Polish workers have a long tradition of militant struggle. It was they who initiated the strike wave that led to the 1905 Russian Revolution. They organised a general strike in November 1923, in the course of which the Krakow workers took over the city, disarmed a battalion of infantry and defeated a cavalry attack; only the intervention of the Polish Socialist Party persuaded them to lay down their arms. In 1931 they originated the tactic of the occupation-strike, a form long known simply as the ‘Polish strike’ and introduced into America by Polish émigrés at the outset of the great wave of ‘sit-in strikes’ in the 1930s. In 1936, as many as 85% of the industrial workforce took part in strikes.
This tradition has continued in the years since the Second World War. Solidarity was born in the fourth great wave of strikes which have brought the workers of Poland into direct confrontation with their state bosses.
In June 1956 the workers of Poznan struck work and rioted, initiating the crisis from which Gomulka emerged to head the party and state machine. Dozens of workers were killed by the security forces. Out of the shake-up of the regime the workers won workers’ councils, as well as economic improvements. The state’s grip over political life was relaxed for a period, with students and intellectuals publishing powerful demands for a new and freer social order. Later the workers’ gains were taken back, as the Gomulka regime consolidated its position. The main beneficiary of the events of 1956 was the Church, which won a new space for itself in return for its backing of the regime, and the peasants, whose individual holdings were strengthened.
The same issues – wages, prices, production norms – which provoked the 1956 revolt on Poznan exploded again in the winter of 1970–71. In December 1970, the workers of the seaboard cities of Gdansk and Gdynia, and then of Szczecin, erupted on to the streets in protest at price rises. The regional party offices in Gdansk and Szczecin were set on fire; the Gdansk rioters attempted to open the local prison. The authorities’ response was savage. Hundreds – far more than the regime has ever publicly admitted – were shot down by the police and army. In the aftermath, Gomulka fell, to be replaced by Gierek. In January 1971 after lying reports in the local media about workers’ support for the new regime, the Szczecin shipyard erupted again. This time, instead of going onto the streets, the workers occupied the Warski shipyards, forcing Gierek to come and negotiate with them on their own ground. And in February, the women textile workers of Lodz struck and finally forced the state to withdraw its attempted price increases.
But in the period following the Szczecin occupation, the rank and file leaders who had formed the strike committee were gradually isolated, and then subjected to individual repression.
In June 1976, the government announced a new round of food price rises: meat up by an average of 69%, butter by more than half. Within hours of the announcement, strikes again erupted, this time in Warsaw, Radom and Plock. Workers from the Ursus tractor factory near Warsaw blocked and ripped up the Paris-Warsaw railway line. At Radom, they sacked the Party offices. Within 24 hours, the price rises were withdrawn. But thousands of workers were sacked, harassed or beaten by the police in an orgy of brutal state revenge, in the course of which an estimated eleven workers died.
In 1956, 1970–71 and 1976, workers’ protests started more or less totally spontaneously, without any apparent background of previous organisation. After 1976, however, the first beginnings of independent organisation were made, and some ground was prepared for the stormy struggles of 1980. A tiny group of dissidents grouped around KOR (Committee for the Defence of Workers) began to publish news of the state repression of workers, together with discussions of conditions in factories and state services. This grouping, perpetually harassed but not effectively repressed by the Gierek regime, made contacts with a few small groups of workers in a number of centres. Out of this link emerged two unofficial news sheets, Robotnik (Worker) and later Robotnik Wybrzeza (Coastal Worker). These news sheets began to elaborate demands for free trade unions. Many of those involved in these unofficial activities were to play a leading role in the strikes of the summer of 1980 and in the development of Solidarity.
In July 1980, again, the government tried to push through price rises. Again it was met with a series of rolling strikes. This time the state – following a pattern that had already partly developed over the previous three or four years – attempted to head off protests by granting wage increases to offset the price rises in each factory that struck in turn. In spite of the usual wall of silence in the official press the regime was unable to isolate the movement.
