THE BLOG
08/27/2015 03:55 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2016

From Solidarity to Business

When I met with Mariusz Ambroziak in 1993, he was secretary for the Solidarity trade union in the Mazowsze area around Warsaw. He'd been a Solidarity activist for most of his life, starting out as a young worker involved in the famous Solidarity chapter at the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw.

But by 1993, he was having difficulties getting up in the morning and going to work. It took two alarm clocks, he confessed to me, to get him roused out of bed. The union was shrinking in membership, and it just didn't have the resources to help people. Moreover, its reputation was taking a beating. "The union," Ambroziak pointed out, "is paying today with its name because under the banner of Solidarity the entire economic reform was undertaken."

As it turned out, Ambroziak didn't stay much longer with Solidarity.

"I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993," he told me when I caught up with him in Warsaw in August 2013. "That's when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally."

Today, Ambroziak is involved in a variety of businesses and charitable activities. He keeps in touch with his colleagues from the old days. But they've become trade union professionals working a job, no longer inspired by a mission.

"When I look at Solidarity today it's as if time has stopped," he told me. "Sometimes I go to the Mazowsze regional office, after five, 10, 15 years. I meet with the same people, only they're older. It's apparent that the organization has not been revitalized, that there's been no internal changes. But perhaps there's nowhere to change to? Because all the time there's the same group of members, since there's nowhere to get young leaders."

Many of the workplaces where Solidarity was so strong - the shipyards, the mines - are no more. Even the Ursus tractor factory has disappeared. "We also as activists often asked the question, 'Where are all the enterprises where we all fought together?'" Ambroziak said. "And that's a difficult question. Of course after 1989 several million firms were created in Poland, but that one doesn't exist any more. And it had been around in Poland for 100 years. It was a very valued firm before the war in Poland. The key mistakes in this matter were in 1990 and 1991. Maybe there would have been not 20,000 workers at a restructured Ursus but maybe 5,000 or 3,000. Still, the brand, the tradition, the history, all that potential could have continued until this day."

He believes that unions still play an important role in Poland and will do so in the future. But he also believes that Poland needs a "business-oriented administration."

He told me, "I have to say that I am satisfied with the way my family and friends accommodated themselves in capitalism. The overwhelming majority has their own businesses. Some of them are more successful, some of them less, but the overall result is definitely positive. That is why I believe we need a business-oriented administration that would serve as a helping hand for the business sector. The current state institutions either don't understand the way the business is conducted nowadays or they approach it in too administrative or rigid a way. The bureaucracy is overdeveloped. Every issue is now being solved by new regulations. It's completely different than at the beginning of the 1990s. The state administration does not see entrepreneurs as people creating value. Instead their initiatives are perceived as suspicious. This is absolutely wrong."

We also talked about privatization, decentralization, and the meaning of active citizenship.

The Interview

At the moment, you are working in a private office. What does that mean?

I'm working now in the insurance and building industry. In the insurance industry, I'm an insurance broker, and in the building industry I help manage projects under the name IDS. That's a rather large construction firm in Warsaw.

When we talked 22 years later, you were...

I was then the secretary of Solidarity in the Mazowsze region in Warsaw. I think we met on Alej Ujazdowskij, near the American embassy.

Yes, that's right. And how long did you work there?

I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993. That's when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally. But I didn't resign from public or social activities. I remain active until today in the civic sphere. Over the last 20 years, I've been connected to dozens of different associations and foundations. The majority of those foundations are active in very different spheres: social, charitable, political, civic, local. It's my passion to help organize civic life in this way, through such associations.

How did you first become involved with Solidarity and the opposition in general?

I come from a small town about 100 kilometers outside of Warsaw. At the time, that seemed to me very far away. Today I know it really isn't. I came here to attend middle school in Warsaw, in Ursus, where my brother was working. I was on the professional trade track at Ursus, at the tractor factory there. It was winter 1985, and I was 15 years old. I was part of a group of young people who announced a work stoppage. There were 10 or 15 of us, and we thought of ourselves as demonstrators. But it was just a mess.

That's when an underground Solidarity activist approached me, Marek Jarosinski. I was able to watch what he was doing, and we started to cooperate. He was older than me by eight years and had already worked several years at the factory. And he asked me to cooperate, and we began actions together.

My brother already worked in the tractor factory at Ursus before 1980. He was one of the first people who introduced me to the history of the opposition when I was still a child. That's how the first newspapers and leaflets appeared in our home. He wasn't involved in an active manner. He'd talk about it, but it was more just a way of building awareness. Plus, of course, in many Polish homes there was Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and so on. That was standard. But for a kid like me, who was 11 years old in 1980, it was already enough. This atmosphere remained in my head, along with a family that provided me the historical background. No more was necessary.

And during Martial Law?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.