GDANSK, Poland (Reuters) - Solidarity, the trade union movement which led the Polish struggle against communist rule, distanced itself on Monday from a visit to Poland by U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, saying he supported attacks on unions in his own country.
Romney was in Poland on the third and final leg of a tour aimed at burnishing his foreign policy credentials and demonstrating that he would be a viable alternative to President Barack Obama on the world stage.
Romney visited the Baltic port of Gdansk, cradle of Solidarity which toppled Poland’s communist government in the late 1980s, where he met Lech Walesa, the shipyard electrician who led the union movement during the struggle seen as the start of the end of Soviet domination of eastern Europe.
“Regretfully, we were informed by our friends from the American headquarters of (trade union federation) AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million employees ... that Mitt Romney supported attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights,” Solidarity said in a statement.
“Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney’s meeting with Walesa and did not invite him to visit Poland.”
Romney has in the past complained about “union bosses” who he said have donated large sums of money to Obama’s re-election campaign.
Romney is trying to avoid any further missteps after gaffes during the first leg of his tour, in Britain, generated negative newspaper headlines and criticism even from some of his own supporters. He came to Poland from Israel, his second stop.
In Gdansk, Romney, who has called Poland’s neighbor Russia the top “geopolitical foe” of the United States, tried to show that if elected president he would be a stronger ally to Moscow-wary Poland than Obama.
The White House incumbent angered some Poles by making conciliatory moves aimed at “re-setting” strained ties with the Kremlin. Walesa, who was Polish president for five years in the 1990s, effectively endorsed Romney at their meeting.
“I wish you to be successful because this success is needed for the United States of course, but for Europe and the rest of the world too. Governor Romney, get your success. Be successful,” Walesa said.
Walesa ended his association with the Solidarity movement several years ago following disputes over policy.
Romney, a former governor of the U.S. state of Massachusetts, also had a 45-minute meeting at the Gdansk Old Town Hall with Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Later, with his wife and son, Romney placed flowers at the foot of a memorial to trade union activists killed by the Moscow-backed communist authorities. There, Romney got a taste of divided opinion about his candidacy.
“Good luck Mr. Romney,” a male onlooker shouted as the Romneys walked back to their motorcade.
“Obama,” a woman shouted.
“No, no more Obama,” a man shouted.
“Obama,” the woman insisted.
On Tuesday, the final day of his week-long foreign tour, Romney is to give a speech in the capital, Warsaw, on liberty and Washington’s ties with Poland.
“The relationship that our countries have is very important and it would be a high priority in a Romney administration,” said a senior Romney campaign adviser.
However, it may prove difficult in Poland for Romney to draw a sharp contrast with his Democratic rival in the presidential election because Polish leaders enjoy fairly strong ties with the Obama White House.
Solidarity is still known abroad because of its historic role in the collapse of Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. At home, it is now closely linked with Poland’s biggest opposition party, which promotes conservative social values.
Additional reporting by Chris Borowski in Gdansk; Writing by Christian Lowe and Steve Holland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy