At the turn of the 70’s and 80’s Poland falls in the growing chaos. For the government it is clear that without coal the economy will literally fall apart. Aiming at further increase in production a four-shift organization system was introduced in the mines which were to work all days of the month.

"We can sometimes hear that mining industry should work for only 5 days a week. This slogan is – unfortunately – given ear in some circles in the country. Because it is underpinned by demagogic rations, with the apparent concern for the man. It is good to be able to work less, but today we simply cannot afford it. And that's not what everyone wants to understand. Therefore let’s reverse the problem – who will openly admit that we do not need one billion dollars, which we obtain for coal, thanks to which it will be possible to purchase food, medicines, materials for making a thousand of market goods." – wrote the "Trybuna Ludu", the daily paper of the Communist Party.

Foreign currency income were always crucial to Polish economy then, especially in crisis situations, like the beginning of the 80's, because then nothing else than coal could give more foreign exchange income. The share of foreign exchange income from exports of coal ranged from several, up to twenty percent at that time. – Gentlemen, the situation in Poland depends on you. Stores are practically empty. The corn we have left is enough for only two weeks. If you are unable to conclude a barter contract (coal for corn), we will face unimaginable problems – it was what Jerzy Galemba, then assistant manager of foreign exchange section heard during a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Trade. It was already 1981. – Then I felt what the significance of coal essentially is. If there were no coal it would be difficult to imagine how the situation in the country would develop then.

The situation, however, was extraordinarily critical anyway. – People were also tired of four-shift system – says Roman Brudziński, the head of "Solidarity" in the mine Zofiówka. – They worked for six days in a row, even on Sundays and holidays, and then they had two days rest. A Sunday off work was once every seven weeks. And the miners are traditionalists attached to the Church. It hurt them that they could not go to Sunday services. They could complain to no-one, only the priest in the confessional.

And then something breaks in the people's minds, news from the Coast soon reach Silesia. It was August 1980, Henry Siaszkiewicz returned from vacation, from his beloved Łeba, full of energy and willingness to act. – It is difficult to describe in just a few words what was happening in Poland then. I got carried away by the Solidarity impulse, as the vast majority of "Węglokoks" workers – he recalls. Solidarity was joined by as much as 95 percent of staff, including the entire management, with the exception of the chief accountant. There was no other such foreign trade enterprise in Poland, in terms of the degree of participation in the Independent Unions.

– How to explain that? First, we were very integrated as staff, we thought alike. Secondly, our company was strongly associated with the mining industry, and it is the miners who were the main force of Solidarity in Silesia – Siaszkiewicz comments. Siaszkiewicz won the Presidency of the company "Solidarity" committee by the majority of votes. Company Committee, he recalls, was running its activities consistently and calmly. There were no conflicts with other organizations active in the Enterprise. Cooperation with the management wag going well and to the point. Most people working in "Węglokoks" admit that the staff of the company passed the democracy test in every respect. The time of "Solidarity" did not meant things like slackness, or too much sense of freedom to anyone. At the same time people who were on the opposite political sides, showed a lot of respect towards each other. The principle of mutuality was even in force. Those who belonged to the "Solidarity" supported people not belonging to the union between August 1980 and December 1981. And these later people protected the "Solidarity" people, after the martial law came.

The situation required extraordinary measures. In 1980, due to a general decline in production, exports of coal decreased by about 10 million tons compared to the record 1979 and amounted only 31 million tons. A year later it was a disaster – just 15 million tons. Such a sudden "outing "of the market almost caused panic among the importers. The situation was thriftily used by the U.S. producers. When Poland was in crisis an American trade mission stayed in Europe, and reaching out to traditional buyers of our coal, the mission urged them into the transition to imports of U.S. coal, arguing it with the situation in Poland. Information about these activities was passed on to Józef Stachoń, the Director of "Węglokoks" then, by foreign importers of Polish coal. Interestingly, the American mining industry in 1981, also experienced its own crisis, triggered by the miners' wage strikes. Americans, like the Poles, had to win the market back.

