Stricken Gdansk shipyard in last desperate plea

Sarah Helm
Monday 29 April 1996 23:02

In the offices of Solidarity, high above the sprawling docks of Gdansk, a final desperate bid is being made to save the world-famous shipyard from collapse.

"If everyone in Europe would invest $50 [pounds 30] to become a shareholder, that would be enough to save us," says Marian Krzaklewski, the Solidarity president. "It would be recognition of the Gdansk shipyard's contribution to the free world."

Mr Krzaklewski makes his proposal with a wry smile. He knows he will not be taken seriously. And he knows it is already too late for symbolic gestures.

Whatever role the shipyard played in changing the course of European history, whatever the courage of Lech Walesa, Gdansk's most famous son, there is no businessman in Europe - or anywhere else for that matter - who wants to invest in this stricken yard, which last year reported a $35m loss.

Today, the deadline for new investors to come forward and save the yard from bankruptcy runs out. Without a dramatic last minute reprieve, it now seems certain that the vast cranes, which stalk the city's skyline will soon rest. The jobs of 7000 shipyard workers, and a further 65,000 employed in associated industries are at risk.

The pain and the paradox of the former Lenin shipyard's fate is not lost on the people of Gdansk. The city is about to become the biggest victim in Poland so far of the free-market democratic forces unleashed by the shipyard workers' own revolution against Communism in the 1980s.

Once a symbol of freedom, Gdansk shipyard, of which 60 per cent is state- owned, is about to become a symbol of the sacrifices Poles must make if they are to continue the painful process of privatisation, and reform their economy in readiness to join the European Union. The fact that the new Polish government, made up of former Communists who narrowly defeated Mr Walesa's government in November, will preside over the closure, makes the pain for Solidarity even harder to bear. Blame for the shipyard's collapse is already being cast far and wide by all sides.

Mr Krzaklewski, a charismatic 35-year-old Solidarity activist from Silesia, who succeeded Mr Walesa when he became Poland's President in 1991, blames the Communist governments of the 1980s for victimising the shipyard.

After the 1980 strikes and the suspension of Solidarity in 1981, Miroslav Rakovski, the former Communist prime minister, "punished" Gdansk by refusing it investment and giving aid to neighbouring shipyards at Szczecin and Gdynia, which are now healthy yards with full order books. "Today the ghost of Rakovski has come back to haunt us," Mr Krzaklewski says. Gdansk, which largely made ships for the Soviet Union, has also lost its key market.

During the early 1990s, after the Communists had been ousted, the shipyard's management failed to draw up a proper restructuring plan, Mr Krzaklewski says. What he does not openly admit is that the management were waiting for hand-outs from Lech Walesa who was, by then, the Polish President. Nor does Mr Krzaklewski admit that Mr Walesa was by that time too busy with shoring up a powerbase to institute the painful restructuring of Gdansk himself.

Today's post-communists, who have launched an "economic oligarchy", using privatisation to "reward old friends", could have saved Gdansk with subsidies had they wished. "They might have wanted to say that it was the post-communists who saved the shipyard, but deep down in their hearts they want to kill us," Mr Krzaklewski said.

Whatever Solidarity's recriminations, however, the fact is that Poland's present government holds all the cards. Solidarity leaders in Gdansk may argue for continued subsidy for the shipyard, but no one in Poland has in the past pressed for liberalisation of the economy more forcefully than these trade unionists and their intellectual supporters. To try to prove to Western investors that it has free-market credentials and has broken with its past, the present government argues that it cannot afford to support debt-ridden companies like the shipyard at Gdansk.

Speaking to Western journalists last week, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the Polish Prime Minister, clearly relished making this point himself. "[Solidarity] want the government to take money out of its pocket to save the shipyard. They don't seem to have noticed that something has changed in Poland." And he cited the shipyard's losses with an ill-concealed confidence, verging on glee.

If no surprise investor comes forward by today, shareholders will meet to declare the shipyard bankrupt and prepare for closure. Mr Krzaklewski warns that protests are then bound to follow. "We will not sit back. We will do nothing violent but if they decide to liquidate the shipyard many will go out onto the streets."

However, the governmentseems confident it can out-smart Solidarity, arguing that by taking the workforce out on strike, the union would be leading the country to ruin, deterring investors at a crucial moment. The ability to save some jobs in Gdansk will depend on how the workforce behave, Mr Cimoszewicz made clear last week. "If Solidarity organises any radical action we will ask from where do they want us to take the money to pay the shipyard workers?"

As the workers come and go through the shipyard's famous gates and past the tiny souvenir shop, there seems to be little hunger for confrontation. All the signs are that the workers of Gdansk will have less will to resist the forces of the free-market today than the forces of Communism in the past.

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