ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, January 1977


Edmund Baluka &
Ewa Barker

Workers Struggles in Poland


From International Socialism (1st series), No.94, January 1977, pp.19-25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Narrative and Introduction

IN DECEMBER 1970 and January 1971 major confrontations occurred between Polish workers and the Polish government. The following article focusses on only one aspect of those strikes, namely the development of workers democracy at the Warski shipyards of Szczecin.


The first wave of strikes started on Dec 14th in Gdansk and Gdynia, two major ports on the Baltic. The issue was the ‘experimental’ introduction of a new piecework system followed a week later by price rises in food. The effect of these two changes was to reduce workers’ real wages by about 45%. Many workers died and the strikes were quickly crushed. On the 17th, when activity at these two ports was effectively at an end, workers walked out of the shipyards at Szczecin, the third major Polish port 200 miles away. A day of rioting and fights with the police took place, culminating in attacks on the police headquarters and prison and the burning of the party headquarters, the Union headquarters and many other important buildings in the town. There is some evidence that the walkout at Szczecin was started and led by ‘agents’ of either the Gierek or the Moczar factions in the party, who hoped in this way to hammer home the nails in the coffin of Wladyslaw Gomulka, Poland’s party boss. If this is indeed the case then it is satisfying to comment that they bit off more than they could chew, for the consequences were far reaching, not only for Gomulka who was indeed toppled on December 19th, but for Gierek himself.

After the events of December there was an intermediate period. Szczecin was on General Strike. In the occupied shipyards the gates were open and meetings occurred daily. Links were formed with other striking workers in the town. A rather chaotic period, made even more so by the intervention of Christmas. By mid January a small amount of work was being resumed in the shipyards, with little gained from the strike. It was then that an elaborately faked report appeared in both papers and television that the workers of the shipyard tube division had pledged extra productivity in support of the new Gierek regime. Film and photographs of a well attended mass meeting of three years ago had been overlaid with new slogans, new banners and a new sound track. It took the bewildered tube division workers a full 24 hours to piece together the real facts amidst a barrage of abuse from the rest of the shipyards. This incident provoked the fury that started the second wave of strikes.

The character of these was different to what had gone previously. The workers occupied, locked the gates of the shipyards and were themselves blockaded by the police. They demanded to talk to Gierek himself, who did indeed come personally to the shipyards to participate in a nine hour historic meeting with the strikers. This meeting was taped by the workers and the tapes are now in the west so much has been said and written about it. The main demand of the strikes for a cancellation of price rises introduced in December was not immediately won, although it was conceeded only a few weeks later. The workers did however assert their right to strike and wrung from the regime important concessions relating to workers democracy at the plant. The strike committee became the workers commission and for a period of six weeks supervised the execution of those demands which had been won. Crucially they supervised new elections at the plant. From these elections a trade Union branch was created which for a period became a democratic force which extended the gains of the strike.

Note on Pay

In order to understand some of what follows one needs to know that the average pay of a skilled shipyard worker was around 3,000 zloty per month. Directors could receive around 12,000 zl. per month. However the pay structure was supplemented by a system of premiums which flowed fairly regularly. These premiums were sums made available to the workforce on particular occasions, say forthe completion of a ship. The distribution of premiums has traditionally rested in the hands of management, who took a lions share, whilst the distribution of the rest was heavily biased towards party blue eyed boys and other worthies. A Director’s salary could easily be trebbled by this means, other lesser administrators and party functionaries might receive double salary. If an ordinary worker received 600 zl. annually on top of his pay he was doing well.