But the strikes did spread. And in August they reached Gdansk. The Lenin shipyard was occupied following the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz, a Coastal Worker activist in the yard. The plant management conceded to the workers’ demands, and the occupation-strike very nearly came to a halt. But the Lenin shipyard action had galvanised many other local workplaces into similar activity and urgent pressure from the militants in the shipyard persuaded the shipyard workers to continue in solidarity with the rest of Gdansk. An Inter-Factory Committee (MKZ) for the whole of Gdansk was established, centred in the shipyard. The strikes and occupations continued to spread across the industrial areas, now drawing in the mines and steelworks of the South for the first time. The government was forced to negotiate an unprecedented agreement (the ‘21 points’) at Gdansk, granting the right to ‘independent self-governing trade unions’ and a host of social, economic, cultural, religious and political reforms. MKZs sprang up across the length and breadth of Poland, uniting themselves into a single national body in September. Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was born.
The summer of 1980 showed what Polish workers had learned from their previous battles.
In 1956, in 1970, and partially in 1976, the workers’ struggle erupted onto the streets. The immediate form of struggle adopted was that of the ‘riot’. In 1956 in Poznan, in 1970 in Gdansk and Szczecin, workers fought pitched battles in the streets with the forces of state repression. They burned down the regional party offices. In 1976, the Ursus workers invaded and ripped up the railway tracks. The costs of this form of struggle were tremendous: estimates of workers killed in Poznan vary from 54 to 80; in the northern coastal cities the dead were numbered in hundreds. The riot, after all, is a relatively ‘primitive’ form of struggle: while its temper may often be insurrectionary, it lacks organisation, and is conducted on ground that the state – however brutally – can master with relative ease. It is difficult to consolidate a riot, and difficult to spread it. Permanent organisation, and the testing of organisational forms and leaders, is not easily achieved by this means. While the ‘riot’ lays bare, in the starkest possible fashion, the revolutionary anger of the participants, and while it is a form through which the immense courage and solidarity of workers is also revealed, it does not enable workers to shape political developments directly. Historically, riots have certainly been the signal for political change, for state reforms and concessions; but these changes have commonly been won at a remove from the workers themselves.’ 
The workers of Poland learned this – in action. After the street battles of December 1970, the Warski shipyard workers were about to go out onto the streets of Sczcecin again the following January. A small group of men jumped on to the roof of a snack-kiosk by the yard gates where the workers were gathering. One of them, Edmund Baluka, managed to make himself heard through an improvised megaphone. If we go out on the streets, he urged, we’ll manage to burn down a few buildings, but the cops and the army will get back at us. Let’s, instead, occupy the shipyard and force the government to come to talk to us. The ‘Polish strike’ returned to its birthplace. Gierek, Jarusoszewicz and Jaruzelski were forced to come to meet the workers on their own ground. Out of the Szczecin occupation, the workers won the right to maintain their strike committee and to supervise new elections to the workers’ council and trade union groups in the shipyard and – to the horror of the party officials – of the shipyard party branch itself. 
In 1980, this was taken one step further with the whole movement being characterised by the wave of factory occupations. No workers died, and the level of workers’ self-organisation expanded a thousand fold.
In 1956 and in 1970, the workers’ struggles provoked changes in the top leadership of the state. Gomulka came to power in the wake of Poznan; Gierek in the wake of Gdansk. In 1956, the workers identified quite strongly – for a period – with the Gomulka regime. In 1971, Gierek was partly successful in appealing for workers’ support. Anna Walentynowicz, in 1980, recalled how ‘when the government fell in January 1971 and Gierek became the first secretary I was one of the delegates to meet him. The events of that year are well known, but you should also know that we invested a great deal of trust in him, in Gierek himself. That was the time of the famous slogan, “If you help us, we will help you”. He disappointed us terribly. He came to the shipyard several times. But the last time he came, in 1978, he completely distanced himself from the workers, and had become just the same as his predecessor.’ 
By the late 1970s, Polish workers were circulating one of their innumerable political jokes: ‘Question: What is the difference between Gierek and Gomulka? Answer: Nothing – only Gierek doesn’t know it yet...’ In 1980, change at the top of the party and the state did not impress the workers at all: they wanted, and won, their own institutions. Neither Kania’s replacement of Gierek, nor Jaruzelski’s of Kania, made any significant difference to the workers’ movement. You can fool all of the people once, and most of them twice, but it’s difficult to fool them a third time. And after 1980, all over Poland local Solidarity branches began – often successfully – naming and demanding the removal of corrupt officials.
