During the U.S.S.R.’s brutal communist dominance over Poland and much of Eastern Europe, an international human rights organization invited a representative of one of America’s leading cities to speak at their annual world conference, this year, 1988, it would be held in Krakow. The communist controlled government opposed the conference, but felt that there would be an intense public backlash and protest if they went forward to block the conference. Basic personal freedoms and liberties had been under intense attack from the communist controlled military.
I was chosen to represent the United States Conference of Mayors at the conference and deliver the keynote address. My son Eddie accompanied me and we were kept under surveillance by the Secret Police. But after I spoke, we were able to slip out of a small cellar door of the building where the conference was being held, to make a trip to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. The shipyard was the center of the anti-communist movement in Poland at the time and entry was blocked by armed Soviet troops. Anyone caught smuggling food, money or messages would be arrested, or shot. The striking Solidarity union workers were led by union electrician Lech Walesa, who organized economic boycotts throughout Poland, which caused havoc in much of Europe, especially in Russia. The striking union workers and the patriotic people of Poland were having a huge impact on helping end communism throughout the world.
When we arrived at the Lenin Shipyard, we were smuggled inside by a young woman driving a flatbed truck carrying medical equipment from the Red Cross. I was carrying a sizable amount of money that I had raised in Boston for the striking workers’ families. A photo of Walesa and myself talking to the workers soon appeared in newspapers across the world which meant that the Communist Secret Police would be actively looking for us. This was when I got the nickname, “The Lech Walesa of Boston politics.” A title I was proud of.
A few years later when I became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Pope John Paul II in introducing the new President of Poland Lech Walesa and me to those gathered, told everybody about that famous Labor Day weekend in Poland with the striking union workers. I was especially proud to also point out that it was also the courageous Longshoreman Union workers in Boston who also helped bring down ruthless communism by boycotting freight traffic from the Soviet countries coming into the Port of Boston. Yes, every Labor Day I think about that historic event and say a prayer for Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and all the men and women from organized labor who heroically defended basic human rights across the world, who not only helped defeat communism, but also raised strong patriotic families in America.
Labor Day is about thanking unsung heroes, the American worker. It’s your special day and well earned.
Ray Flynn is the former Mayor of Boston and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.