Poland, famous for her resilient national identity, has had an at best uncomfortable relationship with the Soviet Union. Having just been recreated in the aftermath of WWII, Poland was distinguished by differing demographics, a separate religious heritage, and a history of occupation by various empires. The Poles created their own particular variant
of opposition that reflected these differences and eventually succeeded in separation from the Soviet Bloc in 1989 through the independent trade union, Solidarity (Solidarność).
The approach of Poles in the 1980s incorporated lessons learned from the oppositional events in the Soviet Bloc: the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia (Bozell, 40). Poland herself had recently endured the reign of Edward Gierek, who searched for a more representative government that was still able to answer to Moscow (Lepak, XV). During his time in the 1970s, the prices of meat and bread increased, the search for national unity continued, Poland looked to the West, and all the while the Polish debt increased. The people of Poland were not particularly pleased with the Gierek’s attempt at national unity because he propagated the “false ideological thesis of the moral and political unity of the nation” (Lepak, 211). His initial successes were overshadowed by his failures, and unrest erupted in 1976.
Polish agriculture was not collectivized in the same way as the rest of the USSR providing the unique avenue Solidarity took to achieve success against the Communist regime. Poland had a highly privatized and vital postwar agricultural sector. Because private farmers were the primary food producers, Polish Communist leaders could not force an already poorly supplied group into collectivization. However, to appease Moscow Gierek’s predecessor and Gierek had to try to encourage voluntary socialization to bridge the gap between local party activists and the vast peasantry whilst attempting to support an outdated farming structure (Lepak, 34). Gierek mostly focused on the industrial economy, importing food to compensate for agricultural failure due to neglect. There was verbal support of the private sector, but little actual support, and the Sejm, the Polish parliament, collectivized Polish peasants’ pensions. The harsh weather and the poor harvest in 1980 created an unstable rural populace.
The Polish leaders were able to socialize what industry there was and by the 1970s the baby boom generation had reached working age. The vast working class filled with new attitudes from the rising generation and Gierek’s emphasis on productivity and detachment from the masses created a volatile situation. The strike of 1976 did not resolve the tensions inherent between the policies of the state and the people of the state (Lepak, 134). There were labor shortages, lack of free Saturdays, narrow limits of political participation for the workforce, and little potential for advancement for the young members of society.
With social unrest, because of the selection of the Pole John Paul II as Pope in 1978 and then his visit in 1979, “the whole nation felt that it could now take its destiny into its own hands” (Touraine, 36). The intellectuals and students of Poland also took a different approach after the failures of 1968 and the workers’ strike of 1970; they, rather than attacking the party hierarchy, defended human rights and encouraged political consciousness among the working class (Touraine, 33).
In August of 1980 Lech Walesa and 17,000 workers shut down the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. In protest at the rise in food prices and many other items, the workers did not settle until they were guaranteed the right to strike through the establishment of an independent trade union (Donovan). By gathering as a group of workers against the government that was supposed to be for the workers, Lech Wałesa, the leader of Solidarity, had cornered the Polish Communist leaders with the threat of sit-in strikes in Gdansk and all over Poland (Senser, 34). “Solidarity sought to liberate the central social activities” (Touraine, 34). The concessions made were many: a wage increase, reform of the party-dominated Central Council of Trade Unions (CRZZ) and, most important, the right to have an independent trade union. The government agreed to “guarantee and ensure complete respect for the independence and self-government of the new trade unions” including the right to associate and collectively bargain (Senser, 34-35). The official name of Solidarity was the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ), which was initially a disappointment as the strikers wanted the word free included but it was considered a Western labor terminology that might enrage the Soviets (Senser, 35). However, they created a more explicit name that thoroughly defined their freedom instead. Walesa announced to his fellow strikers and workers, “We have an independent, self-governing trade union! [crowd cheers] We have the right to strike!” (Donovan).
“Solidarity [was] a trade union, but it [was] also, more broadly, a workers’ movement, animated by class consciousness as well as a need to defend the people against profiteers and bureaucrats” (Touraine, 44). The movement produced many independent unions that then merged under the banner of Solidarity and applied to be recognized by the Polish court system (Senser, 35). Initially rejected, the Supreme Court eventually instated Solidarity on November 10, 1980. For many, Solidarity pitted Communism against Catholicism (Bozell, 40). Although the church was a separate entity from Solidarity, a political entity distinct from the regime, for some the language of Solidarity would be religious regardless of what was actually said. Wałesa was quoted as saying “If I did not believe in God… I would become a very dangerous man” (Bozell, 40). Religion and Poland are inseparably connected, and so for many the fact that Solidarity became the symbol for the true Polish nation rendered the movement Catholic by definition; it was even preached from the pulpit (Bozell, 41).