The Political Life of a Polish Worker

A Polish worker is forbidden to organise politically except in official organisations. Meetings of union members are not allowed unless officials of the union are present, all political parties (other than the party) are banned, ad hoc gatherings for the purposes of political discussion are quickly stamped on. At work it is simply not done to comment on any political question; the business of the workers is production, politics should be left to those whose business is politics. Indeed even favourable comment is likely to be taken as mockery and is thus not wise. In Szczecin in 1963 three workers from the ship repair yards, after a night out drinking and making merry, stopped in front of the monument commemorating Soviet dead during the second world war and, raising their hats, bowed low from the waist a number of times. They were arrested and given 6, 8 and 12 months in prison. On another occasion, duplicating a very bawdy and somewhat political poem about price rises in gas, electricity and coal produced a crop of sentences up to three years.

Political discussion is thus limited to one’s family and immediate circle of trusted friends. This is coupled with a general lack of long-standing traditions. Many workers are ex-peasants freshly recruited to the working class from the countryside. Also, Szczecin lies in Poland’s western territories which were part of Germany before the war and are populated by people displaced from the Eastern territories which Poland conceded to Russia in 1945. The operation of throwing people out of their homes, allowing them to take only that which they could carry, and shipping them in cattle trucks to the deserted towns of the Western territories effectively smashed many traditions which did exist.

In such an atmosphere organised development of working class ideas cannot take place, and it is difficult to distinguish ‘left’ from ‘right’. Yet paradoxically, in contrast with Britain where most people expect capitalism to go on for ever, there is a general expectation of the imminent collapse of the system. Not that Polish workers look to the west, they have long ago ceased to do that, but the Pole is quick to think ‘perhaps this is it’. For example commotions in the street, which here would be interpreted as probable traffic accidents, bring people hurrying to the scene in case it’s ‘trouble’.

It is possible to make informal links with other workers sometimes. Lorries can carry news as well as goods. (For example the fighting in Gdansk and Gdynia was relayed to the Szczecin workers by lorry drivers.) Workers whose work takes them to other factories can swap stories about their workplaces, much as British workers do. In the immediate period after the trouble at Szczecin, when he was chairman of the Workers Commission, Edmund Baluka received a number of letters delivered by lorry drivers. These would only be given to him after he had produced proof of his identity and would contain political declarations followed by a call to ‘prepare for a General Strike’.

Strangely enough, membership of the Communist Party is not for most of its members a political act. Of 10,000 workers at the shipyards in 1970, 2,000 were party members. We can safely estimate that only a handful of these joined out of ideological conviction. For others entry into the party is mainly a matter of material gain. If you are a member it is easier to get your child into nursery school, it is easier to get the allocation of a flat, it is easier to book a place at the shipyard holiday home on the Baltic. At work the jobs you get are the cushy ones, promotion is impossible without party membership, more premiums come your way in the pay packet. Large sections of the party do not care to admit their membership in public.

This view of the character of the rank and file party membership is reinforced by the fact that at the very time when workers occupied the centre of the political stage in Szczecin, party organisation disintegrated completely. The party largely disappeared. When shipyard workers marched on the town their first aim was the party headquarters, and the desire to burn it down lasted through many set backs and fights with the police. When this objective was realised in the evening a mass of party cards was thrown into the blaze. Throughout the period of very intense political activity in the shipyards, when meetings of all kinds occurred daily (often with 150% attendance, as workers from other departments would come too) the party hid. Even a year or two after the strikes, party membership was still counted in hundreds and only now, five years later, is the party regaining its former strength in the shipyards, with the basis of recruitment remaining unchanged.

Evolution of Democratic Forms

THE FIRST strike committee came into being the morning after the first walkout in December and the riots which followed. After a night of fighting with the police, shaken by the deaths and injuries which had occurred, workers made their way to the shipyards and at seven that morning held a very chaotic meeting. A decision to occupy the yards was finally reached and a strike committee was chosen merely by the method of calling out names. Anyone whose name was called was automatically a committee member. In this way a strike committee of seven was chosen with a majority of party members. In addition each of the 36 departments in the shipyards elected three members who were to liaise with the committee.

