Prague, June 12 (RFE/RL) -- Shipyard workers in the
Polish city of Gdansk are on strike today. Again. The workers are to
occupy the yard for two days. The strike may be repeated next week.
The Gdansk shipyard first captured public attention during worker
protests against Communist government 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 shipyard opened the way
to a nationwide action that eventually forced the Communists to cede
Today, the scene at the shipyard appears similar to these legendary
ones of the past years. A cross is mounted on the main entrance gate,
Solidarity political banners abound, and a poster is displayed
listing the strikers' demands. But similarities may end there.
Past strikes at the Gdansk shipyard often amounted to heroic
trials of strength between the workers and the communist governments.
They were basically political events.
Today, the issues are essentially economic. The shipyard is
bankrupt. Its debts are estimated at about 140 million dollars and
mounting. It suffers from mismanagement and unwise contracts, but
also from overhiring and unwillingness to introduce streamlining
changes. It has failed to attract foreign investors, some of which
might have expressed interest, but all refused to bail the yard out.
The Polish post-communist government, which owns a majority share
(60 percent) of the stock, has decided to close the shipyard to avoid
further expenditures. The government has refused a management-union
partial restructuring plan that would require major subsidies, opting instead for setting up a new company which would complete outstanding
contracts but close down within one year. And it blames Solidarity
for the yard's collapse.
Privatization Minister Wieslaw Kaczmarek yesterday said on a radio
program that Solidarity had prevented "restructuring" of the yard by
opposing downsizing and other changes. He also said that any company
in which "unions are ruling" has little chance of becoming
"efficient." And he mentioned that other shipyards, particularly
those in the port cities of Szczecin and Gdynia, where Solidarity is
presumably less effective, have done much better.
The workers protest the decision. They charge that the government
has made a premeditated, politically motivated move against the
rebellious yard. "The decision to close down the yard is a political
act," says Jerzy Borowczak, Solidarity leader at the yard.
Borowczak and other union activists also complain that while the
government has been notoriously lax in dealing with problems in
various other state-owned industries, its refusal to help the Gdansk
shipyard is exceptionally and suspiciously harsh.
They have a point here. The government has, indeed, given major
subsidies to the hopelessly deficit-ridden coal-mining industry. It has periodically rescued several inefficient machine-building plants from
financial difficulties (for example, Ursus tractor plant near
Warsaw). It has bailed out railways and chemical companies. It
periodically has helped the farmers. And there is no sign that
these aid programs will end any time soon.
It may be said, of course, that the persistence of these subsidies
is the inevitable result of an uneven and difficult transition from
communist to free market economies. Poland is not alone in this
Many industries and plants, which once provided the mainstay of the
communist economy throughout Central Europe and in the new
post-Soviet countries, find it exceedingly difficult to adapt to new conditions and find new markets. They employ large numbers of people.
And they require economic help.
The Polish decision to close down the Gdansk Shipyard has clearly
been made on sound economic foundations. But will it provide an
impetus for similar moves against other inefficient and debt-ridden
industries and plants?
The answer to this question is important to the striking workers in
Gdansk because they suspect the government of a merely vengeful
action against them. It is important for the Polish economic system
because it will help to determine its future evolution. And it is
important to other Central European countries because it touches on
the most fundamental aspects of the social and economic transition to
post-communist realities there.