history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  





By Lewis Gleason



The following is a brief summary of the events through which the Solidarity movement's roots began to form. Specifically, I have chosen as my historical topic the strikes which occurred in the winter of 1970-71 in the Gdansk and Gdynia shipyards. This was the first movement in Communist Poland which indicated the potential political power which could be mobilized through a minimally organized work force. What follows are notes discussing the events and facts relevant to the development of this movement:

Poland had been under Communist control for a little over two decades when these strikes occurred. A feeling that little gain had been made over that time in exchange for freedoms lost was popular among members of labor force. Though the people had been granted a greater degree of social security, there existed resentment and hatred for the Party whose centrally-planned economic policies had done little to improve the lives of the Poles. In mid-December of 1970, right before the start of the holiday season, the regime (under Gomulka) announced a set of price increases which it claimed was unavoidable. This price hike would apply to the entire nation, but coupled with announcements that the shipyards, in the name of increased efficiency, would be closed, this proved particularly devastating to the workers on the Baltic Coast. This swift and unanticipated action on the part of the Government resulted in the shipyard workers at the Gdansk and Gdynia yards decision to strike. The demands of the strikers for a retraction of the price increase scalated as the movement gained support and momentum, becoming rallying cries for democracy and removal of the Party apparatus.


Formerly unorganized and unmobilized, the Polish workers displayed a remarkable ability to whip up support and tap the reservoir of discontent in the Polish citizenry. These workers were fighting a Socialist system where, for example, there existed income discrepancies between members of the same industry at a ratio of about 150 to 1. This illustrated to them the failure of the system to create a society in which there was no class structure. The number of workers striking grew as people recognized a vulnerability in the Communist Party, and in fact the Party apparatus fell to pieces on the Baltic coast while the armed forces refused to fight against their fellow countrymen. Though its organization lacked any degree of complexity, the sheer number of strikers and the shutdown of industries across the nation created a formidable movement which had to reckoned with on a higher level than the regime had anticipated. Eventually, Gomulka was replaced as premier by the Party in response to the public outrage and his failure to effectively deal with the protest. Continued strikes, however, forced the regime to further pursue a final solution. Finally, in February 1971, the prices were rolled back to their pre-strike levels.

Although the final concessions granted were minimal in light of the power the movement wielded, the movement itself spurred people to the realization that they could have greater influence in organized numbers . More importantly, the vulnerability of the Communist regime to this type of movement was made evident to the Poles, the Party, and the outside world. The Polish labor force recognizes this as a proud, momentous occasion which saw the beginning of the Solidarity movement and reform in the 1980's.

From: "The Roots of Solidarity", Roman Laba, 1991, Princeton University Press, Princeton.




By David Leibowitz



Poland was at one point a dismal society, burdened by their restrictions on freedom and the seemingly positive strides in the communist movement. Poland then had a surge of optimism in the direction of democracy beginning with the workers and the adoption of Solidarity. Solidarity acted as a link between the population and the regime and also as an active representative of the interests of the workers (Mason 533). Solidarity tried to establish a social intervention by restricting the Polish government’s influence over the economy and civil society (Watson 468). It was the first genuinely, widely popular social movement that created strong emotions among the Polish people.

When the Soviet Union refuted the ideas and actions of Solidarity, Poles initially expressed sadness seeing little hope for the return of Solidarity’s existence. Even though the Solidarity movement was eventually banned, it continued to exist in the Polish underground during the early nineteen-eighties through popular demonstrations, trying to raise people’s hopes and spirits for future democratic reform.

