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Gdansk Shipyard Goes On Strike Again

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 power.

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 predicament.

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.