wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Joshua Muravchik

Heaven on Earth

It is true that Meany's successor, Lane Kirkland, was a man of different style and background. The scion of a prominent old South Carolina family, he had been reared on tales of the 'war of northern aggression.' When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the seventeen-year-old Kirkland tried to enlist in the Canadian army since America was still at peace. Turned away because of his age, he soon found his way into the merchant marine, in which he served throughout the war, joining a small seafaring union called the Masters, Mates and Pilots. This intense introduction to global affairs motivated him to enroll in Georgetown University's school of foreign service when the war was over. After that he took a job with the AFL, where he became a favorite of Meany's and was groomed by 'the old man' as heir. Kirkland was to change a few of Meany's policies, but one area in which there was not a shade of difference between the two was on the subject of communism.

The proof of this was not long in coming. Less than a year after Kirkland's accession, a drama began to unfold in the Baltic port city of Gdansk. A crane operator who had labored thirty years in the immense Lenin shipyard was fired for defying the authorities. A large, devout single mom in her fifties, Anna Walentynowicz was undaunted by the gigantic machinery that she handled or by the repressive state machinery that tried to handle her. She was active in a loose network of dissidents who kept alive the embers of resistance that had flamed into mass demonstrations at least once every decade. In 1970, workers protesting price increases had been fired upon by police and soldiers in a handful of cities and several had died, some directly in front of the Lenin shipyard. In the ensuing years, those workers who had dared to persist in low-key agitation had repeatedly voiced the demand for a monument to these martyrs. Now, emboldened by the recent visit of the Polish pope, a group of workers were planning a memorial meeting. Since candles, like other consumer goods, were scarce, Walentynowicz had scavenged a nearby cemetery for leftover wax from some that had already burnt. For this she had been arrested and subsequently dismissed from her job.

Other workers rallied to her defense, including the electrician Lech Walesa, who had himself been fired for disobedient activities some four years earlier. Soon the Lenin works were idled in a sit-down strike that spread to other factories throughout Gdansk and other cities. The 'Independent Self-Governing Trade Union, Solidarity,' was born, espousing a list of demands that added up to the end of totalitarian dictatorship.

Within days after the Gdansk sit-down began, Kirkland displayed his 'class consciousness': 'They are on strike and we will support it any way we can,' he declared. The AFL-CIO Longshoremen's union announced a boycott of all cargoes to and from Poland. Its president, Thomas Gleason, noted slyly that a hundred thousand cases of Polish ham were in transit to the United States. If the Polish strike were to be suppressed, warned Kirkland and Gleason, the AFL-CIO would organize an international labor boycott of all Polish transport.

In addition, Kirkland soon announced the creation of the Polish Workers' Aid Fund. Together with the auto workers and other unions from around the world, it rushed donations to the nascent Solidarity. Cash was less important than items difficult or impossible to buy in Poland: office machines, printing supplies, minivans, copies of Robert's Rules of Order. Here at last was the international proletarian solidarity that Marx and Engels had dreamt about but failed to achieve—except that its purpose was not to bring about communism, but to abolish it.

Labor's militancy made the U.S. administration uneasy. President Carter sent Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, himself of Polish extraction, to plead with Kirkland to avoid actions that the USSR would find provocative. He may as well have been speaking to a stone wall. Walesa had appealed for international support, and nothing the U.S. government could say would dissuade Kirkland from providing it.

From Moscow, Pravda denounced U.S. labor activities, saying their aim was 'to inflict damage on the socialist gains of the Polish people, to try to push Poland off the road it took.' Sixteen months later, the Polish regime declared martial law. Solidarity was violently suppressed, and those of its leaders whom the regime could lay hands on were imprisoned. Anna Walentynowicz was sentenced to six years.

But the movement lived on underground, nurtured by the AFL-CIO. Thousands of books and hundreds of periodicals were published illegally and circulated throughout the country. Radio Solidarnosc, transmitting each time from a different rooftop, broadcast messages from leaders who had slipped through the dragnet. 'Flying universities' met from home to home discussing subjects banned from state classrooms. Polish civil society flourished, completely disdaining official ideology. The American labor pipeline continued to provide printing equipment, only now it was smuggled into the country, often broken down into parts stashed within packages of innocuous goods. In addition, funds were contributed for the relief of families of arrested activists and for bribing the managers of state printing houses to allow Solidarity publications to be run on their presses during the night.

This assistance, as well as labor's relentless pressure on the Reagan administration to maintain a hard line against the Warsaw regime, made the Solidarity stalwarts feel they were not alone. The endless games of cat and mouse with the authorities almost always ended in the apprehension of the activists. But according to Senator Zbigniew Romaszewski, who served a long sentence, as did his wife Zofia, for having founded Radio Solidarnosc, 'In the prisons and detention centers we always felt the support of the AFL-CIO, knowing that we were not forgotten.'

Despite many arrests and massive surveillance, the Polish regime found itself incapable of stamping out the resistance or regaining any measure of legitimacy. The endurance of the illegal Polish labor union caused an irreparable fissure in the stolid edifice of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet press agency, TASS, plaintively denounced 'interference in Poland's affairs,' but above all it was the Poles themselves whom the Kremlin did not want to see 'interfering.' Since this could not be said plainly, the Soviet spokesmen concentrated their fire on 'the reactionary US trade union organization AFL-CIO—the former empire of George Meany, the notorious anti-communist and reactionary, which is closely linked with the US military-industrial complex and the big monopolies.'

Such attacks were to no avail. By the end of the decade, Communist rule had collapsed in Poland, and then like dominoes the other regimes of the Warsaw Pact fell, too. When Kirkland died in 1999, the Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded him the nation's highest honor, the Order of White Eagle, for his patronage of Solidarity. Some cynics suggested that Kwasniewski, himself a former Communist, had the ulterior purpose of basking in the reflected glory of Kirkland's anticommunist heroism.