By Sally Low in Wroclaw and Warsaw
"Solidarity has always been the umbrella that sheltered this government from the rain, but now we have closed the umbrella." In Wroclaw, the poster of a folded red and white umbrella advertised a two-hour strike as part of Solidarity's May 22 national day of protest.
Originally a militant trade union that symbolised the struggle for democracy by a large industrial working class, Solidarity is today a crucial base of support for Poland's pro-capitalist government. Yet under its banner that day, protests ranging from short strikes and demonstrations to symbolic flying of flags and sounding of sirens took place in every region of the country.
The Solidarity leadership now acts primarily as a "transmission belt between Walesa and the workers", says Joseph Pinior, coordinator of the Wroclaw Socialist and Political Centre.
Even so, the union's history of struggle has produced a very militant working class accustomed to defending its rights, one that now has good reason to be angry, adds Pinior, who was until 1987 a member of Solidarity's underground national leadership. He resigned in protest against Walesa's increasingly pro-capitalist line.
For ordinary Poles, the most important changes since 1989 have been a 40% reduction in real wages, privatisation and rising unemployment, the closure of social services, massive rises in rent for housing that is in short supply and shops stocked with an abundance of goods they can't afford to buy. They have also witnessed the emergence of a new pro-capitalist elite, one that includes much of the old Stalinist nomenklatura (bureaucracy).
Finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz's capitalist restoration plans, fully backed by President Lech Walesa, will mean increasing poverty, unemployment and loss of services for the workers who brought them both to power.
International Monetary Fund demands have shaped the Balcerowicz Plan. Imported goods have been allowed to flood the domestic market. Tax incentives for private investors are complemented by taxes on state enterprises that keep wage rises to 60% of the rate of inflation and handicap state firms that could otherwise be competitive.
'Limits to patience'
During their two-hour strike, employees at the PILMET agricultural machinery factory in Wroclaw spoke with Green Left.
"They attack our dignity. We should have some rights to control our own lives", said one woman. "We had great hopes that, even with the strong decline in our living standards, things would be better, so onths of Mr Balcerowicz we just waited. Now we face bankruptcy as individuals and as a group.
"Now we have decided to look after the basic interests of people on the bottom of society and show we don't support the government. Today we will prove that we are still powerful, and if necessary we will take more action.
"When we look carefully at reality, we see that nothing has changed, in the sense that the former elites are still elites, and there are now also the elites of Solidarity. We have some kind of new nomenklatura emerging.
"There are limits to our patience. We are horrified by what we read about the situation in East Germany."
Such attitudes arise from the experiences of the '80s, but also from a movement for workers' self-management which dates back to before the second world war. Unionists at PILMET explained that in their factory and others like it, elected labour councils have final say over hiring and firing, investment and wages.
The protests of 1956, they said, ended the totalitarian phase of Stalinism and led to a discussion on how to ensure it was not reintroduced. So the first labour councils were formed. They resurfaced in 1980-81, when Solidarity's program was not for restoration but for self-management and a planned economy modified by the market.
Before the declaration of martial law, Solidarity had forced the government to pass a law on self-management. In 1986 the labour councils were permitted to reappear in a modified form, although their operation was often obstructed. They were then also hampered by Solidarity's leaders' campaign to boycott all state institutions.
In 1986 the PILMET labour council fired the factory manager. The current manager, Jan Sosnowski, was elected from the 11 engineers who applied. It was clear where his interests and loyalty lay when he welcomed the day of protest, criticised the Balcerowicz plan and said the government would probably have to use force if it wanted to privatise PILMET.
Sentiments such as these, declining membership and a recent wave of strikes, compelled Solidarity leaders to take action. On the day, the leaders were often outflanked by their ranks.
"This was obvious at the big demonstration in Warsaw, where the slogans chanted and carried by the workers had nothing to do with what the leadership were saying", explained Stefan Piekarczyk, a member of the Revolutionary Left Group. "The leaders said it was to pressure the government to speed up economic reform and pass certain bills through parliament. The workers called for an end to the Balcerowicz Plan and the current tax system."
In Wroclaw, members of the MKK (Coordinating Commission for an Independent Self-Management Trade Union, Solidarity), a regional grouping within Solidarity that is generally anti-bureaucratic and critical of the government, put forward seven basic demands:
1. Equal taxation of the private and the public sector.
2. A program of public housing.
3. A program to end unemployment and to help those who are already unemployed.
4. No more price rises, especially in energy.
5. Security of social services, especially health care.
6. Rewrite the economic restoration program to leave space for employees to have a say over ownership and profits.
7. Support all the protests by Solidarity.
Most importantly, the protests were a signal that public action against the government is legitimate. Six months ago "any kind of large-scale industrial action was seen as a direct attack on Walesa and a sign of support for the remnants of the Stalinist regime", said Piekarczyk. "That situation has now changed. While moving with the tide, the Solidarity leadership have opened up the floodgates."
While they lack any clear alternative to restoration, Polish workers are still very militant, says Pinior. He fears the ruling elite will turn to authoritarianism as its only defence.
"Walesa is a classical populist, but it is possible for him to operate inside the working class. He could use the situation and the reactionary tendencies that exist alongside the militancy to create some kind of authoritarian system. He will be seen as the lesser evil to the Catholic fundamentalists" who, while not yet so strong, could certainly grow in this period.
Despite its strength, indicated by the highest rate of recruitment to the priesthood in the world, the church's campaign against abortion has angered many Poles. Compulsory religious instruction in schools and a call by Cardinal Jozef Glemp to end the constitutional separation of church and state have also attracted strong criticism.
Pinior is convinced there will be a clash "between capitalist restoration and democracy. Only an authoritarian regime will be able to impose capitalism in Poland, and possibly too in the whole of Eastern Europe.
"Poland is the only country in Europe that has still not had free parliamentary elections ... But actions like this day of protest hardliners in the government to impose anti-democratic measures."
Walesa, who openly admires Poland's interwar dictator Jozef Pilsudski and Charles de Gaulle, has more authority than anyone else because he has been elected. Already there has been talk about rule by presidential decree, and there is fertile ground for a McCarthy-style campaign against any form of democratic opposition. Meanwhile, Walesa has been building the nucleus of a state apparatus, in the form of a state bureaucracy operating inside the working class.
In Pinior's view, while restoration has begun, the decisive struggles have not yet happened. "The working class is still very strong and is capable of defending itself. This is a classical transition period, and if you ask the question who has power in Poland, it is impossible to answer.
"Imperialism is very strong, and there is no left counter to its offensive. On the other hand, there is a militant working class, and people are still very egalitarian in their outlook. They are deeply demoralised, but the existence and tradition of Solidarity make all the difference.
"Solidarity will not be, however, a vehicle for democratic resistance, because it is now too weak and too closely associated with the government, though it is possible that some sections within it will emerge as part of this resistance.
"It is now necessary to create some kind of new left that will develop an alternative economic program to the IMF, to defend the rights of women, the young and the old, and to defend democracy against authoritarianism. That process is only just beginning."