The role of the strike committee was an ambiguous one. They straddled the dividing line between workers and management. On the one hand the committee was thrown up by events which had destroyed much of the power structure in Szczecin, on the other hand its communist party majority ensured that from the beginning the committee’s policy was to dampen down the strike if it could.

Over the next few days Szczecin went on General Strike, police and party organisation collapsed. The strike committee effectively ruled Szczecin. They controlled the maintenance of essential services and supplies, two issues of the Szczecin Courier (which was on strike of course) were authorised by them and printed with their material. (One was about the strike in Szczecin itself, the second one later, when a document containing a blow by blow account of the incidents in Gdansk came into their hands). The shipyard committee also formed a natural leadership for other striking workers, and delegates from other strike committees also brought demands to the shipyards.

Strains developed however, between the shipyard departmental representatives, visiting workers and the strike committee. Mass meetings in the shipyard departments daily passed thousands of resolutions on every conceivable subject under the sun, from general working class demands about pay or the right to organise independently to small personal and seemingly trivial demands about the daily frictions affecting the individual worker. As these demands were sent to the strike committee and nothing was done the three departmental representatives would often be recalled and others put in their place. Visiting workers too felt that the strike was not getting anywhere. The situation became very confused as management and the strike committee struggled to put the lid on the whole affair as quickly as possible. Steel workers threatened to shut down their furnaces, chemical workers threatened to blow up. their plant, the strike committee spent many hours absent from the shipyard altogether.

In this atmosphere a meeting of department representatives and others sacked the strike committee (in its absence) and elected a new one in its place. The structure of the new committee was the same as before, it didn’t occur to anyone to change it. But it was then the idea of going over the head of the local government officials straight to Gierek was first born. It was this committee which decided to go home for Christmas but to return and carry on with the strike after Christmas.

After Christmas daily mass meetings at the shipyard continued but towards the middle of January a slow drift back to work had started. When the furious workers of the tube division started the second strike and occupation on January 22nd the organisation of the strikers developed a much more democratic form. Each department now elected five representatives, who nominated one of their number to membership of the strike committee and a further election took place in the department to bring the number of departmental representatives back up to five. This strike committee was thus much bigger and more closely linked with the men on the shop floor.

(Not that the members of the strike committee were necessarily the articulate, well respected, natural leaders in each department. Often the personal risk of being a strike committee member would make all five members of a department delegation extremely reluctant to be nominated to the strike committee. Many had to be bullied into it. However most of them rose to the task which faced them in the succeeding days and weeks and were developed and hardened by the struggle.)

The decision to lock the gates and organise a workers militia to picket the perimeter fence was taken by Edmund Baluka himself in the few hectic hours before the strike committee was organised. However this much more militant and determined stance was adopted and carried through by them. They fought to keep the strike together in those few crucial days (many workers were frightened and tried to escape over the perimeter fence) they resisted the blockade of the yards by the police and army, they organised the shipyards to be ready even for an eventual attack by paratroops and tanks which was expected. (Bottles of oxygen and acetylene, which explode when simultaneously crushed by a tank were stacked at strategic points near the perimeter fence.) It was this committee which negotiated with Gierek and won for itself the right to exist for six weeks after the strike working full time as the Workers Commission and supervising the execution of the strikers demands.

(In the arrangements for the actual confrontation with Gierek the strike committee was outmanouvered by his walking onto the site before they had time to organise the meeting their way. Their plan was not to have the meeting introduced by the shipyard director, but to have the two sides confronting each other at two separate tables and the audience elected by the departments rather than gathered ad hoc by the Polish leader as he walked through the yards.)

