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Fredonia Shakespeare Club hears paper: Lech Walesa

Lucy Richardson

The tenth meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club was held on Jan. 9, hosted by Mary Jane Walker. President Lucille Richardson welcomed 12 members.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the Dec. 12 meeting. The minutes were as written.

The Club’s area of study this year is Nobel Prize Winners. President Richardson read her paper “Nobel Peace Prize 1983 “ which is summarized as follows:

It was by no accident of chance that Lech Walesa was accorded the international community’s most prestigious honor, winning out over 79 other nominees. In reviewing the factors that led to his selection. Richardson provided a comprehensive perspective of that critical time period in Eastern Europe (1970-1983) prior to his selection.

In viewing the primary reasons for his Nobel prize award, we are struck by Walesa’s ‘stunning capacity for leadership, one that would result not only in his having founded and provided the long term leadership of the first independent labor union “Solidarity” behind the “Iron Curtain,” (he would subsequently succeed to the presidency of Poland from 1990-1995) but his leadership of this labor union, such an inspiring example to other countries under Soviet domination, would prove to be TRANSFORMATIONAL. It would be responsible for an unprecedented nation-wide working class movement, a revolution which drew from all skilled professions, one involving virtually 1/3 of the working population of Poland. In its prolonged efforts for economic, social and governmental reforms, it led not only to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (in 1991 with Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power), but to its transition to democracy.

In the course of her detailed discussion of the “Historical Timeline of the Evolution and Founding of “Solidarity,” presented to all members in hand-out form, Richardson highlighted not only his role in almost every aspect of Poland’s union activism, his having been a delegate to if not the chairman of the many Workers” Committees or Councils that were established to progressively increase their rights, but she also emphasized the strategies that Walesa used to accomplish these goals, their being consistently based upon negotiation and non-violent resistance. They were just those that were required of any Nobel Peace Prize candidacy, having consisted of peaceful resistance in the form of strikes — those that could not fail to get the full attention of the authorities.

As strike after strike took place after the bloody government crack-down in the Gdansk shipyards in 1970 — demonstrations that were instigated against flagrantly abusive working conditions — what followed consisted of a periodic series of high level negotiations with the communist authorities. It amounted to an almost continuous “battle of wills,” a strategy of BRINKSMANSHIP with each side assessing just how far it could go without losing control — the type of risk vs. reward strategies that could have the most unintended consequences. Although some progress had been made in regard to workers’ economic, legal, and human rights (gaining leverage due to strike activity), the government all too often did not negotiate in good faith and reneged on its promises . . . Offended by this gross lack of transparency, Walesa, at great risk to his economic well-being in contesting them — but true to his strength of character — was therefore fired (duplicating that which had already occurred on two previous occasions). During this intervening period, Walesa found himself not only under constant surveillance but periodic 48-hour arrest.

As tensions reached a high point in 1980 with a broad range of massive protests and demonstrations, Walesa was instrumental in negotiating the “Gdansk Accords” with the government in August of that year — thus officially signaling the founding of “Solidarity,” an autonomous union with a nation-wide governing body. Elected president of this ground-breaking organization and emboldened by its progress, Walesa then agitated for additional much needed labor reform. Sensing a break-through, he continued to seek further negotiations that would assure free general elections on a local and national level and greater personal freedoms.

The communist government, in sensing that it was in the process of losing control, invented a conspiracy theory — namely that Solidarity militants were seeking to overthrow the government. Believing that it now had no other choice, it imposed “martial law” in December 1981. All of Solidarity’s leadership were arrested including Walesa. After having served an 11 month sentence, he was released in November 1982 . . .

From that point onward, the communist government, finding itself in great duress due to a severe economic downturn and with its power consequently much diminished, lifted martial law, allowed Walesa to resume his employment at the Gdansk shipyards and it subsequently reinstated “Solidarity.”

The crowning glory of this entire effort to assure human rights (accompanied by its long term cost in a national upheaval that began in 1970) was reflected in the election of the movement’s indispensable, charismatic leader, Lech Walesa, to this most esteemed international organization.

Karin Cockman assisted at the tea table.

The next meeting of the Club will be hosted by Barbara Albert when Judi Lutz-Woods will read her paper Nobel Peace Prize 1946.

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