Lech Walesa: 'My work here is done'

Lech Walensa

"My work here is done." Twenty-five years after leading Poland to its first democratic elections, that is the message of the former Polish solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

"I've done my job here, I fought with communism and now... democracy prevails," says the 71-year-old, who still lives in the picturesque town of Gdansk in northern Poland, home to the shipyards where he made his name leading the strikes that would eventually become the catalyst for the fall of Soviet communism.

"If somebody had told me [when I was younger] that I would be the leader to bring down communism... I never would have believed them. That is why I am the happiest man in the whole galaxy."

But Mr Walesa, who went on to be Poland's president as it transformed into a capitalist economy, is not entirely satisfied with the way things have worked out.

"Under communism everybody was equally poor and now some people - not necessarily the smartest - have wealth and most people don't have it."

Souvenir shop in Gdansk The souvenir shop at the famous Gate 2 shipyard in Gdansk

The historic shipyards where he worked are no longer the economic force they once were. The famous Gate 2 - centre of the solidarity strikes - is now a tourist attraction with a souvenir shop beside it. There is more activity further along the docks - but parts of it are an expansive wasteland.

As we arrive, the final touches are being made to a ship by workers at the Gdansk Shipyard Group Towers (GSG Towers).

Poland's path to a free market

After seven years and tens of millions pounds, it may be the last ship to be made from start to finish by this particular company, which went bankrupt in 1997 before being bought up by new investors the following year.

The shipyard was designed to make big ships that need big investments with big lead times, explains Adam Kowalski, vice-president as GSG Towers, and the market now is about small ships. In addition the global competition means that it is just not economically viable anymore.

"We have diversified into three businesses now - wind farms and turbines, offshore constructions such as oil and gas platforms and pieces of ships for bigger customers," he says.

A ship in Gdansk shipyard One of the few big ships still being built at the Gdansk shipyards

It's a thoroughly capitalist story of adapting to the market to survive, symbolic of Poland's transition from communism, and the way that it has embraced capitalism.

Start Quote

Quality was like a weather forecast - you just hoped everything would work out well.”

End Quote

Of all the former communist states, it has been the most economically successful. It has seen steady, uninterrupted growth and was the only EU country to avoid recession after the financial crisis.

At the other end of the country from the shipyards, in southern Poland lies the manufacturing plant of Fiat Poland - or FSM as it was known in its state-owned communist days.

When Fiat bought the company in 1992 it was one of the first major privatisations by a foreign investor post-communism. The Italian company streamlined the operation to turn it from a loss-making business into a highly efficient, profitable one with state-of-the-art technology.

Fiat poland in the 1930s Fiat's history in Poland dates back to 1921
Syrena car After World War Two Poland ended its contract with Fiat. During the communist era the state owned car firm FSM made the Syrena car
Fiat 126 made in the 1970s In a secret ceremony in 1965 Poland signed an agreement to make Fiat cars again
Fiat 500 The Fiat 500 is made in the Tychy plant in the south of Poland

FSM used to make lawnmowers, bikes, shaving equipment and even machetes for Cuba with which to cut sugar cane. Now the factory just makes cars - churning out 4,700 a week (with another plant making powertrains).

The workers at its plant in Tychy describe a complete transformation.

"The conditions were very different from the 70s... the level of hygiene is nothing to compared with conditions we have now, " says Jozef Filipiak.

"We used to joke that whoever was the least hygienic went further up in this company."

Indeed in the company's own handbook the former boss of FSM is quoted as saying: "Quality was like a weather forecast - you just hoped everything would work out well."

It goes on to say that FSM operated "like a confederation of 20 independent and spread out entities, each managed as a separate company, frequently competing against each other".

Fiat Poland workers Wojciech Checinski and Jozef Filipiak have both worked at this car plant since the 1970s

The workers who've been there since the communist days don't remember it all badly. One tells me about the cheap holidays the company used to provide for workers, in the Polish countryside or on the Black Sea, and another about the childcare facilities. There's a sense that while it may all be more modern now they've lost some of their security.

Their livelihoods depend on the success of the company - and they know from bitter experience that when the factory makes fewer cars, jobs will go.

"I remember in the 70s we had only a part of production and took no wider responsibility," says Wojciech Checinski. "Now if we don't make the car we have no money."

But for the moment the future at Fiat Poland looks bright. Production of the next generation Fiat 500 will be ramped up towards the end of next year and a new five-door version is expected to be built there in early 2016.

As Poland builds on its transition to capitalism - one man is watching the country especially carefully.

"I'm an old man and I'm thinking about the other life," says Lech Walesa.

"I will be watching from up there and looking at what you're doing down below."

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories


BBC Business Live

    06:50: Food producers' woes Radio 5 live

    It's like "removing nutrients from a plant," says Mr Swift of the squeeze on food producers. "Ultimately it will wither, and it may well die". He says the pressure on their profit margins leaves the firms "less able to deal with shocks." It is not the fixed prices for their goods that is hurting, he says, but the demand by supermarkets for suppliers to contribute to the cost of in-store advertising, promotions, or even refurbishment.

    06:41: Food producers' woes Radio 5 live

    Duncan Swift, who works for the accountants behind the food producers report, Moore Stephens - tells Wake Up to Money that the supermarkets are "removing the blanket" of money that allows food suppliers to pay their own suppliers, and to pay their staff a decent wage. It also means that food producers have no money to invest in new products, he says.

    06:39: Chinese interest rates

    China's leadership and central bank are ready to cut interest rates again and loosen lending restrictions, over concerns that falling prices could trigger a surge in debt defaults, business failures and job losses, according to a report from Reuters. The People's Bank of China is also open to the idea of cutting the banking industry's reserve requirement ratio (RRR), which effectively restricts the amount of money available to fund loans.

    06:24: Food producers' woes

    There's no doubt that customers are winning in the supermarkets' price war, which is pushing prices ever lower, but one industry is really feeling the pinch. A record number of small food suppliers are going out of business, according to a large accountancy firm, because big retailers are pressurising them to sell their wares more cheaply, which is eating into their profit margins.

    06:14: Lewis Hamilton Radio 5 live
    Lewis Hamilton

    Our colleagues at Wake Up to Money have managed to find a business-related Lewis Hamilton anecdote. Apparently, the double F1 world champion (as of this weekend), was once awarded with a dedicated parking space at his local Asda supermarket.

    06:03: Asian markets
    China central bank

    Asia's main markets are all up this morning, buoyed by Friday's unexpected rate cut by China's central bank, which has sparked hopes of more action to combat the country's slowing economy. The European Central Bank's vow to fight deflation has also brought cheer to investors. The Hang Seng is up almost 2% at 23,898.34 and the Shanghai Composite is up 2.2% at 2,541.54. The Nikkei is closed for a public holiday.

    06:01: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. As always you can get in touch via email to bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk and on Twitter @bbcbusiness.

    06:01: Joe Miller Business Reporter

    Morning. There's a lot of news around today, but lets start with the Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank - still 80% owned by the taxpayer - has apologised for repeatedly giving incorrect evidence to a parliamentary hearing. The evidence concerned its controversial Global Restructuring Group, which handles the bank's loans to companies considered to be a possible risk. It was accused of killing off viable businesses.



From BBC Capital


  • Suspension bridge connecting mountain peaksThe Travel Show Watch

    Must-see global events including walking the first suspension bridge to connect mountain peaks

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.