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Solidarity in Poland

The Solidarity movement was the driving force of Poland's break from Communism

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Poland’s break from communism was a long and involved process, and the driving force in this revolution was a worker’s union known as Solidarity. Solidarity was led by its charismatic chairman, Lech Walesa, an electrician from the Gdansk shipyards in northern Poland. One of the tenets of communism is that it is a worker-led ideology, in which workers stand up for their rights and demand revolutionary changes. But Walesa and Solidarity, led by the workers that the Communist Party of Poland purported to represent, stood up against Poland’s communist regime and were able to bring democracy to Poland. Thirteen years passed from the formation of the first worker’s union in 1976 to the free elections in 1989. Thirteen years is a long time for a continuous revolution and it is difficult to keep large numbers of people committed to a single cause for such a length of time. It is an indication of the resolve of the workers of the Poland that they persisted for so long and finally achieved their objective. Read on to learn more about how an electrician led ten million workers in a struggle for freedom.

1976 in Poland saw a wave of workers’ strikes in several cities across the country. Many workers were attacked and imprisoned by the authorities. In response, a group of dissident intellectuals formed the Workers’ Defense Committee, known as the KOR (Komitet Obrony Robtnikow). This committee supported the families of the imprisoned workers, offering legal and medical aid. In addition, the committee worked to pass news through an underground movement. In 1979 it published a Charter of Worker’s Rights.

In 1980 the government of Poland raised food prices by an official decree. Many workers again initiated strikes in protest. The Gdansk shipping yards became the hotbed of these strikes. One particular large shipyard, the Lenin Shipyard, had 17,000 workers on strike. Led by Lech Walesa, the workers locked themselves in the plant and raised demands. In August an Interfactory Strike Committee was formed to help coordinate the various strike movements occurring across the country. Using the KOR’s Charter of Worker’s Rights as a guideline, the Interfactory Strike Committee presented the government with a list of demands. On August 30th an agreement was reached between the government and the workers, allowing the workers to form independent unions, and giving them greater freedom of religious and political expression.

Taking advantage of these new rights, the workers founded Solidarity on September 22, 1980. Walesa was elected as its chairman, and the KOR was disbanded. Unions usually represent a narrow group of workers. There may be an electricians union, a carpenter’s union and so on, but these unions do not necessarily work together. Solidarity was unique, because as its name implies, many unions worked together for the same cause. The original Solidarity was formed by the delegates of 36 regional trade unions, and it grew from there. By early 1981 it had over 10 million members, most every worker in Poland.

Solidarity initially had modest demands for more workers’ rights. But as it grew in 1981, Walesa fell under pressure from several more militant leaders and Solidarity became more assertive in its demands. It implemented a series of controlled strikes in 1981 as it requested additional freedoms, such as free elections and economic reforms, from the government. The Polish government was led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who also came under pressure, but from the Soviets, to stop the movement. Jaruzelski met with Soviet leaders many times throughout 1981 as they discussed strategies to break-up the increasingly forceful Solidarity. Poland was an important ally to the Soviets, because of its location as the heart of central Europe. Poland was also of great military important for the USSR as the home of communications equipment between the Soviets and their satellite countries. Several tactical nuclear warheads were also located in Poland and there was a Soviet fear that the Polish might claim ownership of these weapons if Poland were to break alliance from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets feared that losing Poland would leave them vulnerable to attacks, and would start a chain of similar uprisings throughout Eastern Europe (This sentiment later revealed itself to be true, as Poland was the first of the Soviet satellites to shed its communist trappings). The Soviets became very vocal in public and in private, and were not discreet as they mobilized their troops on Polish borders. This blatant mobilization was undertaken in order to create the impression that they were preparing for an invasion. To this day, it is still not clear if the Soviets truly intended to invade, or if they were just posturing in order to frighten the Poles into compliance. There is some additional speculation that Polish military forces lacked the force to stop the unions on their own, and were hoping for a boost from the Soviets.

In the end, the threat of Soviet invasion must have been enough of a deterrent, for the Poles imposed martial law on December 13, 1981. Under martial law, the Polish military assumed many responsibilities of the police, rather than its tradition external functions of protection from foreign attacks. Solidarity was declared illegal, and its leaders were arrested. The union was dissolved by Parliament on October 8, 1982. Although the union was no longer legal, and technically did not exist, its movement continued underground unabated.

After a brief house-arrest in the countryside, Walesa was reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards in 1982. He maintained contact with important Solidarity leaders, despite intense government scrutiny. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which was loudly denounced by the government. Despite the international recognition of Walesa’s achievements, the Solidarity movement in Poland appeared dormant, and in July of 1983 martial law was lifted.
In the following years economic conditions continued to worsen, and discontent workers reinitiated organized striking in 1988. Faced with growing unpopularity, the Jaruzelski government began negotiating with the leaders of the opposition in February of 1989. The hope of the government was that these leaders would assume a share of the responsibility, but without the need for restructuring the system or legalizing Solidarity. These hopes were untenable, and Solidarity was legalized in April. Parliamentary elections were held on June 4, 1989, and candidates endorsed by Solidarity won 99 of 100 seats in the newly formed Senate, and 161 seats of 460 (the maximum allowed for opposition candidates) in the Sejm (the lower house). The Polish government was now no longer communist, but nevertheless, Solidarity politicians considered participation in the government to be risky and premature. At that time the communist party still retained some power, and there was a fear among the opposition that those pockets of power would retaliate in some way in order to maintain their formerly privileged position.

But this wasn’t 1981, and under Gorbachev the Soviets were no longer able, or willing, to interfere directly in Polish politics. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a longtime Solidarity advisor, became the first noncommunist premier to govern Poland since the 1940s. Lech Walesa visited several countries in late 1989, including the United States, in order to raise awareness of, and funding for, Solidarity’s movement. In December he was elected president of Poland.

Although the Solidarity movement had endured for thirteen years, its final rise to power was quite sudden. None of its leaders expected to win such a large majority of seats in the parliament, and they did not expect assume power so quickly. Even in August of 1989, after the overwhelming landslide of elections in June, leaders of Solidarity did not think that the communist party would disintegrate so easily. Their predictions were proven wrong, and communism almost immediately became a memory of the past in Poland.