Whilst today’s terrible plane crash is obviously being reported from the perspective of the loss of the Polish President Lech Kaczynski – one of the leading figures of Poland’s Law and Order Party (the nationalist, and severely homophobic, former governing party, which sits with the Tories’ far right friends in Europe), also on the plane was the 80 year old Anna Walentynowicz.
In 1980, Anna was coming up for retirement in the shipyards of Gdansk, where she’d worked for 30 years as a welder and crane operator. She’d become disillusioned with Polish communism, after seing how it restricted workers’ rights to organise, and she took up editorship of the propaganda flyer, “The Coastal Worker”, campaigning against sexism in work,corruption in management and the government licensed trade unions, and in favour of the country’s free trade union movement.
Handing out the magazine in person – and indeed giving copies of it to her bosses – was a risky step, and was considered provocation enough for her to be fired – 5 months ahead of her planned retirement. This was the catalyst that seven days later caused the shipyard workers to walk out on strike in protest – the action that was to lead to her reinstatement, along with Lech Walesa, but also to the signing of the Gdansk Agreement which gave the right to workers to form free unions, and hence the formation of Solidarnosc.
From a flyer issued on her dismissal, now nearly thirty years ago:
“This matter demonstrates that the administration of the shipyard does not care about public opinion or legal procedure, which it violates forcing people to bend with its whims. Anna Walentynowicz has been a thorn in their side, because she is a model activist devoted to others. She is a thorn in their side because she defends others and is capable of organizing her colleagues… We appeal to you, defend the crane operator Walentynowicz.”
I was only dimly aware of the world shaking events that would follow in Poland – being more concerned at the time with my growing collection of Matchbox cars – but it gave me pause today to think about the contribution of Anna Walentnowicz and so many like her. Profoundly brave free trade unionists, whose legacy is moving now from yellowing newsprint into the stone tablets of history.
PS – this is good