Stalowa Wola – symbol for workers yesterday and today

Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Bishop Edward Frankowski of Sandomierz.

Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis: – Your Excellency, the words ‘strike’ and ‘manifestation’ sound like the mottoes of the past disgraceful epoch, which is fortunately over. What meanings did they carry for you as Bishop and Shepherd? How do you morally evaluate all that happened in the 1980s?

Bishop Edward Frankowski: – In the 1980s I was not a bishop yet. I was a parish priest in Stalowa Wola. It was the time when the country was governed by the powerful communist authorities that decided about all things and aimed at making all things communist. Marxism and Leninism were their religion and consequently, they formed their hostile attitude towards the Church, her hierarchy and priests, towards all expressions of religious life. The biggest power that supported them was of course the Soviet Union, which according to the communist propaganda, was the foundation of peace and socialism. The power brought about fear, lack of freedom of speech and poverty, which was in contrast with the party privileges. That caused big tensions and then protests, first single ones, in small groups, and later to a bigger extent. In June 1976 in Stalowa Wola several workers were dismissed because they had participated in such a strike. From the 1950s there were attempts to build a new church in Stalowa Wola. However, the communists did their best to make it impossible. At that time one could win something when there was a political ‘thaw’ and that’s why, we were allowed to build the church. However, the construction of the church lasted three years and it was stopped for 10 years. People saw it as an evidence to infringe their rights by the communist system. Naturally, during those ten years, the communists tried to convince people not to think about the Church and to give up the construction of the church. Finally, on 4 November 1973 the Metropolitan of Krakow Cardinal Karol Wojtyla consecrated the Church of Our Lady, Queen of Poland in Stalowa Wola. That was a turning point in the atmosphere of depression, revolt, anger – great joy released from people who had their own consecrated church after many difficult years. For us this church is a symbol of struggle of the communist system against the Church and our victory. The Workers Union Solidarity drew its strength to aspire to free, sovereign Poland in this very church. This church played a role in the struggle for freedom, bread, jobs, all Christian values that were trampled down by the communists. According to the social teaching of the Church strikes mean breaking work by workers to force employers to improve their working conditions and social conditions of their lives. Vatican Council II speaks about it in the dogmatic constitution on the Church ‘Lumen gentium’ (68). When there are economic-social conflicts you should try to solve them peacefully. However, breaking work in order to defend your rights and meet their rightful workers’ demands can be indispensible although the ultimate means. The Church thinks that strikes are methods that can be allowed from the moral point of view although it should be used at a last resort. Common social and economical good, justice and social love, love of neighbour justify the use of strikes. Therefore, in appropriate conditions and proper boundaries strikes are permissible. Of course, according to the social teaching of the Church one cannot misuse strikes for political reasons. On 15 August 1980 the Holy Father John Paul II wrote in his telegram to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Poland’s Primate, ‘I pray that the Polish Bishops’ Conference with its Primate, looking at the One who is given to defend our nation, could again help people of this nation in its arduous efforts to earn living, social justice and securing their inviolable rights to their own lives and development.’ The Holy Father repeated those words when a delegation of ‘Solidarity’ arrived in Rome in January 1981. We know the twenty-one demands of the strikers – most of all, free independent trade unions, the right to strike, security for strikers, restore the dismissed to their jobs and restore the expelled students to university, undertake actions aiming at improving the crisis in the country. That was our concern for common good. The workers cared for the good of the nation more than the government and gave example of that concern. The communist authorities could use television, radio and press and society could only write mottoes of freedom on the walls. For instance, in Stalowa Wola the motto was, ‘Only solidarity and patience ensure us victory.’ And the motto at the offices of the communist party sounded, ‘Under the leadership of the party the government starves us.’ Naturally, there were underground press, leaflets and when the strikes began in Gdansk the same activities were undertaken in Stalowa Wola, too. It was in 1980 that I took all documents to register the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ in the Stalowa Wola Steelworks to the National Committee of ‘Solidarity’. Those people found shelter in our church and they received the help they needed then.

– Today Poles also keep saying: we are being harmed. Poland is being harmed because it was misled, because many matters were lost in the international forum: decisions were taken and they caused the fall of the Polish economy, banks and ownership – actually the Polish economy does not exist; we are not treated on the equal basis in the European Union, either. Today we can see the words ‘strike’, ‘manifestation’ again. Is there any similarity between the cries about human harm, poverty and slavery of the 1980s and the present cries in Stalowa Wola or Warsaw?

– There is a big similarity since workers of our steelworks feel that they made great effort to build and develop the steelworks and today they learn that its particular units are about to get bankrupt. Their concern is not only the pay, social conditions but also what is perhaps worse that people at working age are dismissed (and this is not their fault) only because the management of the steelworks and the government take wrong decisions. Those who are to be blamed for that are unpunished whereas the whole burden of transformations, in the wrong meaning, falls on workers. The social tension increases because on the one hand, the owners of firms form oligarchic capitalism, referring to liberal ideologists who persistently claim that some invisible hand will solve all economic problems and it turns out that a truly free market does not exist because powerful concerns have been created and they control the market. It seems that the state should intervene in the situation when the powerful concerns ‘eat up’ smaller or even medium companies, contemptuously speak about trade unions and their roles in the companies, about workers who want to create trade unions and even dismiss them. But the state does not intervene. The government justifies all its negligence, mistakes and even embezzlement by the economic crisis. In the meantime the material situation of workers and their families get worse; they face new cuts, dismissals and an increase in prices. Therefore, frustration becomes more evident and the conflict intensifies. We are appalled at such a careless attitude towards workers. We are surprised by the government’s decisions that have not been consulted and discussed. There is no common strategy against the problem – there is only contempt for trade activists, manipulated in the media, without any knowledge about the situation of Polish families. What counts is not the social and economic Polish interests but the interests of those who want to earn on this crisis as much as they can, including political interests in the election campaigns. In many ways you can see great injustice and harm that people are experiencing and that’s why they go out protesting and announcing strikes.

