Solidarity in Poland

Thirty three years ago, in the year 1980, the workers at Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland struck work under the leadership of an electrician named Lech Walesa, who addressed the masses in his now legendary and historic words: “We are an independent self-governing trade union. We have the right to strike”. Thus, ‘Solidarity’ came to be born, the term standing for ‘An Independent Self Governing Trade Union Solidarity’.

The Polish revolution:

Since early 20th century, Poland had been a part of the Eastern Bloc with a communist regime, directly under the authoritarian rule of the Soviet Union. Like in the other East-European communist countries, after World War II, several attempts to overthrow the communists, such as the ‘Poznan Uprising of 1956’ were quelled by the Soviets. The 1970s once again witnessed mass labour unrest due to spiralling prices, stagnating wages, and increasing debt. Underground bodies such as KOR (‘ Komitet Obrony Robotnikov’ meaning, ‘Committee for the Defense of Workers’) mushroomed with huge worker participation which was once again suppressed by the government.

Not to be done in, by 1980, there were massive labour unrests and protests, which culminated in the formation of Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa. Ten million people from all strata of Polish society are said to have joined this anti-communist movement. Worldwide, this was the largest union. Over twenty individual small trade unions spread all over Poland came together under a single banner. The Polish government, as before, tried cracking the whip and repressing the rise of Solidarity, but after much thought and seeing the widespread dissent and the mood of the Polish people decided to give formal recognition to this entity. Solidarity was formed on 31st August but was officially registered on 10th November, 1980. Lech Walesa was elected President of Solidarity, with the entity enfolding republican principles. This union had legislative and executive bodies called the ‘Convention of Delegates’ and the ‘National Coordinating Commission’ respectively. It consisted of regional representatives of 38 regions & 2 districts.

The next one year or so saw a lot of anti-establishment movements and civil protests to improve the welfare of the workers. These protests were largely non-violent. Soon however, the Polish communist leaders under the tutelage of the Soviet Union decided to contain the wide spreading anti-government movement.  The Prime Minister of Poland, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on 13th December, 1981. Solidarity was forced to go underground. All the 38 regional delegates were imprisoned. Lech Walesa was also put into prison for one year and even after his release he was constantly harassed by the secret police. After imprisonment for one year, many of the delegates were asked to go into exile to the Middle-East or North American countries. In 1983, the Nobel Prize was conferred upon Walesa. Out of fear of being denied re-entry into Poland, he did not go to receive the award in person but instead, deputed his wife to do so.

The growing influence of Solidarity:

During this period, Solidarity garnered large support from two quarters - The United States of America, and The Roman Catholic Church. The United States of America is said to have funded the trade union movement with as much as 50 million dollars. Pope John Paul II openly supported the Solidarity movement and this lent it great legitimacy. Lech Walesa used this to further this social cause and told his people, ‘The Holy Father, through his meetings, demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid’.  In fact, a church clergy, Jerzy Popiełuszko was assassinated by the communists, because of his preachings and closeness to the workers. Accreditation from the church vastly influenced the Polish people to be a part of the anti-communist trend.

Gradually, the Solidarity movement gained momentum, not only in Poland, but it also spurred and encouraged anti-government protests throughout the Eastern Bloc. The Polish Prime Minister, Jaruzelski, had to face mounting pressure from the western powers of America and Britain to adopt liberal reforms and recognize Solidarity. The western powers refused to grant financial aid to Poland to offset its rising debt if it did not agree to adopt liberalization. The ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher on her state visit to Poland in 1988, at a banquet openly reprimanded Jaruzelski for his repressive governance and told him that liberal reforms was the only way out. Whilst addressing a rally of 5000 workers in Gdansk she urged them by saying, “Nothing can stop you”.

Withdraw of communist forces in Poland:

Finally, in early 1989, the communist regime had to bow down to intense social and economic pressure and come to the negotiation table. At the Round Table Talks between the government and the union two months later, a 400 page agreement ushering in major political and economic reforms was signed.  In June 1989, the first free elections were held.  The opposition party, Solidarity won majority of the seats in the two houses of parliament. It joined hands with a couple of other small parties and a Solidarity led coalition party was brought to power. Lech Walesa was elected President of Poland. The social movement started by Solidarity against Soviet domination changed the course of history in Europe, forever. The entire Eastern Bloc was engulfed in the process of ending the era of Soviet and Communist rule, and by 1991 most of them had changed over to more democratic and republican forms of governance.

Solidarity today dons a traditional avatar rather than a political one, with minimal influence on present day Polish politics.