The birth of Solidarity in Poland – archive 1980


On 22 September 1980, Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union, was formally founded when 36 regional unions united under the name Solidarność.

The union emerged from a strike which began in August 1980 at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. Led by Lech Walesa, workers demanded reinstatement of laid off colleagues and wage rises, and over a few days strikes spread throughout most of Poland. On 31 August, an agreement was reached between the communist authorities and strikers that allowed for free and independent unions, together with freedom of religious and political expression. Within a year the union had 10 million members, a third of Poland’s working age population.

Poles celebrate as Government signs pact for free trade unions

by Michael Dobbs in Warsaw
1 September 1980

The general strike which crippled economic activity along Poland’s Baltic coast was formally declared over yesterday after an agreement to establish independent trade unions and recognise the right to strike.

Polish state television and radio gave unprecedented coverage last night to emotional ceremonies endorsing the agreement in the ports of Szczecin and Gdansk, the two main strike headquarters for northern Poland. The strike leaders were shown shaking hands with Government negotiators, and later both sides joined in singing the Polish national anthem.

Each ceremony lasted about 20 minutes and was televised in full. At the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, the strike leader, Lech Walesa, said “We have not won everything that we a hoped for and dreamed about, but we have achieved as much as we could under the circumstances, including respect for certain civil rights.”

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Noting that work would resume on September 1, the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he added “This is a day when we think of our homeland…just as we have shown solidarity during the strike, so too will this solidarity be maintained as we go back to work.”

The agreement to end the strike in Gdansk, involving 500 factories, almost collapsed late on Saturday night after a rift developed between within the presidium of the strike committee. Some members were unhappy over a pledge that the new independent trade unions would respect the leading role of the Communist Party in Poland’s political system.

But Mr Walesa, who emerged as an immensely skilled handler of his followers, saved the settlement by appealing over the heads of the presidium to the full committee of 1,000 delegates. In a rousing speech, he shouted: “We have formed these trade unions ourselves. If you are there inside them, as I am, then you can be sure that we won’t allow anybody else to have a leading role over them.”

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Soviet Union
The Soviet Union attacked the leaders of Poland’s striking workers yesterday, accusing them of links with “subversive centres abroad.” It made no comment on the agreement they reached with the Government. The Communist Party daily, Pravda, said “anti-Socialist elements” had infiltrated enterprises on the Baltic coast and were trying to coordinate their actions with reactionary Polish emigrants and subversive centres in the West. They were putting political demands which were far from serving the economic and social interests of the Polish working class, Pravda claimed.

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Michael Dobbs reports from Warsaw on Poland’s ideological somersault and the practical problems ahead
1 September 1980

The establishment of new independent trade unions in Poland marks a major and historic step towards a more pluralistic form of communism. As part of a carefully-worded compromise with the government, Polish strikers along the Baltic coast agreed formally to recognise the leading role of the Communist Party in the country’s political life. But, while the foundations of Poland’s one-party system have remained intact, the manner in which the system will function has undergone a profound change. Never before has a Soviet Bloc country ceded the right to represent the working class to an independent organisation.

A rally on May Day, 1983 in Gdansk, Poland, by supporters of the Solidarity union.



A rally on May Day, 1983 in Gdansk, Poland, by supporters of the Solidarity union. Photograph: Associated Press

Editorial: changes of lasting consequence

1 September 1980

In 17 days, Gdansk has changed the face of Eastern Europe. Without bloodshed, without riots – all past lessons learned – a supposedly omnipotent Communist regime, commanding in extremis all the firepower of the Warsaw Pact, has been forced to concede what it swore it could never concede the right of workers to organise freely and independently. The leaders of Gdansk will become, by democratic elections, the leaders of Poland’s union movement. This is a tidal wave. Of course Poland is the special case of the East, strong in nationalism, devoted to the Catholic Church; but the ability of its workers (by calm organisation and dogged resistance) to humiliate the apparatus of the state is a message of fear for Mr Brezhnev, Mr Honecker and the rest. Groups of dissident intellectuals may be an irritant. They can also be locked away (as even Poland was doing again this weekend). But the ordinary people who form the very fabric of the nation are a mightier challenge which cannot be ignored.

Nobody should suppose for a moment, though, that the struggles are at an end. It is not in the nature of Communist central committees – whether purged or not – to let influence slide without constant manoeuvre. Mr Gierek has eaten his promises once before. He will not stop fighting now. Poland’s economy, moreover, is a genuine wreck. When Mr Walesa and his colleagues come to their rounds of free collective bargaining – when they see the books and ponder the debts – it is they who will have to carry the bad news about meat prices and wage restraint back to the Lenin shipyard, facing the wrath of old friends who simply want more talk and more money. That could be the point when victory proves a two-edged sword, the opportunity for Gierek (or his successor) to strike back. It could also be the time of supreme peril when Poland’s organised working class decides that it is not a scapegoat minister or an ideological lackey who carries the weight of all failure, but the system itself, a system which promised progress but fails to deliver.