Of course inside the committee certain individuals assumed positions of leadership while others played a supporting role. Yet the strength of the workers, so essential to them at that point in the struggle, came from the collective experience gained since the start of events and the close linking of the committee with the shop floor workers, made possible by the structure which had evolved. Here also their control of the shipyard tannoi system was absolutely crucial. This system is installed in all large workplaces in Poland and normally relays ‘news’ propaganda and pep talks about productivity and greater effort to the workforce. At every stage the workers realised that control of the tannoi gave them an enormous advantage and secured it as a first priority. In December access to the tannoi was available to all. Members of management, party functionaries, members of the strike committee, all used it at will. A barrage of conflicting arguments was broadcast all over the yards: the strike should be ended, it should be continued, this or that course of action should be followed. In January the tannoi was transformed into a weapon under the democratic control of the working force, Management no longer were allowed access. All major bulletins had to be approved by the entire assembly of departmental representatives while minor announcements had to be approved by the appropriate strike committee member.

During the negotiations with Gierek in which, for tactical reasons, the multitudes of workers demands had been whittled down to just eleven, the demand for exclusive control of the tannoi by the Workers Commission remained on the negotiating table and was won.

The Workers Commission

IMMEDIATELY after the meeting with Gierek the shipyards officially resumed work, although a very large number of yard meetings of all kinds still took place for many weeks. The Workers Commission immediately came into being and occupied part of the six storey director’s building on the site.

The task of the Commission was to supervise the execution of the eleven point programme of demands granted by Gierek. These were (in shortened form)

  1. Cancellation of price rises intoduced in December. (This demand was only conceded a few weeks later after more strikes by women textile workers on Lodz, and a belief in the higher levels of the party that a general strike was imminent.)
  2. New, democratic elections for the shipyard trade union branch, the workers council, the shipyard party branch and its cells and youth organisation.
  3. Pay for the duration of the strike.
  4. No victimisation. Guarantees of personal safety for all strikers while on the site or in the town. (my emphasis – E.B.)
  5. Gierek and Jarosiewicz to come to the yards.
  6. Honest information about the economic and political situation in the yards and in the country, and a withdrawal of the false reports about the workers in the tube division.
  7. The correction about the tube workers to be published in all the media which carried the false report. This to be done by January 25th.
  8. Persons responsible for the false reports to be disciplined.
  9. Publication of the list of strikers demands in local mass media by January 25th.
  10. Strike Committee to become Workers Commission until the completion of the new elections under (2) to be recognised by the shipyard and civil authorities.
  11. The tasks of the Workers Commission to be made possible by
  1. guarantees of personal safety in the yards and the town.
  2. exclusive control (by the W.C.) of the shipyard tannoi.
  3. Workers Commission members to supervise the new elections held under (2).

‘We demand that the forces of law and order immediately cease harassment, intimidation and arrest of the workers who are participating in the strike. Striking is not a crime since nowhere is it prohibited.’

The Commissions initial work took most of its members out into the town. Szczecin’s gaols and police stations were bulging with people arrested during the troubles, hospitals were filled with those beaten up and injured. The morgues were piled high with bodies. The immediate task was to free those in prison and help those in hospital, a task which benefited not only shipyard workers but other workers from the town. Edmund Baluka recalls a typical case.

A woman came to the shipyard in tears. Her husband was in prison. He lived in a village some kilometers from Szczecin itself and on the day of riots in December he had returned from Szczecin (where he worked) and gone to a cafe where friends of his were sitting round a table, drinking and talking. ‘Hey, you bastards’ he had cried, ‘here you sit, filling your gut, while in Szczecin blood is flowing in the streets!’ He had been arrested and imprisoned. The details of the man’s name and whereabouts were taken and Edmund Baluka called the regional party boss in Szczecin. Upon learning that they were speaking to the Workers Commission Chairman the authorities became quite unusually polite and helpful. The case proceeded to the police station and the local gaol in the man’s village and within a few hours he was released and taken to the shipyard to meet his wife. In time the Commission managed to release all but a small number of those arrested during the strike period in this way.

The Commission also undertook to count bodies. This took some detective work as the official count of the dead was ridiculously low (17). Morgues and hospitals were visited. Grave diggers were interviewed. The mortality rate for Szczecin had risen by several hundred percent over the relevant period, many doctors had been forced to sign ‘natural death’ certificates in order to cover up the casualty rate. The figures which emerged were horrifying.

