Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

A Lesson from Poland

First Published: As a flyer, September 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The 16,000 militant sit-down strikers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk have given the world a vivid demonstration of the power that unity and determination can bring to the working-class movement. Most people in the U.S. took their side in this battle.

As the strike spread from factory to factory, hacked by Polish workers from the Baltic Coast to the Silesian coal mines, the Polish government moved from contemptuous dismissal, to arresting twenty-eight dissidents helping spread the word, to near collapse. As Soviet tanks remained ever ready to roll into Gdansk to crush the strike, we waited anxiously. A working class victory would, be a victory for all of Poland; a Soviet invasion could bring devastating defeat.

Our newspapers claim that the Polish workers are directing their movement against socialism and for what we already have achieved here in the U.S. Making similar claims, U.S. unions donated $120,000 to the Polish workers.

The words of Polish strikers give a different story. Some Polish workers use the phrase “red bourgeoisie” to describe the Polish ruling class. And the New York Times reported after interviewing a taxi driver, “He voiced no complaints, about Marxism, only its perversion.” (9-2-80). If working people really controlled Poland, why in the world would they need a general strike to force their demands on the government? In this strike movement, Polish workers are struggling against injustices of a system that looks a lot like capitalism and not a bit like socialism.

Who is “Catching Up” with Whom?

In Poland, the workers had to fight for the most minimal degree of democracy: trade unions separate from the government they work for. But we should also recognize that Polish workers are struggling for rights that go well beyond what we enjoy in the U.S.

The Polish workers are government employees; the Lenin Shipyard is a government enterprise. In the U.S. it is not. legal for government workers to strike; nor can a federal employee union call for, engage in, or even condone a strike, work stoppage or slowdown for any reason. If you want to know how this works out in practice, ask the Postal Workers whose strike in 1970 was broken by the National Guard. Or ask the 200 Postal Workers singled out for firing in 1978 when thousands struck “illegally” for a new contract. These workers deserve our support, just as we would have supported the Polish workers in the event of army occupation of the Gdansk work sites.

State and local employees face similar obstacles. They may have the right to form trade unions, but these unions are forbidden to exercise the most elementary rights of independent unions – for example, the right to strike for a contract. Even now, as tens of thousands of striking school teachers face fines and. imprisonment, where are the indignant politicians and the sympathetic reporters? Court injunctions backed up with the police are the usual answer when hospital workers or teachers try to do what we all just supported the Polish workers doing.

The workers in Gdansk occupied their factories – they took them over so that no scabs could enter. Here in the U.S., we have not seen factory occupations since the heroic days of U.S. labor in the 1930’s, despite the fact that labor has been losing ground daily in its struggle. Here, as in Poland, only a determined working class and its leadership can win labor’s battles. J.P. Stevens workers, who have been trying to get a union in the Southern textile mills for so long now, have faced every abuse of power in the book. They too would deserve the cheers and respect of the U.S. people and the trade union movement if they chose to follow the Lenin Shipyard workers’ example.

Most of the twenty-one demands for which the Polish workers struck would not legally justify a strike in the United States. Federal labor laws sharply limit the right to strike to only those issues over which an employer must bargain. Many of the demands of the Polish workers – for example, calling for the release of all political prisoners – would not constitute legal grounds for strike here.

And if you look at some of the other demands raised you will see that the Polish workers were striking for many things we are not even close to obtaining in the U.S. Adequate daycare for all working mothers or three-year paid maternity leave might never be granted by U.S. employers short of a nation-wide struggle of the type just waged in Poland.

Workers in the U.S. were right to support the Polish strikers in their workplace occupations, in their demands for a better standard of living, and in their fight for greater political power. With continued recession and inflation we need to learn a few lessons from the workers of Poland. When you think about it, they have a more vital and powerful labor movement than we do.