During the early 1980’s worker strikes became more common, most of which were settled with an increase in workers’ wages (America 322). However in Gdansk, Poland, workers became relentless demanding more and more rights. The right to strike, free trade unions, and less censorship were the workers’ platforms to liberalize Poland (322). The leader of these strikes is Lech Walesa, who became known as "Solidarity." On August 31, 1980, the Polish government conceded almost all of the workers demands (322). For the next two years, Solidarity pushed for extreme changes in political life. The right to strike and to have free trade unions were established. Also, a bill was passed clarifying limitations on censorship. Social policies workers sought were implemented. In a response to Solidarity’s power, the Polish United Workers Party held congress in June 1981, at which rules for competitive elections were made clear (322). The movement to break the party hierarchy and develop links between local governments was not allowed. Poland’s entire bureaucratic structure nearly collapsed or got realigned because of the strengthening Solidarity movement.


 One must acknowledge the leaps of faith and sacrifice that went into this somewhat "Western" idea. From it’s emergence Soviet troops occupied Poland to strike fear into the people whose ideals were becoming to liberal (Brzezinski 341). Poland’s geographic location prevented full western intervention for their cause and allowed the Polish governments fear to overcome the obviously freedom-oriented concept of Solidarity (America 322). The formation of unions allowed for the congregation of all types of people from farmers to intellectuals and factory workers. Solidarity also brought about an underground reform movement, through different mediums, which served to educate the people on the democratic progress being made in their country. Eventually the Soviet Union decided that the spirit of the Polish people’s optimism must be broken and pressured Poland’s government into implementing martial law (Brzezinski 341). Western allies tried to intervene, but the Soviet Union was too close and held Poland’s strings too tightly for any progress to be made. Over the course of the next year Poland’s government and police force interned it’s adversaries in taking back control of the society. Mass media was tightly monitored for Solidarity propaganda and anti-Communist ideals, the various headquarters of the movement were raided and destroyed and even travel from one side of Poland to the other was monitored.

Unfortunately, the uprise in opposition to the martial law was too slow and unfocused. There are speculations that the crackdown on Solidarity was actually planned out months in advance so that it would be swift and a resistance would be futile. In defense of the shocked people of Poland, the West refused trade and placed an embargo on Poland until martial law was lifted (Ash 314). In 1983 when Communism was disintegrating and the Cold War was quickly coming to an end, the Pope called for the legalization of Solidarity. He suggested a meeting between the leaders of the Polish government and the leaders of the Solidarity movement. This meeting eventually came to pass, but with no positive legislation coming out of it for either side. Although the meeting was unsuccessful in terms of freeing the movement it did lead to the end of martial law and at least an improvement on the physical freedom of the people (America 323). For the next six years Poland stayed focused on communist ideas while steadily releasing the advocates of Solidarity at the request of the Pope and the stranglehold of the West (323). The ideas of civil liberities never left the hearts of the Polish people and when it became evident that the Soviet Union was about to crush the workers, they united and with their strengthened ambitions and determination to see their demands for freedom met.


Solidarity helped revive the historical and spiritual personality of the once communist Poland (Mason 542). However, Poland remained on the political surface a communist system subordinated to Russia, until elections were held in June 1989 which signified the end of Communist rule in Poland. The essence of the communist system imposed on Poland was to be integrated within all aspects of the political, social, and economic structures. The Poles have simply rejected that communist imposition, making Poland a historical landmark and giving the Solidarity experience strategic significance (Brzezinski 348). When oppressed people’s are given a morally rooted issue to rally around the results can only be positive in favor of individual rights and the development of a humane society, Solidarity embodied this spirit. The struggles of the Polish people during the nineteen-eighties serve to show that the West’s economic power can not consistently be used as a tool to cause social reform in oppressed countries but it can be used to achieve a desired economic or political reform.



  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Yale Review v 74 pgs. 346-52 Spring 1985.
  • Curry, Jane L. Encyclopedia America v22 pgs. 298-323 1994.
  • Ash, Timothy. The Polish Revolution Solidarity 1980-82 John Cape Ltd. 1983.
  • Mason, David S. Solidarity, the Regime and the Public v35 pgs.533-45 October 1983.
  • Schuller, A. The Birth of Solidarity Soviet Studies. v36 1984.



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