Thirty years ago Tuesday, an electrician led a burgeoning labour movement that would forever change Poland and the world. Lech Walesa’s bold advocacy for labour rights would ultimately lead to Communism’s demise in Europe.
Commemorations have been underway in Poland since last week and will continue over the next two days to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the landmark Solidarity labour movement. On Sunday, Prime Minister Donald Tusk was joined by the man who led the historic strikes and later himself became premier, Lech Walesa, for a commemoration ceremony at the Gdansk shipyard in Northern Poland where it all began. Walesa, for his part, is not expected to take part in any of the other anniversary events due to what he has described as “fatigue”. In recent years, Walesa has had a falling out with the current leadership of the Solidarity movement, which supports the conservative Law and Justice opposition party.
The birth of a movement
That August, three decades ago, at an obscure northern Polish shipyard, the unthinkable was unfolding. A group of ordinary ship workers, fed up with their miserable working conditions, faced down Poland’s communist government – and won. The outcome of this unlikely duel would ultimately become one of modern history’s most important milestones, setting in motion events that would eventually lead to the demise of the Soviet Union and its 44-year Cold War struggle with the West.
The Soviet tanks and heavy armor that massed along the Polish border in August 1980 served as a potent reminder of just how high the stakes were for the thousands of Polish dock workers that were on strike. The labourers, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, brought the economy to its knees by shutting down the country’s ports, and subsequently Polish industry as a whole. The walk-outs began in Gdansk and later spread across the country.
A standoff against the odds
At first glance, the odds seemed overwhelmingly bad for the workers who faced the prospect of violent retribution for their labour action. Communist governments in Poland and other Soviet bloc countries were unsparing in their determination to crush even subtle dissent. So it was with great suspense that the world watched as Walesa led his fellow dock workers off the job and into a direct confrontation with the Polish state. For two weeks, the workers protested under the unflinching gaze of riot police that had surrounded them. Undeterred, Walesa held out and forced the government to the bargaining table where it had no choice but to compromise.
By 1980, the Polish economy was in shambles, battered by years of widespread food
shortages and corruption. With each passing day of the strike, as more and more of the country’s workforce idled, the government faced the prospect of an all out economic collapse. By the fourteenth day in Gdansk, on August 31, 1980, after numerous rounds of negotiations, Walesa and his government counterparts finally reached what would be an historic agreement. For the first time in Poland’s communist history, independent trade unions could be established with the full power of collective bargaining and the right to strike.
A Brief History of the Polish Solidarity Movemenet. Source: YouTube user dizzo95
Within days of Walesa’s deal in Gdansk, labor leaders across the country won similar concessions from local Communist Party officials. One by one the strikes came to an end, giving Walesa the necessary momentum to transform the country’s once-fragmented labour movement into a unified force. “The Independent Self-Managing Trade Union Solidarity" was born and so was the Solidarity movement that would play a vital role in the process of ending communist rule in Europe.