Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, is now symbol of decline One-time center of protest is on verge of bankruptcy


GDANSK, Poland -- Under the Communists, this city and its shipyard served as the fulcrum of opposition, the center of defiance. Now the city thrives, but the shipyard is on the verge of bankruptcy and stands, dispirited, as an emblem of decline.

In the coming months, at least 2,000 employees will be laid off, and half of the sprawling site of antiquated cranes, dank workshops and shaky overhead bridges will be closed.

As workers poured out of the iron gates and the weak spring sun glinted off the Solidarity monument of three tall steel crosses hung with three steel ship anchors, the mood was of worn resignation.

Everybody seemed to know that the romantic tradition of Solidarity, the workers' movement that brought down the Communists, had clashed for too long with economic reality.

Crunch time came at the shipyard in the middle of this month when its biggest creditor, the state-run Bank Handlowy, refused to enter into debt reduction talks. The shipyard owes the bank about $90 million and carries a total debt of about $160 million.

In contrast to the dismal record in Gdansk, the Szczecin shipyard 150 miles to the west has flourished in the last five years.

There, decisive management transferred ownership of the yard to a private consortium and laid off redundant workers.

Impressive productivity gains and streamlined ship designs pushed the Szczecin yard to the forefront of the international shipbuilding market. Its order books are filled into the next century, and it is Poland's biggest export earner.

At Gdansk, it takes six months to build the kind of ship that takes only two months at Szczecin. Even though the shipyard's most famous worker, Lech Walesa, became president on a platform of market reform, socialist management methods prevailed at Gdansk.

The yard emphasized output. Many different kinds of ships -- from trawlers to ferries to container ships -- were produced, complicating production schedules.

In addition, workers' wages were initially increased when salaries elsewhere in the country were on hold.

The shipyard immediately fell into debt and was saved two years ago only by the government's guaranteeing its creditors. Now, cash is so short that it is not clear whether next month's wages can be paid, the privatization minister said.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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