Anna Walentynowicz, who was killed in the plane crash last Saturday that also took the lives of Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, was one of history’s great unsung heroes.

Anna WalentynowiczHistory is full of unsung heroes, especially socialist history: the ‘ordinary’ men and women who whether through choice or circumstance become organisers, resisters, or freedom fighters.

In reality they are not ordinary at all, but most of the time their stories are not known, their part in history is anonymous or forgotten. If any record exists they are invariably modest and unassuming.about their part in the struggle. “I just did what had to be done, it was nothing special,” is what they say.

Anna Walentynowicz, who was killed in the plane crash last Saturday that also took the lives of Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, was just such a person.

Born in a part of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, she lost both her parents in World War II. From the age of 10 she worked as a maid. Eventually she settled in the Baltic city of Gdansk, where she found work in the shipyards, first as a welder later as a crane operator.

That was in 1950. Thirty years later her name was on front pages round the world, when her dismissal was the spark for the strike that changed her country forever and which began the political process that eventually led to the collapse of the dictatorship across Eastern Europe.

Anna Walentynowicz became a prominent figure in Solidarnosc, the independent union, and after martial law was imposed in December 1981 she was a key member of the underground movement which continued to defend workers’ rights and campaign for democracy. Constantly harassed and arrested by the secret police she refused to be intimidated and was one of those who maintained rank and file organisation when the movement was at a low ebb.

After the regime fell she continued to be a dissident. She had opposed compromise with the state in the old days; now she disagreed with Solidarnosc becoming part of government and distanced herself from her former comrades, notably Lech Walesa, who became president. Her agument was that the union had been built to defend the workers not run the country. There were also bitter personal arguments about who had or had not been secretly working with the secret police.

She could have been a celebrity in the new Poland – she appeared in four different films, including the memorable Man of Iron, directed by Andrzej Wajda, made at the height of the movement in 1981. In 2005 German director Volcker Schlondorff made a film about her life, entitled Strike. It was orginally going to be called The Forgotten Heroine. She didn’t like it.

She maintained a modest lifestyle in Gdansk and turned down prizes and offers of money. In 2005 she was still fighting for compensation for the harrassment she had suffered in the 1980s when she traveled to America to receive a medal on behalf of Solidarnosc from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, at the hands of George Bush.

American politicians such as Bush have set new standards when it comes to sickening hypocrisy.

On Saturday Bush’s friend and arch hypocrite Newt Gingrich urged people to “especially remember today the life of Anna Walentynowicz”

Gingrich’s disgusting career in politics (not to mention his private life) is in total contrast to everything Anna Walentynowicz worked for – from universal healthcare to ethical standards to union rights. So let’s do a bit of remembering.

When she first started work at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, 60 years ago, she joined the Polish Communist Party. Not, like some, because she saw it as a way of furthering her career, but because she believed in liberty, equality, social justice – and solidarity.

She was not just a member but an active member. She was a delegate to a conference of Young Communists in Berlin, where she was shocked to be told that party members should lie if convenient. It did not fit with her idea of morality (she was already a christian as well as a communist) and nor did the injustices which she experienced at work.

Her small size – she was nicknamed Ma≈Ça (Tiny) by her workmates – enabled her to work as a welder in the cramped and suffocating conditions inside a ship’s hull, but she noticed when it came to production bonuses the women were paid less than the men.

The demand for equal pay was her first experience of conflict with management and the party. There were to be many more over the years. Like others she was hugely disillusioned by the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the bloody repression of the Poznan uprising that same year when up to 100 workers were killed.

In 1968 the Polish thaw that followed the “Prague Spring” encouraged Walentynowicz and others to speak out against corruption in the state-controlled unions. They were sacked for their protests, although later reinstated. Two years later the Lenin shipyard suffered the same experience as the workers of Poznan, when strikes over huge increases in official food prices were drowned in blood.

The official death toll from Bloody Tuesday and its aftermath was 45, with more than 1,100 wounded, but it was those events of December 1970 more than any other which gave birth to the movement that became Solidarnosc.

Anna Walentynowicz and others, including Lech Walesa, formed the Free Trade Union Committee, publishing an underground newspaper called Robotnik Wybrzeża (Coastal Worker). They linked up with other groups of workers as well as the student and intellectual opposition in Warsaw that organised the so-called Flying University.

It was a secret organisation, but Walentynowicz never hid.

She was a constant thorn in the side of management and the official union collaborators, taking up every individual case that she could and denouncing corrupt practices such as the embezzlement of union funds. She seemed to be totally without fear, distributing leaflets to managers as well as workers. Every December, on the anniversary of Bloody Tuesday, it was Mała who placed flowers at the gates of the yard where her fellow workers were shot down.

Management did not dare sack her – she was a model worker, a “Hero of Socialist Labour”, and there were certainly some managers and party members who sympathised with her cause – but they went to amazing lengths to isolate her. As a crane operator she was working on her own anyway, but it became a disciplinary offence to speak to Walentynowicz – they even made her use a separate toilet so no one could talk to her privately.

When they did finally sack her – five months short of retirement – the response was extraordinary. All those years of stoic commitment to the cause, of standing up for what she believed in, produced a wave of real solidarity not only from those who knew her, but in a strike movement that was to sweep the land.

To the demand for reinstatement were added a call for pay increases and the right to an independent union. Within a week management had backed down – but not on the union issue. The movement could go forward, or it could retreat. Anna herself tells the story better than anyone else:

“Walesa declared an end to the strike… and the workers started leaving the shipyard…. The workers standing outside from the other factories protested:

‘You got your issues taken care of, but what about other people from other factories who were sacked? They will be lost!’

What could we do? How could we stop 16,000 people leaving through three different gates?

We ran to the gate and I shouted, ‘Let’s have a solidarity strike!’

Then Alina Pienkowka took action. She stood on top of some barrels, close to tears in a pink blouse, and she said:

‘We have to help the people from other factories because they won’t be able to defend themselves….’

Alina’s quiet voice stopped the masses of people. The gate was closed–then another. Six thousand people stayed in the shipyard. For me, only in that moment did the Polish August begin.”

She told the journalist from the New York Times:

“It is the lying and cheating the government does. The truth must be told to the people–that’s the main thing. We workers are much more sure of ourselves. In 1970 it was a shout of despair. We went into the streets calling ‘we want bread for our work.’ Today our demands are different. We are more humanitarian, more political.”

Anna Walentynowicz died as she lived. In fog and in fire. She was on her way, with the various dignitaries, to commemorate another massacre – at Katyn in 1940, where up to 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by the NKVD on the orders of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s henchman, shortly after an agreement between the NKVD and the Gestapo on combating the Polish resistance movement.

Stalin and his successors always blamed the Nazis for Katyn. The Nazis later made the massacre into a propaganda tool. In fact it was the result of a conspiracy of evil between two dictatorships intent on the carve-up of Poland and Eastern Europe and the murder of anyone who might get in their way.

Only in the last few years has the full truth emerged about Katyn, another of those cases of lying and cheating that Anna spent her life opposing.

On the official list of the dead in that crash at Smolensk she is number 79. It reads simply:

Walentynowicz Anna Рzałożycielka Wolnych Zwiazków Zawodowych

Anna Walentynowicz – founder Free Trade Unions