. In April 1988, the two young men helped shut down the Lenin shipyard for nine tense days. Although the strikers gave up without winning back their banned independent trade union Solidarity, or even a reprieve from stiff price increases on basic foodstuffs, their angry defiance was not futile.
It gave Solidarity a much-needed injection of youthful energy. A new generation of radical protesters was revealed, ready to take greater risks than their fellow workers.
``We don't have apartments, we don't have benefits, we have nothing to lose,'' Grzegorz says. ``Older workers worry about losing their job, their seniority ranking, their retirement benefits, their apartment.''
Most of the shipyard strikers were angry young men like Miroslaw and Grzegorz. Until April, they held no ties to the banned union. Now they are members of the union's local organizing committee, plotting strategy every afternoon in the basement of St. Brigida's Church near the shipyard gates.
Solidarity needs the new blood. After martial law was declared in 1981, the union was forced underground and lingered on as a powerful symbol, able to voice its opinions in a thriving illegal press, but unable to mobilize mass protests. Most of its 10 million members slid into apathy.
When unrest broke out this spring, it took the established union leadership by surprise. Lech Walesa was at home and had to rush to the shipyard.
``The strike was a kick both to the authorities and us,'' recalls Bogdan Lis, Solidarity chief for the Gdansk region. ``It showed them that the possibility of a social outburst exists. It showed us that we had lost touch with the new generation of rank and file.''
Unlike 1980, the 1988 shipyard strike never provoked a nationwide insurrection. Strikes shut down only a few large factories - the Nowa Huta and Stalowa Wola steel mills, the Ursus tractor factory, and other Baltic shipyards.
Most other workers stayed on the job, bought off with large salary increases. The price tag killed an ambitious economic reform program which hoped to bring down inflation and balance shortage-ridden markets with steep price increases.
``The rest of the country didn't follow us,'' says Bogdan Borusewicz, another Solidarity leader in Gdansk. ``But that doesn't mean society supports the government. It only shows that the majority remains apathetic.''
To shake off this apathy, the union has stepped up organizing efforts at its industrial bastions. In the Lenin shipyard, several thousand new membership cards have been distributed. A new union newspaper, Voice of Gate 3, is being published, strike and sickness benefits are being paid, and elections for new department leaders are being held this month in St. Brigida's basement.
``Solidarity is defacto, if not dejure, legalized in the shipyard,'' says Mr. Borusewicz. ``Wherever there were strikes, we are out in the open again.''
The long-term goal is to solidify support from the young. One often overlooked fact is the support the strikes found on Polish campuses. Protesting students managed to close 30 universities. Even in 1980, during the heyday of the Solidarity movement, fewer students stayed away from classes.
``Until this spring, we thought that the young had little interest in us, that they considered us the Establishment, too cautious, too pragmatic,'' says Bronislaw Geremek, a leading Solidarity intellectual. ``The strikes showed that these young people identify with Solidarity.''
The authorities are trying to win back disaffected young workers. In July, management at the Lenin shipyard changed pay scales in favor of its youngest workers, giving many at least 25 percent raises.
``We're organizing meetings for our young workers to discuss their problems,''says Jerzy Bukowicz, director of the shipyard's Worker Self-Management program. ``Whether this will be enough to absorb their frustrations, its difficult to say.''
Even after the raise, Grzegorz and Miroslaw complain that they cannot make ends meet on their meager salaries. A color television costs the equivalent of a year's wage. The housing situation is worse. How will they get married and have a family?
``When I went to see the housing cooperative, they laughed,'' recalls Grzegorz, now 27, still living with his parents. ``They said, `Possibly you'll get an apartment in 38 years.' Thirty-eight years!''
Solidarity's task is to channel these frustrations into positive action. One problem is internal: Officials elected eight years ago must step down to make room for the new faces.
This process has started. Leaders of the spring strike committees are being asked to join local Solidarity councils.
The larger problem, Solidarity veterans say, is to keep these young people from demanding the impossible. Many young workers want more than a free trade union. They demand an end to communism and the alliance with the Soviet Union.
``Look at what happened in the past, how the communists broke every agreement,'' Miroslaw says. ``We want free political parties, free elections.''
For all their militant rhetoric, Solidarity's elder statesmen note that the new generation so far has displayed a remarkable discipline. The strikes stuck to the union's principle of nonviolence - and to its limited demand.
``When I asked the young strikers in the shipyard if they would give up pay raises in return for Solidarity, they all said `yes' and applauded,'' recalls a 62-year-old striker, Alojzy Szablewska. ``They are willing to make sacrifices for Solidarity.''
The great question is whether these young workers will stick to compromise and conciliation - or whether their impatience and frustration will lead to new violence.
Back in 1980, Mr. Lis and the other Solidarity founders believed a real compromise could be reached with the communists. But unless the government soon legalizes Solidarity and negotiates a pact of national reconciliation with it, the veterans fear they will lose control of their movement.
``We didn't ask for the abolition of censorship, for the end of the party's leading role, for free elections, not because we didn't want it, but because we realized it was unrealistic,'' Lis says. ``Solidarity soon won't be enough.''
Second of three. Next: The church, a powerful mediator.