Gdansk Shipyard Struggles To Survive

GDANSK, Poland -- When visiting the famous shipbuilding facility here where the Solidarity labor movement was born in 1980, the most telling sign of the 1990s is not the towering monument to rebellious workers or even the historic main gate where V.I. Lenin's name once loomed overhead.


Just inside the metal fence, and not far from the Solidarity souvenir and ice-cream stand, dozens of steel girders scratch the sky from an unkempt roadside lot. It is the bare-bones skeleton of a grandiose production site begun more than two decades ago, when Communist authorities planned to expand the vast shipyard, already the biggest in Poland.


Construction stopped because of money problems, but shipyard officials for years held out hope that the structure might be completed. Now they don't even pretend it can happen. "I see it as a hotel,'' director Ryszard Goluch said. "I just have to find a buyer.''


Times have never been so desperate at the run-down dockyard where communism first met its match in Eastern Europe, setting off a revolution that brought freedom to this seaport and much of the former Soviet bloc.


But in a dramatic testament to the changed times, the same work force voted last month to suspend its right to strike, thin its ranks by 2,000 and sell off huge chunks of the 180-hectare shipyard -- all in the hope of saving the world's most legendary shipbuilder from financial ruin.


"It is a whole different situation here now,'' said electrician Jerzy Jasinski, 42. "Life turned out differently than any of us expected. It has been a shock. People didn't know what adopting Western methods really meant.''


Jasinski and other despondent ship workers blame Poland's dog-eat-dog market economy for the misery at the erstwhile Lenin Shipyard. It is a textbook example, they say, of how the cradle of Polish reforms became a victim of its own hard-fought success.


But while pressures of the competitive market have sunk struggling smokestack industries across Poland, experts say -- and more and more workers are beginning to agree -- it is the lack of market reforms, not their harsh excesses, that have done in the Gdansk shipyard.


"After the change of regimes in Poland, the mentality at the shipyard remained the same,'' said Jerzy Doerffer, chairman of the Shipping Forum, an association of shipbuilders and suppliers. "Before, anyone who was a member of the [Communist] Party was incapable of doing any work. After the change, anyone who was a member of Solidarity was incapable of doing any work.''


Doerffer and others say that years of coddling the bloated shipbuilder because of its temperamental work force, high-level political connections and revered role in Polish history did more harm than good.


When a former Solidarity leader began a four-year stint as shipyard director in 1990, for example, he granted across-the-board pay raises and signed money-losing contracts to keep work coming in.


The shipyard lost $35 million last year and has signed 19 construction contracts that would set it back double that amount by next year, according to the shipyard's own financial analyst. An unexpectedly strong zloty has hurt export industries throughout Poland, but at the already sinking Gdansk shipyard, the added burden this year was too much to keep it afloat.