The Shipyard is a Woman – Gdansk, Poland

She wipes the sleep from her eyes. Her tiny frame lifts itself out of bed. It feels heavier today as if a stone is weighing her down. The usual spring in her step has turned into a shuffling of feet, her eyes are glazed and she can hardly see even with her glasses on. It’s 8 August 1980. That familiar emotion of hopelessness wells up in Anna Walentynowicz. She remembers those days way back in her childhood when both her parents had been murdered during WWII, when a farmer took her on as a farmhand and how she dreamt about seeing the sea. Her job at the Gdansk Shipyard was more than she could have hoped for. She had put everything into it as a welder and later crane driver, working so hard and with such precision so that no one could have any reason to fire her. But life takes strange turns and today she knows that even ‘udarniks’ (most efficient worker) and those decorated as a “Hero of Socialist Labor” could get the boot. Her crime? Speaking out against the so-called workers state, the Communist controllers of the shipyards. Ironic, isn’t it? But even more ironic, she doesn’t care about herself as much as she cares for her fellow workers, ideology that should please the Party even though she’s not a member. And only 5 months to go before retirement.

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Helmets worn by workers on display at European Centre of Solidarity

“Sebastian, quick, get up, I’m late. The alarm didn’t wake me!” Alina Pienkowska rushes about trying to cook breakfast, brush her teeth and yell at her little boy all at the same time. Being a single mother is a task and a half especially when you’ve got a job as a nurse in the shipyards where they’re always looking over your shoulder and watching the time clocks. All she can hope for is that she doesn’t contract any sicknesses or diseases like the many women coughing their lungs out from pneumoconiosis picked up from caulking the pipes with asbestos. “Please God, no, I have a child to feed.”

2014-12-05 12.13.16 Workers’ lockers at European Centre of Solidarity

Alina’s got Sebastian by the hand and jumps on a tram. If only they had childcare facilities at the yard it would make life so much easier. The tram driver smiles at him and says good morning to this mother and son as they get on. Henryka Krzywonos has problems of her own. She’s working her fingers to the bone getting all the early morning shifts and she knows for a fact that her male counterparts are earning more than she does. Besides, in this patriarchal society, her husband expects her to cook, clean, wash the dishes, do the laundry and make sure that his vodka is iced.

The shipyard is abuzz when Alina gets to work.

“Have you heard?”

“What?”

“It’s true, they’ve fired her!”

“Who?”

“Anna!”

“But…”

“No buts about it. They’ve actually fired her.”

The word spreads like wild fire that Anna Walentynowicz, that small, bundle of energy, everyone’s friend and superlative worker, had lost her job a few months before she was due to retire. Enough is enough and if they could do this to her, they could do this to anybody.

It was 14 August 1980 when the workers at Gdansk Shipyard went on strike organised by the underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast. Their first demand was to reinstate Anna and of course to raise their pay substantially. Of the 17000 workers, 4000 were women employed in various occupations. Because of their smaller frames, they turned out to be excellent welders who could get to places men couldn’t and perform their tasks with greater accuracy than men did. They were crane drivers, nurses, administrative staff and cooks. They played a key role in the formation of Solidarity.

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Alina Pienkowska realised that the phone lines had been cut but that the one in the clinic still worked. Her first call was to Jacek Kuroń of the Workers Defence Committee in Warsaw who in turn got in touch with the Press who spread the word about the strike to the rest of the world. When nobody came home for dinner, people in town realised what was happening and it was Henryka Krzywonos, the tram driver, who stopped her vehicle and announced that she was joining the strikers. And so what started amongst dock workers and ship builders merely ignited the dissatisfaction of labourers throughout Poland.

When Lech Wałęsa was ready to accept the terms that were offered after 2 days of negotiation, it was Alina who stated in no uncertain terms,

“You betrayed them! Now the authorities will crush us like bedbugs.” She grabbed the loudspeaker pleading with those who were tired and wanted to go home, not to quit, not to give up but stay the distance and make demands. She and Anna Walentynowicz closed the gates to keep them inside. Together with Joanna Duda-Gwiazda, they collected these demands and listed them. It was Henryka Krzywonos who also spoke out,

“If you abandon us, we’ll be lost; buses can’t face tanks.” She too, encouraged the strikers to go on.

The Gdansk Agreement with the 21 demands was signed by Lech Wałęsa with a cheesy-looking plastic pen, but it was also signed by these women:  Walentynowicz, Pienkowska, and Krzywonos. Duda-Gwiazda, a graduate of the Faculty of Ship Technology from the Gdansk University of Technology, was also the co-author of the demands. Solidarność was born.

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Messages by visitors at European Centre of Solidarity

This was just the beginning. In December 1981, General Jaruzelski declared Martial Law, dissolved Solidarity and arrested thousands of its leading members. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Solidarity became an underground resistance movement. Anna Walentynowicz was jailed for 2 years, Alina Pienkowska was harassed and Henryka Krzywonos was so badly beaten that she lost her unborn baby and was never able to have children again.

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These were only some of the women that were instrumental in the breakdown of Communism and the change of workers’ lives in Eastern Europe and across the world for that matter. It was the example set by this bloodless revolution that fuelled the fire for so many other historical shifts in our world in the 90’s. The Singing Revolution of Estonia brought about that country’s independence in 1991 while as far afield as South Africa, Apartheid was abolished and free and fair elections were held in 1994.

Whether Lech Wałęsa scaled the wall or not, it was the determination of these and many other women that knew what empathy meant, that knew that they couldn’t let their compatriots down, that held on to the bitter end and spoke out when the men were ready to throw in the towel. They’re the ones that took on the walls of Communism and broke it down bit by bit. HerStories lives on in Metropolitanka (the Metropolitan woman), a website with a map of the shipyards pointing out the roles that females played. Even though the body of Anna Walentynowicz has not been found, her contribution and those of the others simply cannot be ignored by history.