Militancy Seen as Challenge to Regime--and Solidarity Leaders : New Generation of Activists Emerges in Poland
The name of this town means “steel clearing,” and 60 years ago, that’s about all it was--a factory carved out of the forests of southeastern Poland, a munitions plant as far removed as possible from the potential harm’s way of the German border.
Back then, the drowsy neighboring village of Rozwadow was the principal town, and Stalowa Wola was its adjunct. Now the situation is reversed.
Stalowa Wola, with a population of 70,000, has become a small industrial city, with all the features familiar to such places in Poland: a steel mill and factory combination, towering smokestacks whose chalk-colored effluvium lays a thin whiff of brimstone over town and countryside.
Although the Polish government still regards Stalowa Wola as a defense plant, the factory’s principal output these days is bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment. But Stalowa Wola has become known recently for another product. The 16,000 workers employed here have become among the most militant, restive workers in Poland.
In the process, they have provided a glimpse of what appears to be an emerging generation of activists in the banned Solidarity trade union, men who seem to have fired the union with a new resolve and who may usher in a new period in Poland in which the government, long resistant to face-to-face dealings with the union, has been forced to consider genuine negotiations.
Proud of Launching Strikes
Two serious outbreaks of labor unrest have struck Poland in the last six months, but the activist workers at Stalowa Wola are proud to point out that they have initiated not two but three strikes this year. They not only joined the big walkouts in April and May, and again in August, but they also mounted a third strike in July, deftly timed to coincide with the visit to Poland of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
“Our workers have learned that the only way to put pressure on management is to organize a strike,” said Father Edward Frankowski, a priest at Stalowa Wola’s central church, Mother Mary, Queen of Poland, Solidarity’s sanctuary and unofficial headquarters.
“This is a new generation of workers,” Frankowski added.
For the workers at Stalowa Wola, the central issue in each of their strikes was the legalization of Solidarity. But perhaps the greatest significance of the strikes this year is the fact that none of them were initiated by the old-line Solidarity leadership in Gdansk and Warsaw. Indeed, there were strong indications, from Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and others, that the first round of strikes were considered ill-timed and unwise by the older unionists.
The Solidarity leadership, of course, supported the actions, but the government could not avoid noting that the strikes, in effect, had bubbled up from beneath the union’s leadership in a new and potentially dangerous pattern.
On Aug. 26, at the peak of the latest round of strikes, Poland’s Communist leaders announced that they were willing to convene a series of “round-table” discussions that would include the Solidarity leadership.
In initial meetings with government representatives, Walesa was given assurances that Solidarity’s legalization would be discussed, although it remains unclear how far the government is willing to go. The discussions are to get under way in mid-October.
In exchange for the government’s assurance, Walesa ended the strikes, but it took three days of intense argument to persuade the most militant young workers to go back to their jobs.
The two main leaders of the Stalowa Wola strikes, Wieslaw Turasz and Wieslaw Wojtas, are both 32 years old. In the aftermath of the strike, both have been fired and both have spent most of the last two weeks sleeping in the apartments of friends, hoping to avoid arrest by staying away from their own homes.
Turasz returned home this week, in part to deal with a further punishment for his role in the Stalowa Wola plant: The authorities removed his handicapped 11-year-old daughter from the list of those eligible for special education. He spent most of the day last Tuesday appealing
‘Mass for the Fatherland’
Turasz is tall and dark-haired, shy and soft-spoken. His counterpart, Wojtas, seems his opposite, short, blond, outgoing. Their determination seems evenly matched.
Turasz has received his second conscription notice--in effect, an order from his draft board to report for duty in the army. “I will ignore it,” Turasz said, “as I ignored the first one.”
Solidarity has complained that the government sent draft notices to 300 strikers. Union sources say that Walesa will demand that the notices be revoked as a condition for further talks. The union has also protested the firing of Solidarity activists, and Turasz says he believes it will win in the end.
The Solidarity chapter at Stalowa Wola prides itself, its leaders say, on its sense of discipline, which some attribute to the strong organizational support provided by the church, and by Father Frankowski in particular.
The discipline held when Walesa called for an end to the strikes, Wojtas said, although there was some resistance in the ranks.
“I took a call from Walesa myself,” Wojtas said. “We felt that if he demanded such a thing, he must have his reasons, and we agreed to go along with him so as not to diminish his position.”
For Wojtas and Turasz and the rest of the strike leaders and supporters, the end of the strike came as a triumph. When they walked out of the plant at last, a crowd they estimate at 30,000, led by Father Frankowski, was there to greet them. The mood of victory, even optimism, remained in evidence around the church two weeks after the event.
Extremely Skeptical Attitude
But, like many Solidarity activists, Wojtas said he remains extremely skeptical of the government’s intentions.
The government will do its best, he predicted, to find a way to avoid legalizing the union.
“The talks will give nothing,” he said. “We would have to make too much of a compromise. And if the compromise is too great to make, we will make a solution by the end of the year in a more forceful way.”
How much more forceful?
“On the scale of the whole country, it would be larger. We thought the last strike would be the final one. But, if you listen to what people are now saying, the next one will be even more powerful. It was clearly visible at the end of the last strike that there was strong resistance to stopping.
“I swore to myself the last time that we would never end (the strike) without guarantees, but it is hard to say what we would do the next time.’
Following their own course, Wojtas and Turasz, along with Stanislaw Krupka, 34, Solidarity’s regional chairman, find themselves sharing views similar to those of other better-known Solidarity activists--among them Zbigniew Bujak, 32, of Warsaw, and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, 34, of Wroclaw. In addition to the common denominator of their ages--they are 10 to 12 years younger than Walesa, who is 44--they share a more confrontational approach to dealing with the government.
Perhaps it is youthful enthusiasm, but for Wojtas it is easy to see the militancy growing at Stalowa Wola.
“I was really frightened entering the plant when the strike started, because I was not sure anything would come out of it. But a powerful thing did come out of it. Sixty percent of our workers are peasant workers, and there is an idea that peasant workers will not get involved. But they did as much as anyone.”
The important lesson of the strike, he said, was to learn how “to struggle against the psychological war waged by the other side.”