Solidarity 30 Years Later

by Peter Mscichowski


As the sun rose above the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk on the 14 of August 1980, some 17,000 workers gathered in protest, and the world would never be the same again.

The leader of the protest, Lech Walesa, had narrowly escaped arrest that morning of August the 14th, and yet 17 days later he would address a cheering crowd with a historic message, “We have an independent self-governing trade union! We have the right to strike!”

To understand the significance of this declaration, it is essential to understand small amount of Polish history. After World War II, Poland was annexed as part of the Eastern Block ruled by Soviet Russia. Under the rule of the Kremlin few liberties were allowed the Polish people. As a result groups of workers and students tried protesting against the Communist regime prior to 1980, however, none of these groups ever came near the kind of success that Solidarity had.

In September of 1980 the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” – or NSZZ Solidarnosc – was officially instated, and over the next year the union’s membership would rise 9 million people, a quarter of the Polish population.

Across the Russian border, Moscow grew increasingly alarmed. In early December 1981, the Warsaw Pact issued a statement at a summit meeting declaring, "fraternal solidarity and support" with Poland's communist leaders in overcoming what it called the country's "present difficulties."

One December 13th General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish prime minister, declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity. The military arrested most of Solidarity's leaders, including Walesa. Walesa would spend nearly a year in jail, and for the next seven years he would be under constant watch and harassment by secret police. On July 22, 1983, martial law was lifted, yet many restrictions on civil liberties and political life remained, as well as food rationing which would continue until the late 80s. Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, but had to send his wife to collect the award in Oslo, fearing he would not be let back into his home country.

A dark period in the Solidarity movement stretched leading up to the radical changes of 1989, and the organization was forced underground. However the movement never wavered from its key principles, especially that of nonviolence.

Solidarity’s underground efforts were aided financially by American trade unions, and the movement found its strongest populace base in Polish Catholics. Pope John Paul II would become an instrumental proponent of the solidarity movement in Poland, and would provide invaluable moral support to the Polish people. A historical meeting between Lech Walesa and the pope took place in 1983 and made international headlines. The meeting along with a strategic partnership between the Polish Catholic Church and Solidarity lent powerful legitimacy to the movement. Further moral support would come from Western governments, in particular the United States and Britain, which refused economic aid to debt-ridden Poland until it legalized Solidarity.

The movement received a major morale boost in November 1988, when Jaruzelski hosted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A fierce anticommunist, Thatcher lashed out at Jaruzelski at a state banquet, saying Poland's depressed economy would only improve after freedom and liberty were restored. Faced with intense social and economic pressure, Jaruzelski finally agreed to talks with Solidarity in early 1989. Two months later the two sides signed a 400-page agreement on sweeping political and economic reforms that officially recognized Solidarity.

In June 1989, in the first free elections ever in the communist bloc, Solidarity won the maximum number of seats allowed in both houses of parliament. With two smaller parties, Solidarity formed the first non-Communist government in the Soviet bloc. Communism collapsed in Poland and within six months the famous Berlin Wall would as well.

The fall of communism in Poland thrust Solidarity into a role it was never prepared for, and in its life as a political party it saw much infighting and a decline in popularity. Walesa decided to resign from his Solidarity post and announced his intent to run for president in the upcoming elections. In December 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland and became the first Polish president ever elected by popular vote. The 1990 elections in Poland set-off a string of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe that led to the fall of communism is these regions. By Christmas of 1991, the USSR had ceased to exist, and all the former communist territories became sovereign entities once again.

Today Solidarity's role in Polish politics is limited and the organization has again reverted back toward the role of a more traditional trade union. This past summer of 2010 marked the 30th anniversary of the historic Solidarity movement. We remember the hardships of its humble beginnings and celebrate the changes those hardships inspired across the continent, and throughout the world.