At the end of the 1970s ‘People’s Poland’ was racked by crisis as it experienced the largest collapse of production yet seen in any postwar industrial country: GNP fell in 1979 by 2 percent, in 1980 by 8 percent and in 1981 by 15-20 percent. Public corruption had become endemic. Popular belief in the regime was at an all-time low. The housing shortage remained acute; food supplies were a permanent source of difficulty; Poland was the most polluted country in Europe; the women of the textile city of Lodz suffered the continent’s highest still-birth rate.
On 1 July 1980 a government spokesman announced that better cuts of meat would in future be available only in the ‘free price’ shops. The announcement was the signal for a wave of strikes that rolled across most of Polish industry for the next six weeks, to reach its climax in the coastal cities of Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin in mid-August.
Although the strike movement had no coordinating centre, the workers had developed an information network by which they spread news of their struggles. A group of ‘dissidents’, the Committee for the Defence of Workers (KOR), set up originally in 1976 to organise aid for victimised workers, drew around them small circles of working class militants in major industrial centres who produced and distributed cyclostyled bulletins entitled Worker, Coastal Worker and the like.
In August 1980 one of the Coastal Worker group in Gdansk, a 50 year old woman crane driver called Anna Walentynowicz, was victimised by the management at the giant Lenin shipyards. The group smuggled handwritten leaflets and posters into the shipyard and a few other workplaces. Their sections stopped work and marched around the shipyard calling out the rest of the workforce. By the end of the morning of 14 August a mass meeting was arguing with the shipyard manager. A member of the group, Lech Walesa, himself sacked from the shipyard, climbed over the wall, announced himself to the crowd and declared the start of an occupation strike.
The strike spread rapidly to other local workplaces. Delegates from these workplaces, including the Paris Commune shipyard in neighbouring Gdynia and the city’s tram drivers, gathered in the Lenin yard. A new body was formed—the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS), comprising delegates from all striking workplaces in the region. It formulated a set of demands, the ‘21 Points’. No longer concerned simply with immediate local issues, the list began with the demand for new, independent trade unions. It went on to call for relaxation of censorship, new rights for the church, the freeing of political prisoners and improvements in the health service.
By the Tuesday there were more than 250 enterprises represented on the Gdansk committee. A news-sheet, Solidarnosc, produced on the shipyard’s printing press with the assistance of KOR members, reached a print run of 30,000 copies daily. The authorities cut off Gdansk from all phone contact with the rest of Poland. News of Gdansk’s new organisation and new demands spread rapidly. A further MKS was established in Elblag, and then in Szczecin, scene of the mass shipyard occupation of 1971. The regime was forced to agree to open talks directly with the Gdansk and Szczecin MKS inside the shipyards. On 31 August in Gdansk, government ministers signed documents accepting the ‘21 Points’.
The movement was based on a huge wave of workplace occupations. Each striking enterprise sent a delegate to its local MKS. The delegates elected an inner executive committee, under their immediate control. The major negotiations with the state were conducted in front of microphones which were linked into the shipyard tannoy system so that thousands of workers could follow the proceedings and assess the progress being made.
Though they did not know it, the Polish workers had reinvented, out of the logic of their own experience, the organisational form first adopted by Russian workers in 1905—the workers’ council.
Such class organisations have the potential to develop into organs of revolutionary popular power and become the foundations of a new social order. However, that potential is not automatically realised—for the MKS to in this direction, its members would need to be able to see the potential. In Poland in 1980 no significant body existed to propose any such notion. Rather, from the beginning, the MKS consciously limited its aspirations.
Numbers of intellectual ‘advisers’ were incorporated into the circle around the MKS leadership. Their role was predominantly to act as the advocates of compromise. The church hierarchy too preached moderation. At the height of the strikes Cardinal Wyszynski delivered a widely broadcast sermon effectively calling for an end to the occupations.
Three weeks after the Gdansk agreements delegates from the various MKSs held their first national meeting. They called their new union NSZZ ‘Solidarnosc’ (Independent Self-Governing Union Solidarity). By late autumn something like 10 million members were registered. This was some 80 percent of the total Polish workforce.