Solidarity’s success was short-lived. By October 1981, it had been declared illegal and Poland was under a state of martial law. Walesa was arrested. The Soviets had perceived Solidarity as an oppositional force and pushed the Polish leaders to disband it. However, in the eleven months it had been in official operation, Solidarity effectively changed the history and future of Poland. It provided hope for the country, a symbol that it has maintained even today. A student at the time of the formation of Solidarity, Radek Sikorski, reflected on his memories of the period:
[There was] tremendous hope and a kind of electricity between people. You know, it’s said that we Poles become a nation once a generation, just like we did recently when the pope died, and that was one of those moments when, suddenly, millions of people felt that they wanted the same thing, which was free trade unions to represent them against the [Communist] Party. It gave people hope that perhaps communism could be reformed. We now know that it couldn’t (Donovan).
In that shortened year, membership was nine million, about a quarter of Poland’s population (Donovan). Two sessions of Solidarity’s national congress were held and the Union was actively participating in, some would say disrupting, Polish society (Senser, 35).
Solidarity was eventually re-legalized, but in the eight years it was illegal it went underground. It was supported financially by America and morally by the Catholic Church. During the period of martial law, Solidarity was a cultural phenomenon with a highly functional underground press, flying universities that provided education in safe houses, and cultural activities (Bozell, 40). This “alternative society” was an insolvable problem for the Communists: “embattled Communist officials, unable to goad Solidarity’s underground into suicidal open resistance, and frustrated in their attempts to win over the intelligentsia, had to search for other means to tame the Polish spirit” (Bozell, 40).
The people attributed the demise of Solidairty to the government; as a result the regime took action to regain the people and stabilize Poland. Concessions were made in the wake of the harsh crackdown to quell the public. The press was granted more freedom; limited travel was allowed; privileges were granted to the Catholic Church, Solidarity’s ally; consultative bodies were created; wages and benefits increased; and they eventually allowed Wałesa to travel again, although his every move was watched (Senser, 36). Perestroika, glasnost, and international economic stress ushered in not only the changes of Solidarity, but also Solidarity itself which was re-recognized by the Polish government in April 1989. When the first free elections were held in June 1989, Solidarity won every seat allowed (Donovan). After the Berlin Wall fell, Wałesa became the first president of a newly independent Poland.
Solidarity was not just a movement or a trade union. It was and remains a cultural phenomenon that lives as a party today and in the memories of the Poles as a symbol for all that is Polish and a source of hope. The undeniable effect Solidarity had on ending the rule of the Communists of Poland is evidenced by the Poles rewarding Wałesa and his party with control of the government. Although that control has waned today, the symbolic effects of Solidarity remain. In 2005, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Solidarity’s founding strike, festivities and an exhibit in Gdansk were attended by Poles. There was also a billboard listing the cities “Gdansk. Budapest. Prague. Berlin. Bucharest. Sofia. Kiev.” to illustrate that Gdansk was initially responsible for the rolling back of the iron curtain (Applebaum). Gdansk’s celebrations were a restructuring of history in terms of the success of Solidarity. The twentieth anniversary of Solidarity did not see the same festivities. According to Applebaum, it was because Poles were not hopeful at that time and were still embracing the new problems that resulted from the fall of Communism. Regardless of sentiments in 2000, Solidarity is clearly beloved today in Poland and symbolizes hope and the true Polish identity under the communist regime.
- Anne Applebaum, “Solidarity Remembered,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2005. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/05/09.
- Patricia B. Bozell, “The Secret of Solidarity,” National Review 40, no. 3, February 19, 1988, pp. 39-41.
- Jeffrey Donovan, “Poland: Solidarity—The Trade Union That Changed the World,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty, 24 August 2005 http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1060898.html
- Keith John Lepak, Prelude to Solidarity: Poland and the Politics of the Gierek Regime (Columbia University Press: New York, 1988).
- Robert A. Sener, “How Poland’s Solidarity Won Freedom of Association,” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 112, no. 9, 1989, pp. pp. 34-38.
- Alain Touraine, Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-81 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1983).