Reflections on Wieliczka

by Tom Galvin


In my preparations for Episode 34 (Trist & Bamforth, 1951), I was reminded of a bus tour I took back in the summer of 2001 from Heidelberg, Germany to Krakow, Poland. Part of the tour included a guided visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mines (vee-LEECH-ka) located only a short drive from Krakow. The mines in Wieliczka were opened in the 13th century and produced table salt for almost 800 years until it was closed in 1996. With the end of the Cold War and increased tourism in Poland, While I had never visited a coal mine, the tour of the salt mines told me much about both the hardships of mining and the social fabric that bind miners together.

Salt mining is different than coal mining in some key respects (the rock is much softer and flowing water is seriously dangerous in a salt mine), but they have much environmentally in common. The mines are dark and cramped, much work is put into ensuring the mine’s safety and stability, and the hand-got methods used in Wieliczka resembled those described in the article – small teams working together on a short face.

But what made Wieliczka such a wonder was how the miners amused themselves – by taking the caverns they excavated and turning them into decorative rooms, complete with simulated tile flooring, beautiful statues and engraving in the ‘walls’, and (in some rooms) chandeliered lighting with full chandeliers constructed using salt crystals—created by dissolving the rock salt and forming them into a clear form of glass. The most famous of these rooms is the St. Kinga Chapel which includes electrically-lit chandeliers, a twenty-foot long engraving of the ‘Last Supper’ that closely resembles da Vinca’s famous painting, and a fully formed altar and pulpit. The miners also carved lots of statues, mostly religious figures but later ones were influenced by Marxism and desires for worker solidarity. I recalled the tour guide telling us that some workers took great risk in expressing their political views through the statues, and some were carved in secrecy.

What drove these miners to undertake such massive and glorious projects? This was the central question I asked myself when relating the Wieliczka story to Trist & Bamforth. It was clearly the social fabric that bound the miners together – mostly expressions of faith and unity that helped them endure the harsh environment. The upper levels had very simple rooms with crude statues, possibly due to both inexperience and natural erosion inside the mine. The sophistication and beauty increased as one got down to the middle levels where the cathedral and numerous other chapels and meeting rooms were formed. One could imagine how the impetus to create these works of art snowballed – some miners took initiative to overcome the dreariness of hard labor. As the mine was successful and the miners dug deeper, they experimented and tried new things. With each new chamber came an opportunity to try something new. And the cycle continued for centuries.

Trist & Bamforth described how the mechanization of the longwall method changed (some may say destroyed) the social fabric of the organization. I think it is useful to consider what they meant by social fabric. They included examples of how the workers bonded inside and outside the mine, such that their families would support each other in times of need. The new technology broke those ties and changed the relationships, leading to the loss of morale. Perhaps Wieliczka offers another perspective on social fabric, a freedom for members to express themselves and transcend the drudgery of the environment – perhaps not unlike the dedicated teachers at a school who put in the extra hours in service to their kids or the rare traffic cop who orchestrates busy intersections through a dance routine, rather than moving robotically when signaling the change in traffic flow.

Episode 35 will present our discussion of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This is a perfect segue from the discussion of a social fabric. With global knowledge of firms made possible by information technology, it is easier now than ever to judge organizations on the basis of their missions, purposes, processes, products and services, clientele, and other tangible factors. But what about an organization’s soul? Should it matter to we the consumers how firms, businesses, or governments treat their own members? How closely connected its members are? If one were to visit Wieliczka when it was still open and ventured deep down into the chapels, what would one think? My, how beautiful? Or My, how many excess workers are down here with all this time on their hands? Time for a right-sizing!

I would propose this – the soul of the organization is the degree to which it provides the will and abilities to promote the good in all its members and relationships. Saint Augustine might agree.

The above pictures are Tom's, taken with a very old digital camera. The first picture is a model of a miner and his horse showing that animals were originally used to help transport the salt. The second is an engraving from within St. Kinga's Cathedral


This blog post contains solely the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any agency of the U.S. Government.