By Karol Bachura
“Solidarity” (Polish: Solidarność) Independent Self-governing Trade Union "Solidarity" was founded in August 1980 at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland. Subsequently, it was the first independent union in a Warsaw Pact country to be recognized by the state. The union's membership peaked at 10 million in September 1981, representing over 1/3 of the country's working-age population. Solidarity's leader, Lech Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and the union is widely recognized as having played a central role in the end of communist rule in Poland.
When in October 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected as Pope John Paul II, my Father stated that this day will mark the beginning of the end of communism – and, as always, He was correct - as fathers usually are. In June 1979, during the first visit of Pope John Paul II to his home country tens of millions of Polish people greeted the first Polish Pope. During Pope’s sermon in Warsaw, John Paul II stated: “Let the Holy Spirt descent. Let the Spirit descent. And renew the face of the land. This land!” – a year later, in the time of boycotted by 66 nations in response to the Soviet-Afghan War, 22nd Summer Olympics held in Moscow, the “Solidarity” movement came to life as a response to the sacking of Ms. Walentynowicz from the Gdańsk Shipyard few months before she was due to retire. This management decision enraged the workers of the shipyard, who staged a strike action in mid August defending Ms. Walentynowicz and demanding her return. She and Ms. Pienkowska transformed a strike over bread and butter issues into a solidarity strike in sympathy with strikes on other establishments. Lech Wałęsa, a shipyard welder who was sacked earlier joined the strike in the shipyard.
Solidarity emerged on 31 August 1980 at the Gdańsk Shipyard when the communist government of Poland signed the agreement consisting of 21 points including the one allowing for “Solidarity” existence. In mid September, over twenty Inter-factory Founding Committees of free trade unions merged at the congress into one national organization “Solidarity”, which officially registered as an Independent Self-governing Trade Union in November same year.
Lech Wałęsa and others formed a broad anti-Soviet social movement ranging from people associated with the Catholic Church to members of the anti-Soviet left. Polish nationalism, together with pro-American liberalism, played an important part in the development of Solidarity in the 1980s. Solidarity advocated non-violence in its members' activities. In September 1981, Solidarity's first national congress elected Wałęsa as its president and adopted a republican program. Government attempts in the early 1980s to destroy the union through the imposition of martial law in Poland and the use of political repression failed. Operating underground, with significant financial support from the Vatican and the United States, the union survived and by the latter 1980s had entered into negotiations with the government. The 1989 round table talks between the government and the Solidarity-led opposition produced agreement for the 1989 legislative elections, the country's first pluralistic election since 1947, which were held on 4 June 1989. By the end of August, a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed and in December Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected Prime Minister. In December 1990, Wałęsa was elected President of Poland.
The survival of Solidarity was an unprecedented event not only in Poland, a satellite state of the USSR ruled (in practice) by a one-party Communist regime, but the whole of the Eastern bloc. It meant a break in the hard-line stance of the communist Polish United Workers' Party, which had bloodily ended a 1970 protest with machine-gun fire, and the broader Soviet communist government in the Eastern Bloc, which had quelled both the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the 1968 Prague Spring with Soviet-led invasions.
Solidarity's influence led to the intensification and spread of anti-communist ideals and movements throughout the countries of the Eastern Bloc, weakening their communist governments. As a result of the Round Table Agreement, in June 1989 the first partly free elections in any Soviet bloc country. A new upper chamber (the Senate) was created in the Polish parliament and all of its 100 seats were contestable in the election, as well as one-third of the seats in the more important lower chamber (the Sejm). Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and all 161 contestable seats in the Sejm—a victory that also triggered a chain reaction across the Soviet Union's satellite states, leading to almost entirely peaceful anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe known as the Revolutions of 1989, which ended in the overthrow of each Moscow-imposed regime, and ultimately to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in the early 1990s.
In the post COVID era, I hope that learning for the Polish experience of the 1980’s when the word “Solidarity” regained its new meaning and influence on the international scene, managed to lead to the fall of communism and end of Cold War without a single shot, we will face a new approach to politics, a New Solidarity in which the weight will be shifted from “me” to “we”, from “I” to “us”, just like in the words of Lech Wałęsa with which he started his first speech before the American Congress on 15 November 1989, by quoting from the American Constitution: “We, the People (…)”.