Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Poland’s historic strikes: an indictment of Soviet-style socialism

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 17, September 12-25, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The thousands of Polish workers who walked off their jobs in early July soon became tens of thousands, and the tens of thousands swelled into the hundreds of thousands. The movement could not be stopped and ended in victory late last month. The strike dealt a major blow to the Polish government and its Soviet mentors, though the possibility of direct Soviet intervention in Poland continues to loom on the horizon.

The strike wave rippled across the country for two full months, involving well over 500,000 workers in some 500 plants. Some of Poland’s most vital industries were affected, including the SiJesian coal mines, the shipyards on the Baltic coast, public transportation and others. The country’s economy was on the brink of collapse when the government finally acceded to the workers’ demands on August 31.

The concessions wrested from the government included a far-reaching program of economic and political reforms which are unprecedented for a Soviet-bloc country. Among these were the right to strike, the right to form trade unions independent of the government, pay raises of up to 177o, improved on-the-job safety measures, better health services and child care centers, more extensive maternity leave for women workers and a lessening of the government’s rigid censorship of the press.

While many of the workers returned to their jobs, strikes continued in a number of cities, including Mielec, Bialystok, Tarnow and Tarnobrzeg, as UNITY went to press.

UWP shaken

So shaken was the ruling pro-Soviet United Workers Party (UWP) that it underwent one of the biggest leadership reshufflings in its history. Five political bureau members were removed on August 24. As recriminations continued to fly, party chairman Edward Gierek was forced to resign September 5. The thinly disguised excuse was that he had heart trouble, but the move was clearly orchestrated by Moscow, whose hand is behind all major policy decisions of the UWP. Moscow was increasingly worried that Gierek could not maintain control over the situation.

The new party chairman, Stanislaw Kania, stated he would honor the agreements negotiated under Gierek. But Kania has a reputation of being a “hardliner” who will tolerate little questioning of government policies or Poland’s close ties with the Soviet Union.

Indictment of Polish “socialism”

The Polish workers’ strikes are a stinging indictment of the failures of Polish society, which Warsaw and Moscow claim is “socialist.” Poland was once a socialist state, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It made rapid progress in those years, recovering from the devastation of World War II, rebuilding the economy and improving the lives of the people. But Poland followed in the footsteps fo the Soviet Union, and the Polish people are today ruled by an oppressive bureaucratic elite.

Every aspect of Polish society is dominated by the Soviet Union. Poland’s economy, like the economies of the other Soviet-bloc countries, is seeing hard times. The cost of living is increasing 15% a year. Productivity is falling and shortages of basic consumer goods are acute. Until 1976, Poland was a food exporter, but now it has to import food, and workers must wait for hours in lines to buy bread.

Poland’s economy is tied in with the Soviet Union’s “international division of labor,” which serves primarily to benefit the Soviet Union. Poland must buy oil, grain and other goods from Moscow, often at artificially high prices and in return must supply the Soviets with beet sugar, sausage, coal, sulphur and other minerals. Even though Poland is the world’s second largest producer of coal and beet sugar, both products are strictly rationed and in short supply in Poland because most of the output is exported.

Poland’s political system is cast in the Soviet mold and is in essence a police state. The people have no voice in the government, which is dominated exclusively by the United Workers Party. The UWP defends the interests of government and industry officials, who get much higher wages than the workers and have access to special goods and services. They can shop in the “commercial stores,” for example, which carry better quality food and merchandise.

The people have little in the way of basic democratic rights. Workers cannot strike and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Lech Walesa, a leader of the recent strikes, was fired from his job at the Lenin Shipyards in 1976 for trying to organize to improve the workers’ lot. People are frequently jailed just for voicing a complaint against the government.

Strikers’ demands

It was to protest and change these conditions that the workers walked out. The strikers’ demands targeted not only economic issues, but included some of the basic political problems of Polish society.

Contrary to Western and Soviet press reports, the strike movement was not spurred by anti-communism. Rather, it was motivated by the workers’ desire to improve their conditions and their understanding that the economic and political problems in Poland are closely linked. Lech Walesa mirrored the workers’ feelings when he said, “This crisis came about because the workers did not have real representation. ... we want to be the real masters of the factories.”

The striking workers reflected a variety of political perspectives, but a strong current of nationalism and patriotism pervaded the strike committee meetings. Many workers have deep religious views.

Independent trade unions

Of the workers’ many demands, independent unions was one of the most significant, because it directly challenged the authority of the government. From their own experience, the workers knew the UWP-run unions did not represent their interests, but instead served to deflect workers’ criticisms of management and maintain the power of the union officials. The union bureaucrats in Poland, much like those in the U.S., are paid four times as much as the workers. They rigidly control job assignments and promotions and always defend plant management.

The role these trade unions play in Poland today is a measure of how far Poland has turned from the path of socialism. In 1922, Lenin described what the functions of trade unions under socialism should be: “. . .to protect the interests of the working people, to facilitate as far as possible the improvements of their standard of living, and constantly to correct the blunders and excesses of business organizations resulting from bureaucratic distortions of the state apparatus.” Clearly the official trade unions in Poland today are a far cry from what these basic organizations of the working class should be.

The other political demands of the strikers,, such as for an end to press censorship, also stemmed from the workers’ experience that the Polish government is not operating in their interests and that the workers must begin to organize themselves outside of authorized channels.

Response of the USSR

Moscow was clearly edgy about the Polish strikes. The Soviet leadership fears the independent unions may erode the dominant power of the UWP and ultimately directly challenge Soviet influence in Poland.

The Soviets also worry that the strike victory may inspire similar protests in other Eastern European countries, which the Soviets rely on as a bastion of economic and political support. But problems in Eastern Europe are mounting, with rising prices, falling industrial and agricultural output and growing popular unrest.

Trying to head off the spread of workers’ protests, the East German government abruptly cancelled a planned increase in meat prices. In Czechoslovakia, the ruling pro-Soviet party called for factory committees to pay closer attention to workers’ interests.

Moscow also fears that political strikes may spread to the Soviet Union itself. Recent walkouts at Russia’s Gorky auto plant reflect the simmering discontent among Soviet workers. To prevent Soviet workers from learning of the Polish workers’ victory, Moscow began jamming Western radio broadcasts for the first time in seven years.

Moscow hopes the UWP will be able to end the crisis without direct Soviet Union intervention. Such an intervention would be quite costly – it could precipitate prolonged and bloody fighting, open the Soviets to widespread international criticism and would further expose the bankruptcy of the Soviet version of “socialism.” But in the final analysis, the Soviets are committed to preserving their influence in Poland no matter what the cost. Under the Brezhnev Doctrine of “limited sovereignty,” the Soviets claim the right to invade other countries in “defense of socialism.” This was their justification for the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and could well be invoked again.

U.S. response

The response of the U.S. government to the Polish situation was hypocritical. Secretary of State Muskie expressed “concern” for arrested strike leaders, but no government official gave open support. The U.S. tacitly accepts Poland’s position in the USSR sphere of influence. One State Department official said, “We do not want to give the Soviets or Polish authorities the slightest pretext for harsh action.”

It remains to be seen what the final outcome of the Polish strike will be and what will happen to the independent trade unions. The Polish government and its Soviet backers will no doubt try to coopt the unions and undermine the settlement. This is the tactic they used following the Polish uprisings of 1956, 1970 and 1976.

But the Polish workers have travelled this path before, and their memories are sharp. The events unfolding in Poland over the coming months may well have major repercussions throughout the Soviet bloc and may have an important bearing on the future of Europe as a whole.