Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pauses for a photo with former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa during a meeting at Artus Court in Gdansk on July 30.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pauses for a photo with former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa during a meeting at Artus Court in Gdansk on July 30. Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
John Nichols is a Washington correspondent at The Nation.
Mitt Romney jetted into Poland Monday, as part of a push to win Polish-American votes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and other battleground states. And how does an American presidential candidate "do" Poland? By posing for photos with Lech Walesa, the former Polish president who — like Ronald Reagan — was once a union leader.
But don't think that the grip-and-grin session with Walesa signaled that Romney, who has run a militantly anti-union campaign (even airing television commercials that promote so-called "right-to-work" laws and assaults on public employees), is moving toward a more mainstream stance as regards the rights of labor. Walesa long ago abandoned the union movement for politics, and like Reagan he's tended toward the right side of the political spectrum.
Needless to say, Romney did not celebrate Walesa as a militant trade unionist; nor did the presumptive Republican presidential nominee recognize the connection — as Reagan once did — between powerful independent labor organizations and global struggles for freedom and democracy.
So what do the heirs to the Polish labor activism of the 1980s say? What do the hundreds of thousands of activists who maintain the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) union as a major force in today's Poland say?
"Solidarnosc is in no way involved in the organization of this meeting nor had the initiative to invite Mitt Romney to Poland," the 700,000-member union announced Monday.
"Regretfully," added Solidarnosc international department head Andrzej Adamczyk, "we have learned from our friends in the American trade union central AFL-CIO representing over 12 million workers about Mitt Romney's support for the attacks against trade unions and labor rights. In this respect, I wish to express...our solidarity with American workers and trade unions. [Solidarity] will always support the AFL-CIO in their struggle for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively."
Solidarity has been outspoken in its support of recent labor struggles in the United States, signaling clear opposition to the anti-collective bargaining position adopted by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and other Romney allies.
When hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin workers filled the streets and occupied the state Capitol to protest Walker's agenda, a letter from Solidarity was published in a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The ad read:
To Public Service Workers in the State of Wisconsin:
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
On behalf of the 700,000 members of the Polish Trade Union NSZZ "Solidarnosc" (Solidarity) I wish to express our solidarity and support for your struggle against the recent assault on trade unions and trade union rights unleashed by Governor Scott Walker.
We are witnessing yet another attempt of transferring the costs of the economic crisis and of the failed financial policies to working people and their families. As much as some adjustments are necessary, we can not and must not agree that the austerity measures are synonymous with union-busting practices, the elimination of bargaining rights and the reduction of social benefits and wages.
Dear friends, please rest assured that our thoughts are with you during your protest, as we truly do hope that your just fight for decent working and living conditions, for the workers' rights will be successful.
Your victory is our victory as well.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put the pieces together with a stinging rebuke of Romney.
"The story of the Polish resistance is one of a country gaining strength from bottom-up organizing on behalf of the whole country," said Trumka. "I wish Romney would pause and learn the lessons of the Polish labor movement's courageous resistance to communism rather than just treat Poland as yet another photo op. Romney needs to step back and reject the George W. Bush/Bain Capital model of top down economics and recognize that we are all stronger when we stand together."