– As a master of fact, aren’t people themselves to be blamed for that? We had free elections. Whose fault is that Poles are afflicted today, lose their jobs and cannot make both ends meet, worry about their lots and future of their children? The world is rich and it seeks new and better solutions. Why is there so much despair, poverty and undernourishment? Whose fault is this?

– First of all, the government is to be blamed. Its fault is the biggest because they have means to run our economy, have proper politics which should serve the common good, the good of the nation. They should realise that to govern means to serve. We can see the inaptitude of the government from the very beginning of transformation. The so-called ‘thick line’ has done much harm when the government did not decide to introduce decommunisation and vetting and they threw the executioner and the victim into one bag. Those who did so much harm were not held responsible and at least they might have been removed from power as it was done in other countries. It was not the nation that took decisions but those who controlled the media. They used the media to manipulate society and to tell lies. The existing media were mainly secular, very much politicised, serving those in power or following their own interests of the International. The nation was deceived when it was discouraged not to vote in the referendum on property right. It was the only occasion to divide the properties earned by the sweat of people’s brows in such a way that everyone could have his/her own share and dividends so that one could start creating various small and medium businesses. It would have prevented terrible degradation that unemployment brings. It would have prevented cruel polarisation of society into the poor and the rich and would have given the possibility to create the middle class that could have the chance to combine their capital for the good of the nation. We could have had the chance to keep economic balance, which meant some hope for the nation. But our nation was deprived of that, was dispossessed whereas the nomenclature won and gained the properties that belonged to the nation. Apart from the inaptitude of the government there is another source of the present dissatisfaction, conflict, people’s anger; people know that they have been deceived. And it seems that the government wants what they aimed before – to have people separated, least organised and almost unable to decide about their fate of their homeland.

– So there is a big problem of manipulation, including manipulation in the media, in Poland, with its ideological, i.e. information, policy. Consequently, we have the feeling of big social injustice.

– That’s right. In the present situation what counts is not the truth but media shows. It seems that the thing is to draw citizens’ attention from the most fundamental matters and direct it to some secondary or tenth-rate matters, some sick, imaginary sensations. We lack social dialogue. There are no reliable, creative contacts, based on the truth, between the ruling political power, trade unions and society. Even such important matters as education and science are less and less discussed in the press, on television or the radio. They are almost unnoticed. Whereas matters unworthy to notice are constantly publicised. And this is the main reason for this situation in the country: our nation has been deprived of the truth and dignity. We can grow in freedom only when we get to know the truth, ‘You will know the truth and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). There is no freedom without the truth.

– Perhaps a few more words about the public media because we are facing an attempt on them…

– The public media focus on public matters, i.e. what is important for the whole society. They must look widely and seek the causes and ways to solve pressing public problems. Removing these media aims at giving the whole media market, including information, under control of the ruling party, i.e. de facto it serves only the government, their egoistic goals and even greater manipulation. It would be a real tragedy.

– The Church and ecclesiastical institutions try to deal with the issues concerning people’s poverty. Can the Church bring considerable relief?

– The Church makes big efforts, mainly through Caritas Polska and diocesan offices of Caritas. Our diocese of Sandomierz has a well developed network of Caritas. An example of its quick reaction to the needs of our community is the initiative of Archbishop Andrzej Dziega, the former Metropolitan, who established the so-called intervention fund for families who are in dramatic situations because of unemployment. The social work of the Church is worthy of the highest esteem. Even those who are far away from the Church must admit that the diocesan Caritas has undertaken more initiatives than before. Of course, one could always do more. The crisis to which all people refer nowadays has caused completely new situations. We will analyse them and think how to support people. Because of the dismissals in the Stalowa Wola steelworks, announced bankruptcy of many companies, we appealed for prayer for those dismissed workers, for help for those who could lose jobs and for the city. About 10,000 people took part in this prayer, which was the way of the Cross, which we did not expect at all. Nobody thought that so many people would gather at 6 p.m. and walk along the streets until 11 p.m. (5 hours); those crowds became even bigger with time. The Stations of the Cross were prepared by believers. They deeply experienced the prayer; they sang loudly. On could see that their prayers were powerful, heartfelt and were full of hope that the Blessed Virgin would help and Christ would be the King in the places where people were afraid of losing their jobs.

– Do you as bishop and shepherd see the need for priests to speak more about social matters, to give their opinions about the present situation in our country in public?

– This has been the tradition of the Church in Poland, followed by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and particular bishops, including Archbishop Ignacy Tokarczuk. But first of all, our wonderful Holy Father John Paul II led us. His numerous speeches about social matters are models for us. That’s why I think that this should be more frequent and stronger voice of the Church in her social teaching. And above all we must promote the knowledge of ‘The Compendium of the Catholic Social Teaching’ so that all people realize what their rights and duties are.

– We saw in Television Trwam how you met the workers from Stalowa Wola Steelworks. Don’t you think that we should promote such initiatives?

– We should combine such experiences. We should also revive the meetings of workers’ chaplains. This pastoral ministry has begun to wane. But it should be a constant practice of the Catholic Church, especially in Poland, having the model of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. His words and deeds are examples for us. Therefore, we should revive the pastoral ministry for people of labour. At the same time there should be articles on this topic in Catholic periodicals. We should speak about it more courageously and constructively. Naturally, priests should receive updated and detailed information about the whole situation in order to help effectively. The presence of the Church is extremely important in such situations since we know that there are no particularistic interests and telling lies but problems are solved in a reliable and honest way.

"Niedziela" 12/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: