Brought to you as part of Inspirational Women Wednesday, a weekly meme hosted by Aine over at THE EVOLVING SPIRIT, I dedicate this post to our good friend Urszula and all the wonderful Polish women I met during our exchange visits there.
August 1929 - April 2010.
Anna Walentynowicz, who died, aged 80, in the recent air crash that killed so many of the Polish leadership past and present, was "in a way, the godmother of the SOLIDARITY trade union", according to the major of Gdansk. But she was more than that: a tireless activist in the union's cause, arguing feistily face-to-face with all comers, even the national leadership.
Born in the city of Równe (now Rivne, Ukraine), and orphaned during the second world war, she became a communist party member after she started working at the Lenin shipyard in 1950, first as a welder and, later, a crane driver.
For a while, she was a model worker, but she rebelled when she encountered what she saw as corruption or any move against free speech, to the point of leaving the party. Indeed, her disillusion sharpened her resolve to distribute the underground newspaper Robotnik Wybrzeza (the Coastal Worker) to as many people as she could, including communist activists.
In the 1970s, she began to help set up independent trade unions, making no secret of her opinion that the political leadership of Poland was doing little to improve workers' rights, freedom of speech or the social or political lives of ordinary people. The authorities were nonplussed by such behaviour, at one stage declaring that she had lost her mind. Meanwhile, she was quoted as saying that she felt free to take such risks because she was a widow and her son was in the military. It came as no surprise to those who knew her well when, in August 1980, not long before she was due to retire from the shipyard, she was sacked.
The angry and largely spontaneous reaction of her fellow workers made history - their response to stage a strike and occupy the plant.
Within a few hours, a strike committee had been elected, and a list of demands had been tabled, including better pay and conditions as well as Walentynowicz's wishes for free trade union rights and an end to censorship of the local press. Within a matter of weeks, there were strikes in shipyards, involving roughly 1 million workers, all along the Baltic coast. Thus, Solidarity came into being, with Walentynowicz a key activist until 1991 when she finally retired from the ship yards.
In 2000, she turned down an invitation to become an honorary citizen of Gdansk, though in 2005 she went to Washington to accept, on behalf of the union, the Truman-Reagan Medal Of Fredom from the VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM MEMORIAL FUND.
Walentynowicz appeared in a clutch of documentaries and played herself in the Polish drama MAN OF IRON (1981). Her activism also provided the inspiration for a 2006 German/Polish movie, STRIKE.
READ MORE about Anna.