Poland’s Solidarity [Solidarnosc] labor union was nothing less than Revolutionary, the 1st crack in the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, leading to its ultimate demise. Since the mid-1970s, Poland’s Communist economy was spiraling downward — production had plummeted, wages stagnated, and shortages were everywhere. In 1979, the new Polish Pope John Paul II famously visited Warsaw, delivering a veiled message to the people:
“Be not afraid!” (to rise up)Pope John Paul II, 1980
In the summer of 1980, the Communist Party announced yet another increase in food prices. So on August 14th at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, around 17,000 workers occupied the shipyard and went on strike. Their labor leader, Lech Walesa, had narrowly avoided arrest by the secret police. He managed to scale the shipyard fence and join his co-workers. Walesa was a man of the people, a burly, mustached, natural leader involved in the labor movement for a decade.
Soon, workers in 20 other area factories joined the strike in solidarity. On August 17th, the Gdansk Strike Committee, drew up a list of 21 Postulates (demands), which they posted on the shipyard gates. They included the right to strike, reduced censorship, and freedom for political prisoners. At the top, they demanded FREE TRADE UNIONS, independent from the Communist Party. There was tremendous excitement and electricity in the air.
Polish leaders turned to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev for council. Brezhnev wanted a solution rather than force. Having recently invaded Afghanistan, he did not want to supply Soviet military. So, Polish leaders reluctantly opened negotiations with Walesa and the strikers.
This resulted 14 days later in the GDANSK AGREEMENT of August 31st. A triumphant Walesa appeared before the workers in the shipyard with an historic message:
“We have an independent, self-governing trade union! We have the right to strike!”Labor Leader Lech Walesa
On September 17th, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was formed, the first since the WWII. However, Solidarity’s remit was clearly defined by the Communist Party such that “these new unions may defend the social and material interest of the workers, BUT NOT play the role of a political party.”
Solidarity was the beginning of a social revolution across Eastern Europe. The people emerged transformed. Solidarity created a sense of hope and confidence in conflict. The union grew rapidly, peaking at almost 10 million members in 9 months, about 70% of all workers and a third of the total population!
The failure of the Communists meant that Solidarity was a threat. As months passed, it became clear that improvement would not be possible without political restructuring. Feeling emboldened, Solidarity adopted a politicized stance and began agitating for a nationwide strike and more.
On October 16th, 1981, Solidarity published an Official Programme, with a new combination of economic AND political aims, containing increasingly Revolutionary rhetoric. The programme attacked the failures of the Communist Party, referring to Solidarity as “The moral rebirth of the people” stating that:
“There is no bread without freedom. We have united for the right to determine the aspirations of our nation!”Solidarity programme
The Communist Party began to lose its hold over public opinion. The Communists responded with a blisteringly negative propaganda campaign, discrediting Lech Walesa and Solidarity’s leader as anarchists and opportunists out to fill their own pockets.
The growing popularity of Solidarity also elicited concern from Moscow. In Russia, the Soviet masters were growing increasingly concerned. In 1981, the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s Cold War counterpart) issued a statement stating fraternal solidarity with Poland’s communist leaders in overcoming the country’s “difficulties.”
On October 18th, General Wojcech Jaruzelski a stern hardliner was appointed as Poland’s new leader. He was given a clear mandate by the Kremlin to suppress Solidarity. On December 13th, Jaruzelski declared Martial Law and army tanks rolled onto the streets of Polish cities. He addressed the people on television:
“Our country stands on the edge of an abyss. A national catastrophe is no longer days away, but hours. We have to say: That is enough!”General Wojcech Jaruzelski
Solidarity was outlawed, its leaders arrested and its supporters repressed. Over 1700 Solidarity leaders were imprisoned, including Lech Walesa. 800,000 lost their jobs. Walesa spent a year in a Communist prison. When released, he was under constant watch by the Communist secret police for the next 7 years. Martial Law would remain in force in Poland for another 2 years until July 1983.
Although Solidarity was outlawed, the movement survived underground. Networks illegally distributed anti-communist newspapers, leaflets, and posters. In April 1982, Radio Solidarity began illegal broadcasts. Solidarity promoted civil resistance, continued their fight for workers’ rights and pushed for political change. And it never wavered from one its key principles — a Gandhi-like nonviolence.
Solidarity’s efforts were aided by financial help from American trade unions, as well as constant moral support from Pope John Paul II. The pope returned to Poland in 1983 meeting with both General Jaruzelski AND Lech Walesa, making international headlines. The deeply religious Walesa fell to his knees in prayer at the first sight of the pope, and had to be coaxed to stand.
This strategic alliance with the Catholic Church, lent a powerful legitimacy. Solidarity enjoyed considerable support internationally. Lech Walesa was even awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. He sent his wife and children to collect the award in Norway, fearing General Jaruzelski wouldn’t allow him back in the country.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet Premier and began a more reformist agenda in Eastern Europe. Moral support came from President Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, which refused to grant debt-ridden Communist Poland economic aid until it legalized Solidarity.
By 1988, the Communist Party was finally ready to negotiate.
They had little choice: rationing had been in place for most of the decade. Solidarity was simply too big and too broad to either repress or ignore. In early 1989, the 2 sides signed a 400-page agreement on sweeping political and economic reforms that officially recognized Solidarity again.
Its membership quickly increased to 1.5 million. In June 1989, in the first free elections took place in Polska since 1945. Solidarity was the main opposition to the Communists, sweeping to victory, winning all contested seats in the Polish Parliament. In August, a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed. None other than Lech Wałęsa was elected President. Of course, Solidarity now faced a new challenge: dismantling Communism and overseeing Poland’s transformation into a modern, democratic state.
Three months later, the West and East German people also rose up, and the infamous Berlin Wall finally came crumbling down. Communist Hungary and Czechoslovakia had similar, soft revolutions. In December 1991, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly announced the unthinkable – the complete dissolution of the Communist Soviet Union. Its member states would all become independent republics. Coincidence you say? I don’t think so. The world owes the end of Russian Communism and the Iron Curtain to Solidarnosc and the amazing courage of the Polish people.
For future posts, click FOLLOW below. For more by historical writer Paul Andrews, click BOOKS in the menu.
Similar themed posts: The Cold War’s forgotten Hungarian Revolution