In the immediate aftermath of triumph, however, such forebodings may reasonably be pushed a little further back on the shelf. Eastern block communism – tired, geriatric, defensive, without the impulses of reform or salvation – has been driven to embrace a free voice at the heart of its debates. A genuine accommodation may give it fresh hope and diversity, asking fundamental questions both about the sustainable level of arms spending and the future desirability of greater economic cooperation with the West. And for the West itself, most of the awkward questions in its own internal threshings find simple answers. Do we now assist the Polish economy in every way we can? There is a vested interest in so doing. Do we risk Soviet anger by our attention to the details of the Helsinki Agreement? The brave men of Gdansk, by their insistence on the rights of Helsinki in their final bargaining, have given fresh impetus to that tattered and evaded accord.

Editorial: helping hands for Poland’s free spirits

16 September 1980

Freedom is an untidy notion and Polish industrial relations are in a fair state of chaos as the country attempts to ride the wave of union reform, now officially sanctioned by party and government. To start with the official union movement. A few top people have been purged (by the party and not by their own rank and file) and the new leadership has pledged free elections, both for officials and for delegates to a union congress which will draw up a new constitution enshrining democratic participation and the determination to strike as a last resort. Meanwhile, down in the grass roots, something is stirring. In many unions – journalists, dockers, teachers among others – meetings of activists, determined to complete the transformation of their unions faster than the new party appointed bosses approve, are being held.

In some factories union branches are resigning en masse from the unions of which they had been part and asking to affiliate instead to Mr Lech Walesa’s independent union movement. Elsewhere, individual workers by the tens of thousands are tearing up their old union cards and signing up with the loyal opposition. Official unions and managements are doing their best to stem the tide. In some plants they have reportedly combined to keep the new style union organisers off the premises. In others they are making difficulties about returning pension funds, holiday money and the like to drop-outs. Yet, at the same time, the party and the official union leadership have stressed that good communists should be free to join the new unions if they so wish and Mr Walesa’s team should consider joining a confederation with the old unions so that both movements speak with a united voice in negotiations with government.

For the moment the independent unions are concentrating on urgently establishing their physical presence. Offices are being opened, officials elected and proper membership lists drawn up. That is as it should be. The tide of protest can – and will – recede. If the Polish workers are to make permanent gains, strong institutions must be left behind when the tide goes out. Otherwise, as happened after 1956 and 1970, when similar (though not as far reaching) promises of reform were made, the gains will be gradually eroded. Even the legal and constitutional reforms promised when the Parliament (Sejm) meets later this year will not be as important as the continued existence of powerful, well-organised independent unions. (It is worth remembering that, for the past half century, including the appalling period of Stalinist repression, the Soviet Union boasted the most democratic and progressive constitution in the history of mankind.)

Only a month ago Poland’s official unions had 13 million members. It is a safe enough bet that, unless government and party obstruction becomes significantly more powerful and better organised, several million of them will shortly be members of new and independent unions. That is a solid enough base, financially and organisationally, to allow Mr Walesa’s organisation to stand on its own two feet. But already Mr Walesa and his colleagues are quoted as saying that they would like both money and advice from Western unions – an appeal which has brought bitter condemnation both from Moscow and Warsaw. So far it has been the Eurocommunist unions of Italy and France which have responded most generously, although the American AFL-CIO has made its usual Cold War noises and the TUC has done rather less than human decency requires.

There is nothing, in principle, wrong with Western unions aiding their East European counterparts, especially now the independent unions are regarded as legitimate by the Polish government and the TUC should say so loud and clear. After all, the Kremlin raises no objections when aid flows the other way. (A party of 150 British steel-workers and their families are even now packing their bags ready for a free holiday in Russia as guests of the Soviet Metal Workers Union – a holiday package donated to our steel union as a reward for its heroic strike against Sir Keith Joseph and Sir Charles Villiers earlier this year). In practice the value of Western union aid will have to be weighed against the danger of the Communist authorities using it as an excuse to smear or restrict the indigenous reform movement. In the last resort the solution lies with the Polish authorities. Only if it is made impossible for the new unions to recruit and collect dues freely will Western union aid prove necessary. At Brighton the TUC, belatedly, promised to monitor the Polish experiment. Sir Frank Chapple and those on the general council who think like him, should now ensure that the TUC honours that pledge.

Poles swell ranks of rival unions

From Michael Dobbs in Warsaw
19 September 1980

It has taken just three weeks for Poland’s fledgling trade unions to reach the size of the country’s ruling Communist Party. Membership of both bodies now stands at around three million – but, unlike the party, the new unions are still growing.

In some ways this is an unfair comparison, since the membership figures of an organisation are not the most important indication of its political power. The party still regards itself as an elite, the vanguard of the working class. Even so, the coincidence underlines the remarkable transformation that has taken place in Polish politics this summer.

The new unions – rather than the ostensibly all-powerful Communist Party – seem to be making the running in the country’s political life now. The party leadership has adopted a low profile, as if waiting for the other side to show its hand first.

While preparations still continue behind the scenes for an important Communist Party Central Committee session to consider political and economic reforms, attention was focused on a meeting of the new unions on Wednesday evening in Gdansk, attended by delegates from all over the country. The event marked the birth of an all-Poland trade union movement.

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