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Poland's Solidarity Falls Victim to Own Success

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The collapse of the Berlin Wall ended decades of anti-communist protests by people living in Eastern and Central Europe. Authorities there often used deadly force to put down protests, yet they were unable to stop millions of workers and intellectuals who joined Poland's Solidarity Trade Union from demanding greater personal and political freedoms. What has freedom meant for the shipyard in Gdansk where Solidarity was organized?

The end of communism in Poland 20 years ago was preceded by nearly a decade of protests by members of the Solidarity Trade Union. Pawel Adamowicz helped to organize anti-communist strikes in the 1980s and owes his position as the mayor of Gdansk to Solidarity's success.

Adamowicz says the collapse of communism gave Poland freedom, which is the most important thing. He adds that regaining freedom also gave Poles economic and other kinds of liberties.

Solidarity began at the Lenin Ship Yard in Gdansk. Today, the union has about two million members, far less than the 10 million it had 20 years ago. Many in Poland say Solidarity became a victim of its own success.

While the union helped rid Poland of communism, the free-market system that replaced it resulted in thousands of layoffs. They came amid the loss of state subsidies, global competition and declining ship orders. Ludwik Pradzynski is among those who kept his job.

He says the situation at the shipyard compared to the past is insecure. Despite his 34 years of experience on the job, he says he fears being laid off.

Two shipyards near Gdansk are closed and the Gdansk facility is owned by investors from Ukraine. The director is Bulgarian. Many of the workers are Koreans, Vietnamese and Ukrainians. Ludwik Pradzynski suspects foreigners are undercutting Polish wages.

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Pradzynski says the salary of manual laborers is very low and not fair. Despite problems at the yard, he says ships can continue to be built, adding that workers are not the problem. He says there are so few of them that it is not possible to have less.

Mayor Adamowicz says the shipyard has been forced to adapt to competition and loss of subsidies.

The mayor says many small private shipyards were created around the Gdansk shipyard to produce parts and sections. These yards, he says, are more flexible and respond better to market demand.

Among those private companies is Sunreef Yachts, a French-owned company that bought several buildings at the main shipyard to produce luxury yachts and catamarans. Sunreef employs about 400 workers, hired when mass layoffs drove down the cost of labor. Company Sales Director Maciej Stompor says that period is over.

"The market is controlled mainly by the workers, because some of those really highly qualified technicians, welders, and shipyard workers found jobs abroad, so it is not that easy to find good workers any more," Stompor said.

Shipyard management says it must further reduce the workforce to 1,900 employees to stay competitive.

Solidarity Union representative Jerzy Borowczak told VOA the organization is offering displaced workers' courses to increase their mobility.

He says the courses include computer use and English so that the worker can be mobile. The representative says instruction also revolves around marketing so members know how to negotiate, talk, and present themselves.

Some workers express bitterness about struggling against communism only to lose their shipbuilding jobs. But even they are proud of having participated in Solidarity's peaceful movement to topple the totalitarian system.