Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Strike wave shakes Polish regime

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 16, August 22-September 11, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Over 100,000 workers in 14 provinces are on strike this summer in Poland, shaking the Polish government and the ruling pro-Soviet United Workers Party. The strike wave is the biggest challenge to the government since 1970, when strikes toppled Polish President and party chief Wladyslaw Gomulka.

Protest high food prices

The strike wave started in early July with a walkout by railway workers in the industrial city of Lublin. The workers demanded a wage increase to compensate for the government’s decision to raise meat and other food prices by 40-60% on July 1.

Discontent spread rapidly and strikes broke out in other Lublin factories and among garbage workers and bus drivers in Warsaw, industrial workers in Wroclaw and Poznan Provinces and others. Despite appeals from the government, the strikes spread to over 200 workplaces in 14 provinces.

Economic and political demands

Besides raising economic demands, many strikes also took up political demands such as for freedom of speech and the press, the right to strike and to form independent trade unions free from the domination of the United Workers Party.

One of the most militant strikes was at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. The shipyards were closed down and occupied by 17,000 workers, who demanded a pay increase and the rehiring of several fired workers including Anna Walentynowicz, a leader of the 1970 strike. The workers also wanted to erect a statue commemorating the 49 Lenin shipyard workers killed in the 1970 strike.

Discontent inside Soviet-bloc countries

Underlying the current strike wave is a worsening economic crisis and a deep dissatisfaction with the ruling authorities. The Polish government is deeply in debt – it owes $20 billion to various Western countries and an untold amount to the Soviet Union. Payments on debts to Western countries alone will consume 70% of the country’s hard currency earnings this year.

The government decided to increase food prices in order to deal with this crisis. For years the government subsidized food prices, to the tune of $3.3 billion a year. Eliminating the food subsidies saved the government money and placed the burden of Poland’s economic problems on the working people.

Increases in food prices and food scarcities – particularly meat – touched off the 1970 worker rebellions and another series of strikes in 1976.

The Polish people have a whole series of grievances against the authorities. The overall conditions and quality of life in Poland today are poor and there is severe repression against political dissidents and independent activity among workers.

Government shaken

The Polish government granted some pay increases, hoping to quell the strikes. But it refused to withdraw the food price increases or meet any of the workers’ political demands.

On August 15 Polish Prime Minister Edward Babiuch announced the increase would remain in effect at least until the fall of 1981. He also issued a thinly-veiled threat to the strikers, saying, “Foes of people’s Poland” are trying to promote ideas “far removed from the striving of the working class.”

But Babiuch’s efforts had little effect. Some strikes ended after winning substantial pay hikes, but tens of thousands remained off the job. On August 17, striking bus drivers appealed to the Lenin shipyard workers for support; one driver said, “We need your support. Alone, we are lost. Buses cannot face tanks.” The shipyard workers voted to stay off the job in support of all striking workers throughout the country.

Workers in Gdansk and two other northern cities, Gdynia and Sopot, formed a strike committee to consolidate their demands. The committee represents 50,000 strikers in 21 major work places.

By August 19, strikes spread to the coal mines. United Workers Party chief Edward Gierek warned that he would not surrender to “political demands,” and troops began to amass outside the Gdansk area.

At UNITY press time, the workers have not backed down and the strikes are continuing. It is unclear if Gierek’s government will meet the same fate as his predecessor. But the workers have exposed the growing problems inside those countries which embrace the Soviet model of “socialism.”