Poland's Gdansk Shipyard Strike starts Fall of Communism
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Solidarnosc logo "Solidarność", The free Trade Union of communist Poland, was born in the Gdansk Shipyard on August 31, 1980. This first recognition by a communist government of a workers' organization that was independent, in fact in opposition to it, started the inexorable movement towards the final collapse of the communist system in eastern Europe. A movement that ended with the tearing down of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989, and finally with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself on December 25, 1991.

The astounding fact is that the domination of all of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union was finally brought to an end with hardly a shot being fired. There are many factors that brought this about. Americans proclaim that it was President Reagan's firmness in his anti-Soviet policy. Economists publish tables of statistics which show that the sheer inefficiency of the inept Communist economic policies had lead all the Soviet Block countries to virtual bankcruptcy. Catholics point to the election of a Pole as the Pope as the thorn that pricked the baloon of the Polish Peoples Republic. Every one of these were essential ingredients of the soup. But there is no question that the unbreakable spirit of the dominated peoples, and especially of the Polish workers and students was the broth that gave the apparachik rulers their fatal indigestion.

Anna Walentynow
icz But it was not always that easy. The domination of eastern and central Europe by Stalin's Soviet machine started with hundreds of thousands being imprisoned or executed. The first rebellions of the slave nations - the Poles in Poznan, the Hungarians in Budapest in 1956, the Czechs in 1968 - had bloody repercussions. Polish students demonstrated in 1968 and workers went on strike in Gdansk and in the Silesian mines in 1970 and again in 1976, with more deadly shots fired by the police.
By 1980 the situation had changed. The intense pressure of the entire population forced the Polish Peoples Republic to allow John Paul II to make a triumphant tour of the country in 1979. The students and the Warsaw intellectuals of KOR joined hands with the workers providing much needed organizational skills and the publication of an underground press.

Buy the new book about "Solidarity" and the role of women, "Solidarity's Secret" by Shana Penn,
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Discontent of the shipyard workers was brought to a boil by the summary firing, first of the electrician Lech Wałęsa, then on August 7 of the crane operator Anna Walentynowicz. The strike was declared on August 14. Their principal demands were the reinstatement of the two activists, an increase in pay, the erection of a memorial to the workers shot in the 1970 strike. The strike was immediately given vocal support by workers' committees in other shipyards, the mines, the railroads and the automobile factories. When the government sent negotiators to Gdansk, a new demand was added - the establishment of a universal Trade Union.
Lech Walesa On the third day the negotiators offered a wage increase 50% larger than originally demanded as a carrot to call off the shipyard strike. The workers' negotiators wavered. Then the women on the Organizing Committee, including Walentynowicz, and representatives from KOR, jumped in to oppose abandoning the national cause. This revived the strike. Now the demands were increased to add the right to free newspapers, restoration of the legal rights of all the strikers and students that had been imprisoned after earlier demonstrations - 21 demands in all. By now the strike had spread to 200,000 workers nationwide and had gained the support of university professors. On August 30 the government caved in, the next day the Gdansk Accords were signed and the Trade Union "Solidarity" had been born.

Quickly "Solidarity" became more than a trade union, it was becoming a de facto political party and its membership grew to nearly ten million. But Moscow was not going to give up that easily. General Jaruzelski took over the government and, after careful secret planning, declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Simultaneously over 10,000 "Solidarity" activists were arrested, all communication links within the country and with other countries were cut, curfew was declared. The entire country ground to a halt.

Fortunately the women members of the organisation remained free and jumped in immediately to print clandestine newspapers (mainly Tygodnik Mazowsze), establish courier services and keep "Solidarity" together as an operating, but now clandestine, organization.
It was also fortunate that Jaruzelski was unwilling to be as ruthless as past communist rulers had been. The arrested were held in internment camps under reasonably tolerable conditions. There were no executions.
The economy stagnated still further. As soon as travel restrictions were eased and many internees were released, scores fled the country. Even though the "Solidarity" membership declined, other clandestine groups started forming.
By 1989 the government had essentially lost control. In the Soviet Union Gorbachev had become First Secretary. Intelligent enough to understand the basic problems of the Soviet Union, he started belated reforms and no longer had any desire to rescue the Polish communist leadership. After a number of strikes in 1988, Jaruzelski realized that the Communist party could no longer rule the country and started to reach out to the "Solidarity" activists. In the spring of 1989, the Round Table was established with 26 representatives of "Solidarity", 29 Communists and 2 church observers. In the resulting elections "Solidarity" won all the seats in parliament, the Sejm, except those specifically set aside for the Communists. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of the "Solidarity" Round Table negotiators, was invited to take over as Prime Minister with Jaruzelski still President. In December 1990, in presidential elections, Lech Wałęsa won 75% of the vote. The Communist era was over.

Subsequent literature has not given the Polish women activists the credit they deserve. A new book by Shana Penn "Solidarity's Secret" corrects this ommission and provides a good step-by-step discussion of the long process of the peaceful overthrow of a totalitarian communist government, with recognition of the many women who played a prominent role.

Photos courtesy Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych for full details of the Solidarity Movement and its history.
In English and Polish.
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