The Commission estimated that about 700 people had died as a result of the upheaval in Szczecin. About 150 of these were shot, the rest died of things like ruptured livers and fractured skulls, or had been run over by tanks. Women and children were listed among the dead.

One of the most important tasks undertaken by the Commission was the supervision of new elections in the shipyards. It was this which made it possible for the gains of the strike, which did not seem very numerous the morning after the meeting with Gierek, to be consolidated and extended. The commission was to supervise elections to the unions, to the party and youth organisation in the shipyard and to the workers council. (The workers councils were bodies introduced after the ‘spring’ of 1956. At first introduced as a concession to workers democracy, they were in 1971 mainly pressure groups which interested themselves in balance books and the ‘proper’ running of the establishment. They were abolished about two years ago.) No election was valid without the presence of a delegation from the Workers Commission at the election meeting and without the signatures of the Commission Delegates on the list of successful candidates.

At election meetings all candidates had to be proposed from the floor (previously it had been universal practice for the successful candidate to be proposed, complete with song of praise from the platform). Lists of candidates had to be in alphabetical order, (previously those elected invariably headed the list of candidates). All elections were to be universal, equal, secret, direct and proportional. That was the slogan. The commission supervised the counting of votes (previously it is unlikely that the votes were ever counted, the proportion of those voting for the successful candidate was always announced as exceeding 99 per cent even when it was universally known that many workers spoiled their ballot papers.

There were objections from the bodies concerned. The party, especially, found supervision by non party members very irksome. An attempt was made to restrict the supervision of party meetings to those members of the Workers Commission who were in the party. (7 out of 40 members). This failed: there were too many party elections in the 36 departments for such a small number, it would be against democratic principles to discriminate against other Commission members, and anyway how could the party branches oppose a concession granted by Comrade Gierek himself! It was only six months later that a friend, a man described as having the whole of Marx, Engels and Lenin at his fingertips, showed Edmund Baluka a quotation from Lenin which states how it is the non party members who must judge the party, and the opinion of the non party members must decide who is a good communist and who is not. At the time it would have been very unpopular to quote from any source in the sacred texts of the Party.

The Commissions final task was to supervise the shipyards Union conference, a meeting of 400 delegates elected from the departments by proportional representation. This conference (a mammoth affair lasting 27 hours!) elected a plenum of 38 members of whom 7 were to be full time officers of the Union. This was the Union organisation which, for a time, challenged the power of management in a real way and became a real voice of the shipyard workers.

The Union Branch

From the beginning the new Trade Union officers tried to establish a new way of doing things. Desks were banned. If there was nowhere to put them they were pushed against a wall and thus often came to be used as seats on which people would perch as they chatted. No Union officer was going to receive a worker sitting behind a desk. Workers also remembered standing cap in hand, waiting interminably to see some Union official while secretaries idly drank endless cups of coffee ... and coffee was outlawed (at least for a time). The doors to the offices were always open, workers could come and go, see their Union men without appointment.

On the first morning in their new jobs the Union officers accidentally came across several large baskets filled with recent files of invoices and other accounting books which were being wheeled to the incinerator for disposal on the orders of the chief accountant. This was of course stopped and the director and the chief accountant summoned to give some explanation. No satisfactory explanation was forthcoming and eventually the matter was passed to the Supreme Chamber of Control. This body, second only to the chamber of representatives in the Polish constitution, has power to investigate allegations of corruption and fraud or other economic crimes in any organisation in Poland, however elevated. Sending the files there however, proved to be a mistake, for they were sent back with nothing but minor irregularities reported. (Perhaps the Supreme Chamber of Control was itself in need of being controlled?) The shipyard workers had to rely on their own inexpert knowledge of accounting in wading through the files to try and uncover fiddles which they were convinced were there. Much must have escaped their notice but much was also revealed. The director’s home had been furnished with 100,000 zl. worth of top quality luxury furniture, the cost had been lost in the cost of furnishing a ship. Non-existent workers for whom pay was still being drawn by the shipyard management were now ‘killed’. The buying of complete sets of mattresses and bedside cabinets for the shipyard holiday home each year was stopped. The list was endless. Management heads rolled.

