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Poland: Government Moves To Pacify Labor Unrest

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz moved yesterday to pacify industrial unrest by announcing plans to rescue some jobs at the hard-bitten Gdansk shipyard.

Cimoszewicz told Parliament that a state-owned shipping company, PZM, would order five ships to be built in Gdansk by a specially set up subsidiary of another shipyard, the highly successful Szczecin yard. The new company would provide jobs for about 2,000 of the 3,600 workers employed there.

Cimoszewicz said that the ships could be built between 1998 and 2000. The Szczecin shipyard has refrained from any comment on the announcement, but confirmed the order.

The Gdansk shipyard was declared bankrupt last year, with debts exceeding $54 million. It suffered from apparent mismanagement and unwise contracts, but also from overhiring and unwillingness to introduce streamlining changes. It failed to attract foreign investors, some of whom may have expressed interest to take over, but all refused to bail out the yard.

Since that time, the yard has been managed by a receiver who is looking for a buyer. His attempts to find a creditor bank willing to finance the rescue have failed. Two weeks ago the receiver announced the layoffs of all 3,600 workers.

The decision has been sensitive, largely because of the Gdansk shipyard's role in Poland's politics. The yard first captured public attention during worker protests against communist economic policies in December 1970. A decade later, in September 1980, Solidarity, the first independent labor movement in Communist Central Europe was born there. In 1988, two prolonged strikes at the yard opened the way to a nationwide action that eventually forced the Communists to cede power. The current post-Communist government owns a majority share (60 percent) of the stock, with the rest held by the crew.

The workers have protested the decision to close down the shipyard. They charge that the government has made a premeditated, politically motivated move against the historically rebellious yard.

Marian Krzaklewski, head of Solidarity, called last week for nationwide protests to save the shipyard. Rowdy demonstrations in Gdansk and Warsaw followed. Protests extended to the mining industry, which once provided a mainstay of the Communist economy, but has now found it difficult to adapt to new conditions and find new markets.

Earlier this week workers, many of them miners from the southern Silesia region, forcibly entered several ministerial buildings in Warsaw. They were ejected by police. Subsequently, the demonstrators threw pots of red paint and Molotov cocktails at the offices of the ruling post-Communist Social Democratic Party.

Krzaklewski charged during a demonstration two days ago that the post-Communist government "was looking for confrontation." Cimoszewicz said yesterday that Solidarity "fomented chaos" and pledged to do his utmost to ensure order.

Former president Lech Walesa, who led Solidarity throughout the 1980s, responded that Cimoszewicz's comments amounted to "remarks by a Communist who has started his electoral campaign and is looking only to protect his party's interests."

Indeed, it appears that the fight over the shipyard provides an opening salvo in a still-undeclared parliamentary elections campaign. The elections are likely to take place in about six months, probably in September.

Solidarity is the core of a new right-wing political coalition called Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). The coalition, with Krzaklewski at the helm, has become the main opposition force to the governing coalition of former Communists and Peasants.

Krzaklewski yesterday called for further protests, but not for strikes, next week. He also said the Solidarity may stage a mass demonstration in Warsaw next month.

But it is not clear whether this agitation will ignite a wider public response. There is still little indication of either a ground swell of public support for political demonstrations or any widespread willingness for larger industrial unrest. And there is nothing to suggest at this time that the situation will change in the months to come.