Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

New Polish showdown in the making

Polish workers demand independent unions

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 21, November 7-21, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The past few weeks have witnessed a steady buildup of tension in Poland, as the Polish workers move closer to a new showdown with the Polish authorities and their backers in Moscow. A direct intervention by the U.S.S.R. looms as a possibility.

The conflict in Poland is rooted in two issues which grew out of the strikes that rocked the country for much of the summer. The key issue is the Polish workers’ demand that they be allowed to organize unions independent of the ruling pro-Soviet United Workers’ Party (UWP). The workers are also demanding that the Polish government implement the reforms they promised to enact this summer.

For weeks negotiations have taken place between the Polish government and Solidarity, the newly formed federation of independent unions, but progress has been slow in coming. After the most recent talks October 31, the Polish government agreed to give Solidarity uncensored TV air time, to allow it to publish a weekly newspaper and to receive printing presses donated by Western trade unions. All of these had been agreed to by the authorities previously, but never implemented.

But there is a deadlock on the issue of whether Polish workers can organize unions which are actually independent of the government authorities. On October 24, the Polish courts ruled that the charter of Solidarity must include a clause recognizing the “leading role” of the UWP and also inserted a clause limiting the independent unions’ right to strike.

As the decision was announced, 3,000 rank and file members of Solidarity outside the courtroom broke into chants of, “Strike! Strike!” Four days later, the 11-member presidium of Solidarity voted to call a nationwide strike November 12 unless their demands are won. As one union organizer said, “They never give us anything unless we back them into a corner.”

With Solidarity determined to pursue its demands, Polish Prime Minister Pinkowski promised the court would reconsider the matter, with another decision due by November 8.

Demand for independent unions

The demand for unions independent of the UWP arose out of the workers’ long experience with the sell-out nature of the “official” UWP-led unions. Over and over again the “official” unions squashed workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions and enforced allegiance to the Polish government’s pro-Soviet economic policies.

The situation came to a head this summer when workers struck against massive food price hikes. The “official” unions quickly tried to put a damper on the strikes and defended the government’s austerity measures which have forced many Polish workers to live hand-to-mouth.

But the strikes continued, and the workers began to demand the right to form unions that truly represented their interests. They knew from bitter experience this would only happen if the unions were independent of the UWP.

Polish government tries to defuse conflict

As the summer strike wave spread, the Polish authorities were forced to agree to most of the workers’ economic demands, hoping the workers would drop the demand for independent unions.

But the workers were not to be deterred. They began to form new unions on their own, and 38 of these unions confederated to form Solidarity. The ranks of these new unions swelled rapidly, and within two months they encompassed 8 million members – out of 13 million workers in Poland’s socialized sector! The fact that so many workers would join these independent unions vas a major indictment of the soviet brand of “socialism” embraced by Poland.

Soviets uneasy

Moscow has watched the continuing unrest in Poland with growing anxiety, fearing it may lead to an erosion of Soviet influence in the country. Poland is centrally located in Eastern Europe and is the main transport artery in the supply system for the Warsaw Pact. The country is crisscrossed by vital railways connecting the Soviet Union to East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

Moscow also fears the Polish workers may inspire workers in other Soviet bloc countries, and perhaps even in the U.S.S.R. itself, to rise up.

There are a number of constraints operating on the U.S.S.R. which would make a direct intervention costly. Any deployment of Soviet troops would be widely denounced internationally. Moscow also knows a direct intervention would meet very strong resistance by the Polish people, who are very nationalistic.

While warning against “anti-socialist” influences in Poland, by which the Kremlin means the Polish workers, Moscow has not yet issued any open threats.

But it is also clear the Soviets are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep Poland firmly in line.

Moscow’s right-hand man in Eastern Europe, East German leader Erich Honecker, openly warned October 27 that continued unrest would be met by “the fighting power of the Soviet army,” and it was clear he was speaking for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin also called the Polish leadership to Moscow October 30 to warn them to get the situation in Poland under control as soon as possible, with the implicit threat that their patience was wearing thin.

As the November 12 strike deadline approaches, the situation in Poland appears to be coming to a head. The outcome is not yet certain, but what is clear is that the resistance of the Polish workers to Soviet domination will be continuing.