The distribution of premiums was also investigated closely. Beforehand about two thirds of any premium was taken by the management who received payments of around 10,000 zl. each while one third went to the workforce, for whom a typical premium payout would be around 200 or 300zl. Under the auspices of the Union a new scale was introduced which had to be applied equally to all workers and distributed the premium according to their work. The scale produced typical payouts of 400-600 zl. for cleaners (who had previously never received any about 1,000 to 1,400 zl. for a skilled welder and about 3,000 for a director. This system still survives to this day in the shipyards of Szczecin.

Work norms were frozen so that extra effort at work was not immediately followed by a visit from a time and motionman and a re-evaluation of the norm. This allowed the workers to raise their individual earnings but in doing so undermined the cohesion of the workforce. Workers began to miss department Union meetings in order to boost their output and hence their pay.

Where management and administration needs had encroached on the workers facilities, for example a washroom or a department canteen being turned into offices, the lost facilities were reclaimed by the shop floor. This incidentally was a demand conceded on a national scale. Poland was still seething with strikes at the time and this ‘reclaiming process’ was going on in factories up and down the country.

The End of the Strike – Victory or Defeat?

THE STRENGTH of the strike committee, the Workers Commission and the shipyard trade union branch flowed from and was determined by the activity of the mass of shipyard workers. For a revolutionary socialist this statement is a truism, but it is interesting to see how it applies to the events in Szczecin.

During the strike and the period immediately after there was a very high level of activity on the shop floor, but as this fell off so the power of the Union branch fell in step with it. Officially the Workers Commission disbanded after all the elections had been held (six weeks after the meeting with Gierek), but its members continued to meet at first openly, then in secret, in slowly dwindling numbers for at least a year after that. In the shipyards too, departmental meetings which had 150% attendance at the height of the strike had fallen to 30 per cent attendance after a year. Some of the Commission members were victimised, (there was one murder and one attempted murder) some were sucked into the apparatus and clumbed in the heirarchy, most of them were exhausted.

To some extent the very successes of the strike contributed, and in a non-revolutionary situation were bound to contribute, to the falling off in the level of political activity in the shipyards. The shipyards were bought off. For example the normal allocation of flats for shipyard workers was 30-40 per year. During the year of 1970-71 the allocation rocketed to 800 This was a gain from the strike, yet it was paid for by other weaker sections of workers who did without – especially since a policy of allocation of these flats (and others vacated by shipyard workers) strictly to shipyard workers only was followed. Similarly the trade union branch sent a delegation to Warsaw to negotiate with the central financing authorities for a new holiday home for the shipyards. The delegation were treated like lords, treatment not often dished out to workers who came to bring demands, and they came away with 1.4 million zl. allocated to their holiday home. Another gain, but yet also another cause for resentment and division from other workers. In the end, after their initial successes, the shipyard workers were not able to defend their own organisation or their leadership. The party and state apparatus were able to re-establish control.

Yet, when in June this year the state again provoked them by a staggering 70% price rise in food, the reaction of Polish workers was immediate. The events in Radom, where once again the party headquarters were burnt down and security forces were attacked prove that the class struggle against the regime continues. When the workers of the Ursus tractor factory tore up the main railway line and cut off Warsaw, the seat of the party oligarchy from all its connections with western Europe, this action succeeded in getting the price rises withdraw in less than 24 hours. The state’s rapid capitulation proves how Polish workers are finding ever more effective methods of fighting for their interests, each event building on the experiences already gained.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 9.3.2008