Poland's Solidarity Movement Marks 30 Years

Today, Poland is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Gdańsk Agreement by which workers at the Lenin shipyards in Gdańsk were able to wrest from Poland’s Communist government the right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike.  

That struggle, led by principally by Lech Wałęsa, an electrician fired for his union activism, affected dramatic political change in Poland and ultimately, the Soviet Union.

It’s impossible to underestimate the effect of Solidarity and the Gdańsk Agreement in world affairs, as well as in Poland.

After World War II, Eastern European peoples attempted one after another to free themselves from the chains of Soviet domination—East Germany, 1953; Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968—and were brutally repressed. Success was elusive until growing economic problems caused by the Soviet system brought blue-collar workers in Poland to the realization that the Communist system would not lead to a workers’ paradise.

A strike in 1970 at the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk to protest poor economic conditions and rampant inflation, and to demand the formation of independent trade unions led to clashes with government forces in which 75 people were killed. That event marked the genesis of the Solidarity movement.

The Helsinki Accords of 1975 negotiated during the Ford Administration made it possible for political and intellectual leaders in the West to call the Soviet leaders and their allies onto the carpet for human rights issues, because they had signed on to that basket of the agreements, said Hugh Agnew, professor of history and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Poland was among the signatories.

The Solidarity movement gained world-wide attention, and was supported by the Catholic Church. More than 87% of Poles are Catholic. Wałęsa met with Pope John-Paul II at the Vatican in 1981 and again during the Pope’s visit to Poland in 1983.  

Wałęsa, who in 1990 became Poland’s first democratically elected president, is not participating in the official celebratory events, though. He is boycotting some and was not invited to others, according to press reports from Poland. 

However, Wałęsa, 66, did join Prime Minister Donald Tusk Monday morning to lay flowers at a monument for shipyard workers killed in clashes with the Communist regime in 1970, and he and Tusk later attended a commemorative musical performance.

Among the disputes between the Solidarity co-founder and current political leaders is the role the union currently plays in Poland.

“Wałęsa claims the trade union is now too much involved in … contemporary Polish politics,” says an August 27 story in the Warsaw Voice. He would prefer the union played more of a social role. “Solidarity as a trade union is an obstacle in many fields,” Wałęsa said without elaborating in an Associated Press story.  

“This is like something of a rehash of what he was doing four years ago already” — expressing his discontent with the policies of the government, Agnew told HUMAN EVENTS. It expresses a long-running discontent with the current situation of Poland, he said.

What Solidarity was doing at its conception and the kinds of demands the union was making then “don’t really bear that much of a direct relationship to what Poland is like today,” Agnew said. Poland now has a vibrant economy, an entrepreneurial culture, and Poles are travelling throughout the European Union, he said.  

The Polish government has ambitions to make Poland’s relative weight felt among European states, and not let the European Union be run solely by Britain, France and Germany, Agnew said.

Wałęsa’s “generation is the old generation now,” Agnew explained. “Young Poles are making money, they’re being capitalist entrepreneurs. It’s a different Poland from the Poland the people who made Solidarity in 1980 were thinking about.”

“Their revolution was against a hollowed out, completely morally bankrupt, double-speaking, corrupt regime,” Agnew said. “The one thing that unites … both [generations] is that they want freedom, but what they understand that freedom to consist of might be a little different from someone of Wałęsa’s generation and the young Poles today.”

The death of President Lech Kaczynski and other officials in an April 10 plane crash continues to be felt in Poland. Kaczynski had served as security minister during Wałęsa’s presidency, but was fired by him. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, heads Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party. 

Among the issues dividing Poland are the adjustments of a people new to capitalism and a continuing debate about whether or not to release secret police files from the days of the Communist regime, a thorny problem that Poland has yet to resolve, Agnew says.

“History must give the Poles the principal credit for bringing the Soviet bloc to its knees,” says Norman Davies in his book Europe, A History. The Solidarity movement “swelled into a nationwide social protest,” says Davies, whose work includes five books on Polish history. Solidarity “did not fight the Communists, it simply organized itself without them” to become “the only independent organization in the Soviet bloc.”

“Solidarity really was, in a way, the beginning of the end phase of communism, where … earlier protests had not managed to accomplish that,” Agnew said

“The success that Solidarity scored with the Gdańsk [Agreement] … was unique … in the entire Soviet bloc history,” said Agnew, who called it a “watershed moment.” 

It set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s harder line against communism, Agnew said.