Solidarity changed its members. The very act of participating in a founding meeting, often in defiance of local bosses, involved a breach with old habits of deference and submission. New bonds of solidarity and a new sense of strength were forged. All over the country, this process involved strikes and other conflicts. Far from the Gdansk agreements having ended battles between workers and the regime, they merely opened the door to a swelling flood of popular demands and sharp regional and national conflicts. For seven months after August the Solidarity tide continued to rise.
There was in reality an incipient ‘dual power’ situation. On one side stood the regime, still holding the major levers of official economic and political power and still firmly in control of the forces of repression (the security police and the army in particular). But the normal mechanisms of control over the mass of the population were rapidly breaking down. The regime was isolated, regarded with openly articulated scorn and contempt. Against it stood Solidarity—a flooding torrent of popular power and aspirations, growing in confidence, and centred on the huge regionally-based delegate bodies that comprised the workers’ union.
Everyone looked to Solidarity for a lead. This was a dilemma for a movement that did not aspire to power. The union leaders’ response was to seek to stem the onward march of their own side.
In March a massive crisis erupted in the city of Bydgoszcz. Solidarity members occupying an office went to the local prefecture to negotiate with party representatives. A couple of hundred police invaded the room and systematically beat up the Solidarity men, among them a national leader of the union, Jan Rulewski. This was the first time open force had been used against the union. Half a million workers across the whole Bydgoszcz area erupted into strike. By the time a national delegate meeting, 300-strong, was held on 23 March, the pressure coming from the grassroots for national action was overwhelming. A highly successful national four-hour strike was accompanied by preparations for an unlimited general strike which would begin on 31 March if the union’s demands were not met.
The atmosphere in Poland was electric, as both sides prepared for a decisive confrontation. Strike headquarters were designated in the largest factories in each region, fortified with barricade materials.
The premier, Jaruzelski, turned to the church for support. Direct pressure was applied to Lech Walesa through an hour’s private meeting with the cardinal, and at the last moment Walesa appeared on TV to announce the strike was called off.
The general strike’s sudden cancellation was a serious setback, throwing the union back on itself. The aftermath saw a partial demobilisation of the membership. For more than three months there were no strikes. Attendance at union gatherings declined.
The economic crisis deepened in the spring and summer of 1981. The supply of everyday goods was steadily worsening. Meat rations were cut, and soap, detergent, toilet paper were all in short supply. The crisis provoked a new eruption of working class protest. The response of the leadership was cool and sometimes hostile. When the regime alleged that Solidarity was sabotaging the economy, the leadership called for a twomonth moratorium on strikes. At one point in late September two thirds of Poland’s provinces were affected by strikes. These upsurges from below remained fragmented and incoherent, isolated from each other. No section of the leadership attempted to link them together, showing how they might be combined in a new assault on the regime. Eventually, from mid- November, the strike wave died down—the membership was increasingly exhausted, turning away in disappointment from the union.
The regime began taking open offensives against Solidarity activists, testing the union’s readiness to fight back. Small army squads were sent out into the countryside and the smaller towns. Similar units were sent out to the factories ‘to check on civil defence preparations’. Then, on 2 December, hundreds of ZOMOs (riot police) smashed their way into the Warsaw Firefighting School, which was occupied by students demanding the right to join the union. The regime had deployed open force against Solidarity.
On 12 December the union’s national commission met in Gdansk, in the most radical mood since before Bydgoszcz. The delegates voted that they would oppose emergency powers legislation with strikes, including a general strike. As the national commission members slept in their hotel that night the regime struck. The hotel was surrounded and invaded by riot police, the delegates arrested and interned. Up and down the country thousands of Solidarity activists were seized in their beds and dragged away. At six o’clock on Sunday morning Jaruzelski announced his military coup, the suspension of Solidarity and martial law. Cardinal Glemp broadcast an appeal for people not to fight back. The workers’ response to the coup was patchy. There were a couple of hundred strikes and occupations, chiefly in the largest plants and in several of the Silesian coalmines. After a few days, they were broken by brutal police and army interventions. Nine workers were killed at the Wujek mine.
[Based on extracts from C Barker, ‘Poland, 1980-81: The Self-Limited Revolution’, in Colin Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks, 1987).]