"We intend to win using our undoubted strengths and gradually return to markets, i.e., participate in the supply at the level similar to which we were at before the 1980. There is more than 250 million tons of coal in the world market. Locating our traditional 40–50 million tons should not be a big problem, of course, if we can win back a good name by proving to customers that we are in all respects a consistently reliable partner" – argued Antoni Karaś, the Under–Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Trade in the “Trybuna Ludu” pages. – I remember we worked like crazy, to export the coal where we could. And it worked. In 1984, we regained the losses by selling nearly 43 million tons – recalls Helmut Thielscher. But to sell coal well we had to be familiar with both the specificity of the market, and geopolitics. When Morocco ceased to import coal from South Africa because of the apartheid, we managed to get settled in that market with our resource. Polish coal was sold at one time even to South Africa. This also required considerable ingenuity of “Węglokoks” traders. Thielscher proudly mentions high–caloric blend of coal from Halemba and Wałbrzych.

– I came up with it for Spanish cement plants. The boys immediately fell in love with it. Within two years, we sold approximately 1,5 million tons of that coal at a very good price. For us it was a double profit, because neither coking plants nor power stations wanted this coal, and we got a better price than in a coking plant. Just then in Spain, in the 80’s there was a bull market in the cement. Spanish cement flooded the world and Polish coal was gaining the world slowly, we were selling it to places as distant as India, Morocco, Algeria and Iran.

– We were trading with those countries, because our governments signed agreements on trade exchange. We bought, say rice or cotton. The best Polish export commodity was coal, which was at the same time Polish best currency – says Thielscher, who travelled halfway around the world under the "Węglokoks" flag. Such fast and spectacular return to lost markets, resulted in the appearance of ratings conflicting with each other: from admiration to suspicion of selling coal for a song.

"The main factors which decided about that, apart from the increase in demand for coal, were technological and technical considerations regarding the equipment of our foreign customers. As you know, they were constructed with the parameters of Polish coal in mind, its hardness, caloric value, contamination, etc. Therefore, we were expected there and our return was welcomed, especially in such natural market for Poland as Europe" – director Stanislaw Zajac tried to convince the papers. But speculation didn’t disappear.

From a letter to the "Trybuna Robotnicza”: "Dear editorial stuff! I have read information about the conclusion of the contract for sale of 20 million tons of coal to Austria, which genuinely delights. However, nothing is written about the conditions under which the contract was concluded. Certainly not only I am wondering if it isn’t the next of unfortunate long-term contracts, where all is taken into consideration but the coal price rises, when it becomes more expensive on world markets. I know that there are specialists, but I – an average miner – would like to know how our hard work is being sold. I also understand that we need foreign exchange to pay back the debts, but please believe me that when I read about the export of electricity, while at home I have voltage much lower than the standard, then I am sick and tired of it all."

The letter goes from the editorial staff of "TR" to "Węglokoks." The reader receives a polite answer: "We want to clarify that the bulk of transactions in the primary fuel and resources on the world market is made by way of long-term contracts. This is beneficial both for the seller, which provides a stable market for its production, as well as for the buyer, who protects itself against the demand for fuel for long periods. The conclusion of the contract shall not prejudice the long-term price, which is fixed for short periods of time, usually half a year, based on the level of fuel prices on the world market. We hope that this information will satisfy your interest in this matter." Kazimierz Mleczko, chief coal trade specialist ensures that he would have never agreed to sell coal below its value. Besides, he did not have to. – Polish coal had a good name, especially in the German market. It was like a Mercedes among cars. Importers fought to sneak into our favour – he says. – The price was calculated carefully. We had detailed information on the price for which Americans, Australians, South Africa are selling. We decided the price of coal on a par with the U.S., slightly higher than South Africa, which just entered the market and was selling cheaper.

West Berlin, where we delivered 300 thousand tons of coal, mainly to the local power station was a gem. Always at the best price, because it was coal from the Ruhr area that was directed to West Berlin – very expensive – and our was not worse, so we tried to keep the price. I succeeded. Only once one of the directors of the power station broke our contract. They bought for about 60 mark per ton, and suddenly they ordered to lower the price for 20 marks. Because everywhere in the world it fell. They had no rights, the contract was signed, but in the end they forced the reduction. Two years later the situation was reversed, and then we forced West Berlin power station to accept a higher price. We invoked the precedent two years before. We had the moral right to it.

Go to next article >>