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Europe

Looking Back on 25 Years of Solidarity

Solidarnosc, the workers' union that played an important role in the fall of communism in Poland, was founded 25 years ago. What began as a group of dissident intellectuals became an unstoppable force for change.

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Solidarnosc today is but a shadow of its former self

The Poland that begat Solidarnosc, or Solidarity, a quarter century ago is hardly recognizable today. Then, Poland was a totalitarian, satellite state of the Soviet Union, under Moscow's firm hand. Today, Poland is a democratic country and a member of the European Union as well as NATO. Much of that development is due to the influence of the trade union that got its start in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980.

The origins of Solidarity go back even further, to 1976, when a "Worker's Defense Committee" was founded by a group of dissident intellectuals after several thousand workers who had been on strike were attacked and jailed by authorities in various cities. In 1979, the committee published a charter of worker's rights.

In 1980, a new wave of strikes again broke out, this time sparked by a seemingly insignificant event. The communist government had raised the price of meat in the cafeteria of the Lenin Shipyards in the northern industrial city of Gdansk. A female worker had complained about the price hike and was fired.

That led 17,000 workers to put down their tools and barricade themselves inside the plant under the leadership of Lech Walesa, an electrician at the shipyard.

By mid-August, strikes had spread throughout the country and millions of Polish white and blue-collar workers took to the streets demanding better working conditions, even though only 10 years earlier, similar strikes had ended in bloodshed with dozens of people killed by machine gun fire and over 1,000 injured.

Lech Walesa, Solidarnosc 1980

August 30, 1980, one day before signing the agreement with the government, jubilant Solidarity members carry their leader Lech Walesa on their shoulders

But on August 31, 1980, after weeks of the strike action, the workers in the shipyard reached their goal. The strike movement, which would soon be formally known as Solidarity, was accepted as an independent trade union.

"Finally we have an independent union under our own administration," said Lech Walesa. "We now have the right to strike and we are going to demand more rights soon."

Brief period of freedom

Organizers were anything but sure of their victory, though, even when, at the end of that August, the government signed the "Gdansk Treaty" with its 21 demands, including freedom of expression, a free trade union and the right to strike.

"Getting the right to have an independent trade union was a breakthrough," said Bogdan Lis, one of the founders of Solidarity. "It was so unbelievable that we could only wonder then how long it would last."

Wojciech Jaruzelski

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist-era leader in Warsaw, Poland, May 23, 2005.

The unionists got their answer 500 days later, when the former defense minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who took over the reins of government in February 1981, took away the new-found freedoms.

"I hereby proclaim martial law in all of Poland," he announced on television as a shocked nation watched.

Martial law lasted two years after that and the communist leaders did what they could to cripple the Solidarity movement. Government critics and union adherents were put in internment camps, including the leadership circle around Walesa. The Party tried to rid the country of what it considered a trade union disease.

Dogged drive for freedom

While forced underground, the drive for freedom was not easily stopped, according to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, one-time chair of the Polish writers association and Polish foreign minister in the 1990s.

"The breakup of the trade unions was a step that cannot be without consequences," he said after his release from an internment camp in October 1982. "Many have been released from prison, but many are still behind bars, even renowned writers and professors. There are many who are still being arrested and sentenced, many women among them. We Catholics in Poland are very upset and worried."

Lech Walesa himself was arrested and stayed under house arrest until the end of 1982. But the movement he led, although officially dissolved by parliament in 1982 and driven underground, remained active. The unrest in the country could no longer be quieted by draconian measures from on high.

Solidarnosc

Workers at the Gdansk shipyard

In 1988, a new wave of strikes and labor unrest spread across the country, and high on the list of strikers' demands was government recognition of Solidarity. General Jaruzelski announced he was ready to talk with the opposition and in April 1989, the government agreed to legalize the trade union and allow it to participate in free elections to a bicameral Polish parliament.

In 1990, Solidarity experienced its perhaps sweetest triumph when Walesa was elected president. But at the same time, that marked the beginning of its long demise. The movement began drifting apart with internal fighting over interests and the speed of reforms leading to its losing popularity and influence. Even Walesa, a national hero, became a target for criticism with his high-handedness. He narrowly lost a bid for re-election in 1995 to a former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance.

Shadow of its former self

Today Solidarnosc has little influence in Polish politics and has returned to its roots as a trade union. But with just under a million members, it even has little sway in company policy. At its height, it counted ten million members in its ranks, in a country of just under 40 million.

Walesa announced he was leaving the union on its 25th anniversary, saying its goals today were very different than the ones from its early days. Solidarity's golden days, and its great achievements, were behind it.

Der ehemalige polnische Präsident Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa in 2004

"With it there would have been no German reunification, no triumph over communism," he said, adding that there are two very different parts to the Solidarity story and they should not be confused. "On the one side there is our great victory, and on the other there is our weak performance in making use of that victory."

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