Solidarity – the union that won Poland

A remarkable event took place in September 17th, 1980, at the Lenin Shipyard in in Gdańsk, Poland. The Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ was formed, the first in any of the Communist countries of central and Eastern Europe that was not controlled by the Communist Party. The striking workers under Lech Wałęsa had the power to ruin Poland’s economy, so the government had to negotiate with them, and reluctantly agreed to recognize them. Within a year the union had 10 million members, a third of Poland’s working age population.

Martial law, imposed by Communist Party General Secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski struggled to contain the unrest. It was ironic that a so-called workers’ state used every conceivable method to suppress a genuine workers’ movement. Solidarity operated partly underground with clandestine meetings, and partly overtly by strike or threatened strike action. It commanded total loyalty, and was not just a union, but an anti-Communist groundswell.

Finally, in 1989, when a mood of restlessness and change was beginning to sweep the Warsaw Pact countries, Jaruzelski was obliged to concede semi-free elections in Poland. Non-Communists were allowed to stand, but only for fewer than half the seats in the lower house. The Communists and their allies were guaranteed a majority, however people voted. The result was a thunderclap, in that Solidarity won all of the contested seats in the lower house, and every seat except one in the upper house. The Communists and their satellite party allies still had a majority, and nominated a Communist prime minister, but in an astonishing move, Solidarity persuaded two of the satellite parties to switch sides. Suddenly there was a non-Communist majority in Parliament. Jaruzelski considered annulling the election, but was abandoned by Moscow and in late August appointed Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister and head of a Solidarity-led coalition.

The new government invited the Adam Smith Institute over in September 1989 to teach how the transition might be made to a market economy, and how to privatize the moribund state industries. We took the precaution of taking a Channel 4 Dispatches team with us to film it, thinking we’d be safer with cameras covering us.

The rest, as they say, is history, and Lech Wałęsa replaced General Jaruzelski as president after the presidential election in the following year. The name of the country became the Republic of Poland instead of the People’s Republic of Poland, and the Communist Party dissolved itself into the Social Democracy Party. The constitution document of a free Poland, which had been held in London by Poles in exile after the Nazi and Communist takeovers, was finally repatriated to Poland. What had begun as a brave labour union defying state power became within nine years the government of Poland. Poland is now a member of the European Union and, more significantly, a member of NATO.

Communist rule has to be totalitarian. The Party must control every aspect of life, from youth movements to charities to unions and to any grouping or association. All must be done under the direction of the Party and must be run to serve its propaganda and purposes. In Poland, they had to allow a movement outwith their control, and it destroyed them. The Party must keep its population prisoners physically and intellectually. A domain of independent thought and action will allow resentment of its rule to find a voice, and opponents will find bravery in banding together. In Poland they found it in Solidarity.