News & Events

Marking the founding of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
September 2010 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

This September marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the first independent selfgoverning trade union in a Soviet-occupied country—the Polish union Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Its birth followed years of struggle for a voice in the workplace that also took the lives of many workers. The union was established in the Gdansk shipyards in August/September 1980. It was more than a trade union however, in that it was instrumental in bringing an end to foreign repressive, totalitarian rule in Poland, and eventually throughout eastern Europe.

A precursor to the 1980 events occurred in December 1970 as a result of an increase in food prices and other everyday items. Due to an economic crisis, demonstrations broke out all over the country, which were brutally put down by the army. The army fired into the crowds of workers and killed some 42 and wounded another 1,000 at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. In Dec. 1980 a memorial was raised to commemorate this event.

Anna Walentynowicz

As the country’s economy continued its downward spiral, workers were reinvigorated and began organizing. In July 1980 the corrupt government once again raised prices on food and commodities and depressed wages, leading to increased public and labor unrest. But it was the firing of a popular crane operator, Anna Walentynowicz, at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk that set the spark for a general strike and the eventual founding of Solidarnosc. She was a dedicated organizer whom her bosses considered a troublemaker, and fired her for alleged “anti-government activities.” (Walentynowicz died at age 80 in the April plane crash that took the lives of 95 others, including the president of Poland Lech Kaczynski, who were on their way to commemorate the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest).

A sit-down strike began and committees formed that drew up a series of 21 demands on the government, including: union recognition, the right to strike, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, increased pay, pension reform, access to mass media, the guarantee of the return to work of striking workers, as well as compensation of all workers taking part in the strike, and, interestingly:

  • Improvement in working conditions of health care services to ensure full medical care for workers.
  • Assurances of a reasonable number of places in day-care centers and kindergartens for the children of working mothers.
  • Paid maternity leave for three years.

Lech WaÅ‚Ä™sa, a fired electrician, became the face of the strikes and the union. Strikes swept the country over all industries, and despite the government’s efforts to isolate Gdansk and to limit communications (news censorship, cutting phone service, rail, road and air links cut etc.) the workers established their own highly effective underground communications network.

Intense negotiations with the union—that were broadcast openly over the shipyard’s PA system—resulted in an agreement. On Sept. 3, 1980, the government signed the agreement with the union conceding to all of their demands. Later that month the Polish Communist leader was also deposed and replaced. The new union soon set up a national governing structure with 38 regions. In the following year about 10 million workers joined the union (of a total population of 35.5 million), as it became transformed into a social and revolutionary movement.

Inevitably in December 1981, the threatened government outlawed and crushed the union, arresting and jailing its officers (including Wałęsa) and declaring martial law throughout the country.

The formation of the union and the declaration of martial law stirred world-wide attention. The public in the U.S. was well aware and supportive of the labor events in Poland, even as the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s union was being crushed here by President Ronald Reagan. Ironically and hypocritically, many world leaders (including Reagan and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain) supported the events in Poland (in part because Solidarnosc challenged the communist dictatorship) while opposing union organizing at home.

The union was forced underground through 1988. Significant events followed: Lech Wałęsa won the Nobel Peace Prize (1983), the Ministry of Internal Security murdered a popular pro-Solidarity priest (1984), mass arrests and imprisonments continued.

But by 1988 the economy worsened again as prices rose by 40 percent. Strikes swept the country. Finally the government relented and legalized Solidarnosc once again. The union ran candidates in 1989 capturing 160 of 161 contested Sejm (lower house of parliament) seats, and 92 of 100 Senate seats. A new Solidarnosc- led government was formed as the Communist party was ousted. In December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected and became the first president of Poland ever elected by popular vote.

In the following years, the union itself faced many internal crises, with ups and downs and many changes in course and philosophy. Despite its early spectacular successes, the road has not been a smooth one for the union in the post-communist era. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize and commemorate that it was the courageous ordinary workers who organized and fought for their rights, while challenging the enormous power of the Soviet empire—and succeeded. These are lessons to be learned and remembered.