Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following price increases imposed by the government, Polish workers, especially at the shipyard in Gdańsk, went on strike and demanded the right to organize independent unions. The success of the strike dealt a significant blow to the Soviet regime.

Summary of Event

After World War II, Poland was incorporated into the Eastern Bloc and reorganized politically, socially, and economically on the model of the Soviet Union. The country was ruled by a Communist regime whose party apparatus allowed few human rights. Polish workers, in particular, believed that they did not possess the freedom and opportunities they ought to have. Although there were unions, they were controlled by the Communist government and were not independent. The workers felt helpless in the face of arbitrary government actions. Solidarity Labor strikes;Poland Labor unions;Solidarity Poland;Solidarity [kw]Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers (Aug., 1980) [kw]Striking Polish Workers, Solidarity Leads (Aug., 1980) [kw]Polish Workers, Solidarity Leads Striking (Aug., 1980) [kw]Workers, Solidarity Leads Striking Polish (Aug., 1980) Solidarity Labor strikes;Poland Labor unions;Solidarity Poland;Solidarity [g]Europe;Aug., 1980: Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers[04270] [g]Poland;Aug., 1980: Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers[04270] [c]Business and labor;Aug., 1980: Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers[04270] Wałęsa, Lech Jagielski, Mieczysław Gierek, Edward Walentynowicz, Anna Gwiazda, Andrzej Mazowiecki, Tadeusz Geremek, Bronisław Jaruzelski, Wojciech

In December, 1970, the government instituted drastic price increases for consumer goods, food, and fuel. This resulted in widespread protests and strikes in the Baltic cities of Szczecin, Gdynia, and Gdańsk, and hundreds of workers were killed. In 1976, following the arrest and prosecution of workers after protests against another set of price increases, several political dissidents and intellectuals established the Workers’ Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR).

The Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;Poland in Poland lent its support to KOR’s activities. Indeed, Poland’s two cardinals, Primate Stefan Wyszyński of Warsaw and Karol Wojtyła of Kraków, had been aggressively articulating the need for the state to respect human and civil rights ever since the late 1960’s. In 1978, Wojtyła was elected pope, taking the name John Paul II. John Paul II His first return to Poland as pope in 1979 nurtured a collective pride among Poles and awakened a new social strength based in a moral conviction that together, as a nation, they could make a new day for themselves.

In May, 1978, in Gdańsk, a small group of worker-activists who had been involved in the strikes of 1970 established the Baltic Committee for Free and Independent Trade Unions. The leaders included Lech Wałęsa and Andrzej Gwiazda. Because their action was illegal, they were forced to carry on their efforts in a clandestine manner. They requested and received help and advice from KOR. In September, 1979, a whole issue of their newspaper, Robotnik Wybrzeża (the worker on the coast), was titled “Charter of Workers’ Rights”; it called for better wages, shorter hours, improved safety conditions, merit-based promotions, abolition of police controls, and above all new, independent trade unions.

In December of 1979, the Committee for Free Trade Unions held an unofficial and illegal ceremony at the gates of the Lenin Shipyard to commemorate the anniversary of the shootings in 1970. In an eloquent speech, Wałęsa, who previously had worked at the shipyard as an electrician and had been fired in 1976 for his labor agitation, reminded a crowd of five thousand that none of the promises made in 1970 by the first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, Edward Gierek, had been honored. The workers’ only hope, he asserted, lay in an independent workers’ organization. By the end of 1979, there had developed the embryo of a tacit alliance of workers, intelligentsia, and church that was to grow into Solidarity.

In July, 1980, the government once again raised prices. Throughout Poland, strikes occurred 150 by the end of the first week in August. On August 14, workers in Gdańsk at the Lenin Shipyard organized an occupation strike, in which they seized control of their facility. They demanded the reinstatement of the popular Anna Walentynowicz, a political activist who had been fired the previous week, and a pay increase. Wałęsa decided that a crucial moment had come. He had friends boost him over the twelve-foot-high perimeter wall at the shipyard, and he confronted the director. “Remember me?” he shouted. “I’m here to tell you we don’t believe your lies anymore.”

Wałęsa quickly won the support of the workers. He arranged to have Walentynowicz join the group, and, with Gwiazda and others, he formed an Interfactory Strike Committee with other striking firms in the area. This committee quickly formulated a series of twenty-one demands and called for direct negotiations with the central government, rather than with the local authorities.