In 1971, and again in 1976, workers’ movements won immediate victories over the government on the issues that brought them into battle. In particular, food prices were held down, wages were raised, and production norms kept under control. But after both sets of events, the state exacted revenge. In Szczecin, once the mass feeling among workers had subsided, the rank-and-file leaders who had led the occupation and the later Workers’ Commission were gradually isolated. One was murdered, and an attempt was made on the life of another. Others found themselves victimised and thrown out of their shipyard jobs, and Edmund Baluka – first ‘promoted’ to an official union position, to be sacked six weeks later – had to flee the country. In Radom, at Ursus, and elsewhere, in the aftermath of the 1976 strikes, many workers were victimised, some by arrest, some by loss of job. Some were beaten up on the streets at night. Some died. Commenting on the 1976 repression, Edmund Baluka remarked: ‘The Communist Party is doing its best to prevent a self-conscious organised working class from coming into being. Until workers understand that every man removed from their ranks weakens them, until they can defend their organisations, they cannot be a true class ... The Polish workers are not yet a class, but they will become a class.’ 
One of the activities around which the Coastal Worker group began to organise in the late 1970s was the memory of the workers killed in 1970. The KOR-KSS grouping spread information about the authorities’ treatment of individual workers. In 1980, these various activities bore fruit: the issue over which the Gdansk occupation began was the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz. And in the negotiations with the government at the end of August, the final point on which the Inter-factory Committee in Gdansk refused to budge, when all their other demands had been granted, was the freeing from prison of the dissidents – Jacek Kuron and others – who had worked to assist them in the run-up to the strike. Anna Walentynowicz again:
... the Government signed all our demands except the fourth. But surely that was the most important point! If we don’t defend the political prisoners today, then tomorrow our agreements are worthless for we are all political, and they will call us that, and simply lock us all up. So we refused to agree.
We demanded an adjournment. We turned to our community, to the crowd in the hall, to the people occupying the shipyard, to the people standing outside the shipyard gates. They told us we could strike for another week, for another two even, but all 21 demands had to be met. We returned to the hall, and Jagielski [the government negotiator] says he can’t agree. In that case we break off the talks. He then had a private conversation with Andrzej Gwiazda [one of the strike leaders] in which he agreed, but wouldn’t give us a date for the freeing of the prisoners. Again we refused to deal. Finally he said that by tomorrow at noon all the people on our list would be freed ... And that was our victory. 
There is no doubt that this readiness of workers to extend their defence beyond their own ranks was crucial in swinging the overwhelming majority of the people of Poland behind them. From its beginnings, Solidarity was more than ‘a trade union’: it was a workers’ movement for justice and freedom, and as such it was capable of much more radical and extensive development than a narrower trade union movement could be. As a result, too, crucial divisions began from the past were now overcome. In 1968, the students and intellectuals had faced a battering from the regime, in the course of which the most cynical anti-semitism had been brought into play by the Party leadership. That year the students and intellectuals had stood alone – indeed, a student meeting at Warsaw University had been viciously broken up by ‘angry workers’ acting as Party stooges. In 1970, the Gdansk workers had approached the students of the local Polytechnic. But now it was the students who stayed indoors while the workers were slaughtered on the streets. In 1980-81, however, the expansiveness of Solidarity, its identification with the general cause of freedom drew every oppressed, downtrodden and exploited section of Polish society behind its banner. Though few of the participants might have recognised the source, Marx’s idea that the working class must assume the leadership of the whole nation was on the way to being realised.
The condition for this, of course, was that Solidarity developed as an organisation representing the whole working class. There were several aspects that should be noted. The first is the way that, beginning in Gdansk, the form of organisation adopted by the workers expanded from the shipyard strike committee to the Inter-Factory Committee (MKZ) , a body which brought together the strength of the shipyards with the weaker groups in neighbouring workplaces. The MKZ form was the one that spread across Poland, and it was though the federation of MKZs that the national Solidarity organisation developed. The second is the refusal of the new organisations to adopt the form of the discredited ‘branch’ unions (the CRZZ), which organised on an ‘industrial’ basis. Solidarity was a union of all workers, and thus much less prone to the risks of sectionalism. The strongest and the weakest workers were bound together into one organisational framework of mutual aid. The third is the form in which Solidarity developed its wage demands. Although there was some weakness in the negotiation of this point, which was to present problems later , the form in which the wage demands were presented was such as to reduce wage differentials.
