Phot. Miroslaw Stepniak/Reporter/EastNews
“Establishment of trade unions in Gdansk 35 years ago that were independent of the communist authorities largely contributed to the collapse of communism in Poland and in many other countries across Central and Eastern Europe,” Piotr Długołęcki, a historian with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, writes on the eve of the anniversary of Solidarity’s establishment.
In 1980, the situation of Poland was quite peculiar. The tenth year of Edward Gierek in power was over, and Poland struggled with huge international debt and growing shortages of supplies. In July, in response to food price increases introduced by the authorities, a series of strikes erupted in Lublin, often regarded as a prelude to the events of August. On 14 August 1980, close to three weeks after the strikes in Lublin ended, a strike in the Gdansk Shipyard started, with more and more plants joining in on the following days.
The strength of the August labour protests came from a few new factors coming into play. First of all, from the solidarity of workers and the establishment of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee that represented the interests of protesting workers from various plants. Moreover, it was a sit-in strike: contrary to the earlier (brutally suppressed) manifestations in 1956 and 1970, workers decided not to protest in front of the communist party headquarters; instead, they established their own organisational structure. It made negotiations with the authorities so much easier.
The unique character of the strike was also due to the cooperation of workers with intelligentsia representatives who came to Gdansk and joined the strike as experts. Some of them had opposition background, e.g. in the structures of KOR, or Workers’ Defence Committee. The communist authorities disliked their arrival. They believed that the Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot Tricity “was under heavy influence of troublemakers, mainly from KOR.”
However, the most important thing was that the list of demands, next to social ones, also included political calls that concerned the establishment of an independent trade union. The protesters also demanded respecting the freedom of speech, easing state censorship, and allowing access to mass media that, until that point, had been fully controlled by the authorities. Inclusion of those demands was harshly condemned by the governing party, which referred to them as “demands of an anti-socialist character” that undermine the political foundations of the country and lead to “effective legalisation of the opposition.”
The authorities ultimately gave in to the determination of the protesters and so the accords were signed in both Gdansk, where Lech Wałęsa affixed his signature on behalf of the workers, and other cities consumed by strikes. The authorities agreed to meet the demands, including the most important one: establishment of new trade unions. Considering the political situation of Poland and the Eastern bloc countries at the time, it was a historic decision. For the first time since the end of World War II, a legal organisation beyond the communist control had been founded. Moreover, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”, officially established in September and later registered by the Supreme Court, started to publish its own weekly paper in 1981 (Tygodnik Solidarność). In addition, Solidarity operated abroad by launching offices outside Poland and organising foreign visits of its representatives in order to launch cooperation with other trade unions. Independent media and, most of all, independent foreign activity constituted an unprecedented breach of the policy implemented by the communist parties in that part of Europe.
Naturally, the USSR was dissatisfied with these developments. It was speculated that the consent for establishing Solidarity might provoke a Soviet military intervention. Authorities in other socialist countries feared that the Polish example might be contagious and foment dissident attitudes and tendencies to undermine communist rule beyond Poland.
Western Europe and USA showed significant interest in the strike and the accords. The authorities of the Polish People’s Republic tried to counteract it by limiting the flow of information. For this purpose, attempts were made to restrict the activity of foreign journalists, and Polish consular posts were instructed to protract visa processing and make it difficult for foreign correspondents to enter the country. Consular officers were also ordered to pay particular attention, as journalists tried to get visas as ordinary tourists without stating their profession and true purpose of their trip to Poland. Additionally, Polish diplomats were instructed to carry out an “offensive” propaganda campaign in order to “defend socialism.”
These actions simply could not have brought the expected results—over the next dozen or so months, Solidarity was a permanent feature of cover stories in Western newspapers and television and radio broadcasts. Nevertheless, the West showed varied responses to the establishment of Solidarity. Foreign trade unions reacted with enthusiasm, declaring assistance and cooperation. Western societies also welcomed the fact, yet their governments were more moderate in their response, fearing destabilisation of the situation in Poland and the response of the USSR.
However, it’s beyond any doubt that establishing independent trade unions was an unprecedented event, which may be safely considered as a breakthrough not only in Poland’s history. This event largely contributed to the collapse of communism in Poland and in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. And as such, it had its share in the democratisation process that affected a significant part of Europe. It is difficult to imagine the 1989 transformation and the dismantling of the communist system without the earlier experiences of the Solidarity movement. The question remains open whether it was possible to accelerate the course of history already in the early 1980s and cause the collapse of communism followed by Poland’s regaining full sovereignty. The opportunity, if any, was thwarted by the decision of the communist authorities to impose martial law.
Piotr Długołęcki, MFA Historian