These demands included acceptance of free trade unions, independent of the party and employers; guarantees of the right to strike; respect for freedom of speech, print, and publication as guaranteed by the Polish constitution; restoration of rights to those who had been dismissed and those imprisoned for political beliefs, with a guarantee of no reprisals; publication of the strikers’ demands and the fact of the strike in the mass media; full social participation in resolving the socioeconomic crisis and in establishing a reform program; and a list of specific, material demands for workers in the area. By extension, these last demands struck at the heart of the social and economic inequalities built into the privileged structure of a Communist society. These seemingly modest demands collectively marked a milestone for human rights in the Soviet bloc.

The negotiator eventually sent from the regime in Warsaw was Mieczysław Jagielski, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, who arrived in Gdańsk on August 23. A spirit of discipline and devotion marked the occupied shipyard. One of the advisers from KOR, who had early come to Gdańsk, started a daily strike bulletin, calling it Solidarity, and the name was eventually applied to the whole movement. Other advisers came also, at Wałęsa’s request. There was a team headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a liberal Catholic journalist, that included Bronisław Geremek, a medieval historian. Their responsibilities were to advise the workers and to prevent them from being tricked by the regime while at the same time casting the workers’ demands in a form that the government could accept.

Lech Wałęsa.

(The Nobel Foundation)

The week of negotiations that followed Jagielski’s arrival was tense. The proceedings were broadcast on loudspeakers so that all in the shipyard could hear what was going on. In Warsaw, Gierek considered efforts to suppress the strikers. At one point, the Politburo of the Communist Party apparently voted to undertake military action. Mindful of the killings in 1970, however, Defense Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski responded that it was not possible to guarantee the loyalty of the army and that he was unwilling to send troops against the striking factories. On Saturday, August 30, Jagielski made overtures on behalf of the regime that seemed to indicate that a settlement was possible. Wałęsa and the strikers demanded, however, that the supporters of Solidarity from KOR who had been arrested in Warsaw be freed and given amnesty. Finally, on Sunday, the government gave in and agreed to all twenty-one points.

In a spontaneous statement, Wałęsa told the jubilant crowd, “We now have the most important thing of all . . . our independent, self-governing trades unions. We have fought, not for ourselves nor for our own interests, but for the entire country. We have fought for all of you. And now I declare this strike over.” There was applause from the assembled workers; outside, there were both cheers and tears. The formal signing ceremony for the Gdańsk Agreement Gdańsk Agreement (1980)[Gdansk Agreement] was filmed for television, to be shown later that evening to the whole nation. Wałęsa used a large plastic ballpoint pen decorated with a picture of the pope, which was a souvenir of the papal visit of 1979. The ceremony was followed by cheers, thanks to the advisers, and speeches from them. Then the gates to the shipyard were unlocked and the workers returned to their families for Sunday evening. As one British observer put it, “It was the end of the beginning.”

Significance

The success of the strikes in Poland and the creation of Solidarity had consequences throughout the East and West blocs. The Soviet Union was deeply disturbed that the position of the Communist Party in Poland was being undermined and in subsequent weeks threatened to intervene if the Polish situation was not stabilized. In the other countries of the Soviet bloc, party leaders were concerned that the “Polish bacillus” might spread and create unrest in their countries. In the West, the “Polish August” was hailed as a victory for workers against Communism. Union members and leaders alike regarded it as a success for labor, while government and religious leaders saw it as an event that had shaken the political foundations of Soviet communism.

All these views were, in one way or another, correct, but they obscured a more profound significance. The workers of Solidarity had not merely addressed immediate economic issues. They had raised their sights to the plane of human rights. They did not seek to gain some kind of class advantage. Rather, they wished to achieve social unity and break down the barriers that the regime had imposed and that, they believed, had divided the nation against itself. Solidarity was, therefore, not merely a labor movement. It was a movement for social purification and regeneration. Solidarity was, as the Polish Communist journalist and eventual Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski commented, “a profound revolution.”

In the short term, for the next fifteen months, Solidarity moved to consolidate its position within Polish society and ensure the exercise of the worker and human rights that had been granted in the Gdańsk Agreement. Censorship was loosened, the privileged position of the Communist Party and those whom it designated to hold public and private position was questioned, and Solidarity was extended into the countryside to include rural workers and farmers. By the middle of 1981, Solidarity had nearly ten million members in a nation with a total population of about thirty-five million. Perhaps most important, more information about the realities of Polish history and about social and economic problems was made available. People felt free to discuss openly, candidly, and in an informed way the issues confronting Poland.

