A quarter of a century ago, Poland’s Stalinist police-state system was rocked by a massive wave of working-class action.
In just six weeks the Polish workers built Solidarnosc (Solidarity), a trade union movement of 10 million workers that had the potential to be much more. The period from August 1980 to December 1981, when the workers’ movement was driven underground by a military coup, is one of the high points of working class history. Amina Saddiq tells the story.
“Lodz is a city of women who are exhausted, jaded, ill and prematurely aged, a city of people crippled socially and economically,” declared an organiser of KSS-KOR (the Committee in Defence of the Workers) in the summer of 1980, referring to the effects of the vicious piece-work system on the women textile workers of the central Polish city.
For Poland’s “socialist” rulers — the so-called Communist Party, the state officials and the factory managers — life was getting better. A semi-official report noted that incomes in the central ruling group were on average 20 times those of an average worker. “Their privileges extend to almost all spheres of life: access to status positions, [much higher] real incomes, easier shopping, health, education, foreign travel… the 1970s saw the inheritance of privilege… filling posts with [the rulers’ children].”
The Polish ruling class was made up of roughly 200,000 people. The top circles of this “socialist” country had monopoly control of the police and state machine and the media. They controlled industry, set the prices and ran fake, state-controlled “unions”, which were used to police the workers. Politics was dominated by their “communist” party, the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP), and its satellites.
In July 1980 the regime attempted to raise prices, particularly for meat. They were met by a strike wave. The ruling class attempted to head off each group which struck by conceding wage increases.
Poland’s working class had fought the police in the streets in 1956, with more than 50 workers killed in Poznan. In 1970, hundreds were killed after workers burnt down PUWP offices and fought the state. In 1970-1 and 1976, strike movements had ended in concessions from the regime followed by stabilisation, the isolation of militants, victimisations and even state-sponsored murder.
The decisive days of the struggle began on Thursday 14 August. Anna Walentynowicz, a crane driver at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, was victimised. Walentynowicz was one of small group of underground union activists, formed after 1976, grouped around KOR. In Gdansk they published Robotnik Wybrzeza (Coastal Worker). Their key demand was for real unions, free from state interference.
The 17,000 shipyard workers occupied the massive plant. Factory after factory in Gdansk was shut down by strikes and occupations, all in solidarity with Walentynowicz. In total 30,000 workers struck. By 20 August, 260 factories were on strike. A Gdansk-wide strike committee — known as the Inter-factory Strike Committee, or, by its Polish initials, MKZ — was formed by workers’ delegates from the factories.
The strike spread around Poland. Steel workers struck in Nowa Huta near Krakow; miners formed committees in the Silesian coalfields. In Szczecin, on the East German border, 40 factories and five shipyards came out on strike; in small towns — Koscierzynia, Lembork and Ustka — strikes broke out; in Elbag, workers at eight enterprises formed their own MKZ.
The regime was panic-stricken. Gierek, the top Communist bureaucrat, who had dealt with the workers’ protests in January 1971, went on television to try to divide the movement. He contrasted the just complaints of the workers with the “sinister” divides of the KOR activists. On the night of Wednesday 20 August, 14 KOR members were arrested; the next night 20 more were arrested in the capital, Warsaw.
But the government was forced to negotiate. The primer minister, Tadeusz Pyka, was sacked. Later, in September, Gierek became “ill” and was replaced.
The Gdansk workers put forward their famous “21 demands”. The first demand was for free trade unions, the second for the right to strike.
The regime conceded every point except the fourth — the freeing of political prisoners. Anna Walentynowicz explains the significance:
“Surely [point 4] was the most important point! If we don’t defend political prisoners today, then tomorrow our agreements will be worthless for we are all political… we refused to agree.
“We turned to our community, to the crowd in the hall, to the people occupying the shipyard, to the people standing outside the gates. They told us… all 21 demands had to be met…
“Finally [Jagielski, the government’s negotiator] said by tomorrow at noon all the people on our list would be freed.”
By the end of September 1980, a national organisation called Solidarnosc had been formed. Ten million people had joined in six weeks — a figure so enormous that many Western commentators refused to believe it. Solidarnosc was a hybrid organisation — trade union movement and workers’ political organisation combined.
As the working class moved it gave other oppressed sections of society confidence to raise their own demands. Small independent farmers demanded their own free trade union. Lodz University students sat-in in support of their own independent student union, NZS.
Prisoners in Warsaw jails began their own protests demanding “as much food as the police dogs”.
And hundreds of thousands of working-class members of the three million-strong PUWP joined Solidarnosc; even some police officers began to demand their own right to join free trade unions.
The regime began to tests its power against Solidarnosc. On 19 March 1981, 200 armed police systematically beat up 27 Solidarnosc members who had been occupying offices in Bydgoszcz in support of the recognition of Rural Solidarnosc. The next day half a million workers struck in protest and a Solidarnosc conference discussed an all-out general strike.
The regime backed off, as key Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, under pressure from the Catholic church, called the strike off. But from this point on the Stalinist military would be preparing the crackdown which eventually came in December. A left-wing began to form inside Solidarnosc as Walesa increasingly used his position to obstruct strike action and rein in workers’ struggle. The left fought to extend workers’ control.
One of the main reasons for the caution and vacillation of the Solidarnosc leaders was the perceived threat of a Russian invasion. The USSR had invaded Hungary in 1956 to put down the workers’ uprising, and crushed Czechoslovakia in 1968. Like the other “communist” countries of Eastern Europe, Poland was dominated by its Russian imperialist neighbour.
Thus developed the idea of a “self-limiting revolution”, the idea that Solidarnosc must stop short of challenging the rule of the PUWP and so avoid provoking a Russian invasion. The Russian threat was real, but double edged — two centuries of Poland’s national oppression had created a powerful national consciousness which could, if the working class had seized power, have rallied the whole nation behind it in the struggle for independence.
The “dual power” which existed in Poland could not last forever. Either the workers would develop the confidence to take power or the “socialist” bureaucrats would prepare to crush them. As KOR leader Jacek Kuron put it: “Part of society could turn to the idea of a strong government as a ray of hope… They think a strong movement with the army as part can save the country.”
What was lacking in Poland was an organised party of socialists that could have acted as a pole of attraction to militants opposed to the Solidarnosc leadership’s conciliatory policy, and fought to win the whole organisation to a struggle for revolution against Poland’s bureaucratic state and social system. The 16 month stand-off between the workers and the bureaucracy ended on 13 December 1981, when General Jaruzelski lead a military coup.