Lastly, Solidarity was, from the beginning, characterised by a recognition of, and a permanent demand for extreme openness and accountability. In 1971, at the Szczecin shipyard, the talks with Gierek had been hooked up to the shipyard tannoy system, enabling the entire workforce to hear what was said. This was developed still further in 1980 and 1981. The talks with Jagielski were broadcast over the tannoy, from a room with large windows through which workers outside could make their feelings apparent at every juncture. When, later, Walesa took part in secret talks behind closed doors, he was subjected to sharp criticism by sections of the leadership and the membership. After years of atomisation, of political discussion hampered by lack of honest information. Solidarity’s demand for massive restrictions on censorship, for freedom of access to the media and the like were immensely liberating. They were, quite literally, a condition for the success of the movement, for the practical unification of the whole working class. The importance of these issues, in the suffocating political atmosphere of East European societies, can hardly be exaggerated. Hence the significance of the workers’ demands for public monuments to their dead, even though – especially in the case of the Gdansk monument – they cost immense sums from the workers’ funds. The demand for openness in negotiations went so far that, at Bielsko-Biala in January 1981, negotiations were hooked into the national telephone network so that workers with access to telephones in other towns could eavesdrop! Just how many of the trade-union bureaucrats in the USA and Western Europe who proclaimed their support for Solidarity so loudly would be prepared to allow their own unions to follow such democratic practices, one wonders?
One final point: in 1956, the workers’ movement fought for workers’ councils in the factories. In 1980, such demands were relatively unimportant. To revolutionaries, for whom the demand for workers’ self-management in production has always been an important issue, this may seem at first sight a step backwards. But it was not. Firstly, the 1956 workers’ councils were limited to issues within the individual factory. As such they were relatively easily atomised; while they were useful to Gomulka as he consolidated his position, the workers’ councils were tolerated; when Gomulka had no further use for them, they were quite easily neutralised and wound up. The workers’ councils had never succeeded in getting beyond what Kuron and Modzelewski, in their Open Letter to the Party in the 1960s, called the ‘technocratic’ vision. Lacking any means of breaking out of the limits of the individual enterprise, their role was restricted to that of advising the management on how to fulfil the Plans, which were formulated by the central state apparatus, but whose content remained totally out of their control. Secondly, the workers’ councils of 1956 were associated with a belief – or perhaps a hope – among many workers that they really were in some sense the collective owners of the means of production. The definite emergence of the demand for free trade unions in the late 1970s, and their mass organisation in 1980, represent the practical aspect of a process of ideological clarification, a recognition by the Polish working class that their interests as a class are different from, and opposed to, the interests of the ruling class and its state. Thus, though it appears paradoxical at first, the shift from the demand for “workers’ councils” to the demand for “free trade unions”, represented in the Polish context, a general raising of the level of class consciousness and class combativity.
The creation and the growth of Solidarity thus represented a magnificent, and unprecedented, achievement by the Polish working class. In its development were crystallised a whole series of important lessons that the Polish workers had learned, collectively, for themselves, out of their own previous experiences of struggle.
However, Solidarity was also, from the beginning, a movement with serious weaknesses. Its leaders and advisers seem to have operated, initially, with serious illusions about the situation they faced and the possibilities open to them. It took a long time, and much internal turmoil, before those illusions even began to dissipate – and it was in this period that the state was preparing the brutal reply it was to give to Solidarity’s hopes.
1. For a discussion of riots, focused on British and American experience, see Socialist Review, May–June 1981 and Chris Harman, The summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis, International Socialism 2 : 14, autumn 1981.
2. For the Szczecin events, cf. Edmund Baluka and Ewa Barker, Workers’ struggles in Poland, International Socialism (1st series) 94, January 1977.
3. Women’s Voice 46, November 1980.
4. Interview with Socialist Worker, October 1976.
5. Women’s Voice, op. cit.
6. The Inter-Factory Committee was a feature of the 1970 struggle in Szczecin.
7. For discussion of this point, see Neal Ascherson, The Polish August, Harmondsworth 1981, p. 176.
Last updated: 22.9.2013