Inevitably, this kind of discussion, in particular the question of authentic workers’ self-government in their enterprises, came to be regarded as an attack on the jobs, powers, and perquisites of the huge bureaucracy and the Communist ruling class. As a result, the regime attempted to suppress Solidarity. In the long term, however, Solidarity’s example was too powerful to repress. Within a decade, the movement had been revived. More than that, it became an example for similar movements in the Soviet bloc. Elsewhere in the region, political activists and human rights advocates such as Václav Havel (who met with Solidarity leaders in the mountains between Czechoslovakia and Poland) hailed the contribution of Solidarity. Within a decade after the creation of Solidarity, Communist restrictions on human rights had been removed in most of the countries of the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, with Poland’s peaceful transition to democracy leading the way and emboldening other countries to jettison years of repressive Communist rule. Solidarity Labor strikes;Poland Labor unions;Solidarity Poland;Solidarity

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ascherson, Neal. The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. British journalist who was a particularly close observer of the rise and subsequent fortunes of Solidarity provides good treatment of the historical background in Poland, including a fine analysis of the Gierek years. Chapter 5 focuses on the specific events of August, 1980, and one of the two appendixes provides the text of the Gdańsk Agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Mary. Lech Wałęsa and His Poland. New York: Continuum, 1987. Popular biography of Wałęsa to the end of 1984, first published in England in 1986 under the title The Crystal Spirit. Draws heavily on Garton Ash’s book, cited below, in describing the events of August, 1980, but has its own independent portrayal of Wałęsa. Sympathetic and sometimes uncritical toward its subject, but presents well the rush of events and the importance of individual personalities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dobbs, Michael, K. S. Karol, and Dessa Trevisan. Poland, Solidarity, Walesa. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Directed toward a popular audience, this book nevertheless has some shrewd insights into the personalities and events of 1980. There are numerous illustrations, and these are effective in presenting a sense of the reality of the strike. The chapter on Solidarity by Karol is very good at showing the interplay of views that lay behind the solidified front Solidarity presented to the regime in August.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eringer, Robert. Strike for Freedom! The Story of Lech Wałęsa and Polish Solidarity. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1982. A popular treatment by a journalist that focuses on the events of the summer of 1980 and the immediate aftermath. There is, however, a good general introduction to the historical background and Wałęsa biography. The illustrations are well chosen and helpful, and the numerous quotes from a variety of individuals give a good flavor of the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garton Ash, Timothy. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. One of the best books in English on the rise of Solidarity and the career until the middle of 1982 of Lech Wałęsa. The author was present in Gdańsk during the most crucial stages of the strikes, and he has a fine eye for detail. He knew Wałęsa and those around him well. The chronological section of this book is particularly dramatic, and the bibliography is excellent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacShane, Denis. Solidarity: Poland’s Independent Trade Union. Nottingham, England: Spokesman Press, 1981. Informative summary of events by an eyewitness does a good job of tracing the historical developments that led to Solidarity and identifying the most important events of the summer of 1980. Includes appendixes containing documents not readily available elsewhere in translation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ost, David. Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. Examines the evolution of postcommunist society in Eastern Europe and the changing role of Solidarity throughout the years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Persky, Stan, and Henry Flam, eds. The Solidarity Sourcebook. Vancouver, B.C.: New Star Books, 1982. Collection of crucial documents that trace the growth of political opposition in Poland, the rise of the free trade union movement, and the birth and subsequent history of Solidarity. Excellent translations make the documents particularly helpful for an understanding of the movement from the inside.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singer, Daniel. The Road to Gdańsk: Poland and the U.S.S.R. London: Monthly Review Press, 1981. Well-informed account by a journalist is one of the most detailed treatments of the events in the summer of 1980. Particularly good at showing the broad base of labor and social unrest in Poland during that period before turning to focus on the strikes in Gdańsk and other Baltic cities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wałęsa, Lech. A Way of Hope. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. Wałęsa’s own memoir provides his personal assessment of the situation in Poland, his role in the emergence of the free trade unions, and the creation of Solidarity. His style rough, direct, charismatic is evident throughout. Two of the thirteen chapters are devoted to the birth of free trade unions and the August strike.

Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity

Martial Law Ends in Poland

Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

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