Workers bid farewell to the doomed yards of Gdansk

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The Independent Online
The monument to the shipyard workers of Gdansk bears three anchors, to symbolise hope. But hope is in short supply as the shipyard, birthplace of Solidarity, is finally being closed after 17 years of financial problems and attempted restructuring.

The Polish government is mumbling about a deal to save the yard involving a joint programme with the profitable Szczecin shipyards, but the future looks bleak.

After being threatened with closure in 1980, then again in 1988, the Gdansk yards were reprieved, to limp along during the early Nineties while their champion, Lech Walesa, was President of the Republic.

Mr Walesa returned to work in the shipyard briefly when he lost the presidential elections n 1995, but his time there was short-lived. He went back to work, he said, because without a presidential pension, he had no money to support his family of eight children. After this stunt, the government passed a new law allowing for ex-presidents to receive a pension. Now he spends his time between the Lech Walesa Institute, where he gives interviews, lecture tours abroad, and the new house he is building in Warsaw's exclusion Oliwa district.

An air of resignation hangs over the town as the remaining 3,800 men are given their cards and prepare to search for jobs. But resignation is the preserve of the townsfolk. The workers are angry, as evidenced by the daily protests in the past weeks, not only in this port but throughout Poland.

At the Lenin yard, Wojciech Kowalczyk is clocking in for his final shift, as he waits to be laid off the following day. "They said they would reconstruct Gdansk for the city's millennium this year," he says, "but this is what they meant. This is their gift to us. The yard could stay open if only we had support."

Mr Kowalczyk has been a locksmith at the yard since he left school, and earns 700 zloty a month (pounds 140) for a 55-hour week. He will receive no redundancy pay. The local job agency says there are nearly 1,500 jobs vacant in the region - a figure disputed by Solidarity - but none of them is related to the shipping industry. "I don't know what I will do now," Mr Kowalczyk, says. "There is no work, and I am angry."

The announcement of the shipyard's closure was extremely bad timing; simultaneously, the "Order of the White Eagles" - a medal of honour - was being awarded by President Aleksander Kwasniewski to Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the former prime minister who tried in vain to close the Lenin yard in 1988. "The President is trying to destroy people," said the widow of a shipyard worker. "Rakowski gets a medal, while we go to the unemployment office."

On the other side of the tram lines, workers whose shifts are over cram into a small, smoke-filled bar. One, nearing 65, is worried about his pension. "I'm due to retire," he says. "I don't know whether my pension is secure. But at least I don't have to worry about work. It's the young men I feel sorry for." Another rails at Lech Walesa, sparking a fierce argument. "Walesa has abandoned us. I was at school with him, but he has forgotten us. He is a pig. Anyway, he is nothing now. He is just a small man."

They are angry at what they see as a political move to crush the yard by the government, which is largely composed of former communists, and with the bank which denied them a crucial loan to fulfil orders for five ships.

But the protests in Gdansk have been a muted affair, poorly attended by the public, in spite of their sympathy for the men.

At a special Mass at St Brigitte's Church celebrated by Fr Henryk Jankowski, a high-profile priest known in the West for his anti-Semitic views, the ageing congregation fills the collection plates with money for the workers. Stanislaw Kaczmarek, 70, has come to pray for them. "I pray daily that the yard won't close," he says. "I live near here, and I remember everything that happened in 1970. I saw it all." As Poland shuffles ever nearer to the European Union, all sorts of jobs are in danger, not just those of the shipyard workers. Since the Eighties the yard has been a financial liability, but no one has managed to close it because it has never been free of political symbolism.

The yard's director, appointed in 1995, was given until 28 February this year to save the yard, or sell it. Its book value is $88m (pounds 55m), but one reputed offer was for as little as $20m.

Now, the only real hope is a slim one: that a deal can be forged with the Gdynia yard 32km up the coast and the Szczecin yard 300km away. Gdynia has a full order book until mid-1998, and will deliver 12 vessels worth $400m this year. The proposal would involve bank loans to finance production of five ships for a Polish company, Polska Zegluga Morska, which would provide work for 2,000 of the 3,800 workers. Analysts are sceptical. They say the proposal would endanger Szczecin's strong position, and that without deadlines and guarantees, it would be nothing more than a state subsidy with political motives.

In the meantime, the workers and Solidarity will continue protesting.