POLAND - WE'VE CAUGHT GOD BY THE ARM
In August 1980 workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk decide to strike, to protest food price increases. For years many workers have wanted the right to organize their own free trade unions, separate from the Communist Party that runs the country. Now they make that goal their number one demand.
Led by Lech Walesa and other veterans of earlier workers' protests, the strikers decide to occupy the shipyard instead of marching into the city and inviting a confrontation with troops. Spreading news of their action to other enterprises on the Baltic coast, they organize an inter-factory committee to negotiate with party leaders and demand that the talks be broadcast on television. Eventually the regime grants most of their demands, and a new independent organization, Solidarity, is born.
After the regime imposes martial law, Solidarity goes underground - but eventually it is legalized and invited to negotiate the basis for free elections, which it wins.
The Soviet forces that liberated Poland from the Nazis at the end of World War II have installed a client communist regime, under which workers cannot organize or represent themselves before the state-owned enterprises that employ them. By the 1970s frustration with 30 years of one-party rule begins to surface, as workers all over Poland twice protest price increases. The regime responds with only temporary concessions that are quickly followed by renewed repression.
By the late 1970s the Polish economy is on the brink of collapse. Prime Minister Edward Gierek eases press constraints and opens a dialogue with the Catholic Church. A visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979 – highlighted by an outdoor mass for three million people – draws Poles together on a scale far larger than anything workers and dissidents had dreamed of. In July 1980, when the government more than doubles meat prices, a series of nationwide strikes ensues. Workers realize that they can escape reprisals by taking their own shipyards and factories hostage.
While many strikers are bought off with higher wages, striking employees at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk remain adamant in their demands. The regime threatens to smother the strike by sealing off Gdansk. Shipyard workers fan out across the city, and sympathetic students and professionals slip through roadblocks, bringing news of the strike to other regions. Vesting ultimate authority in the Gdansk-based Inter-factory Strike Committee (MKS), the workers elect Lech Walesa, a shipyard electrician, as its head. By late August the MKS represents 400,000 workers. Bulwarked by a wave of support from foreign trade unions and intensified media coverage, the MKS soon presents 21 demands, with free trade unions the highest priority. But the committee wisely does not threaten the regime politically by asking for free elections. Ignoring rumblings from the Soviets and squeezed by growing economic pressures, the regime bows to expediency and agrees to free unions, wage increases, and limits on censorship.
Calling itself "Solidarity," the movement decides to expand its charter. At its first national congress in the fall of 1981, an Action Program promotes "self-management" in all areas of society including the establishment of democratic local governments, independent judges, and equal protection under the law. Against Walesa's advice, Solidarity calls for a national day of protest, coupled with an inflammatory referendum amounting to a vote of "no confidence" in General Jaruzelski and the Party. Under Soviet pressure, the state suspends free unions, arrests Walesa and most of Solidarity's national commission, and gags the media.
A new generation of striking workers accelerates the final breakdown. After several years of underground resistance by Solidarity, the Communists are forced to invite Solidarity to help them reconstruct the Polish nation on the basis of a different, multiparty democratic model.
December 1970Workers in Gdansk and other Baltic Coast cities strike. Strikers clash with Government troops.
September 23, 1976KOR (Workers' Defense Committee) is formed by dissidents to help families of workers in jail or on trial.
July 1980Polish leaders announce food price hikes, triggering strikes.
August 14, 1980Workers at Lenin Shipyard strike.
August 16, 1980Inter-factory Strike Committee forms at Lenin Shipyard, representing strikers from different enterprises across Poland.
August 23, 1980Communist Party negotiators arrive at Lenin Shipyard to begin talks with the strike committee.
August 31, 1980Agreement is signed, giving workers the right to form unions independent from government control.
September 17, 1980A nationwide independent trade union, Solidarity, is established.
December 13, 1981The government declares a "state of war" and suspends Solidarity.
February 6, 1989The Polish government convenes roundtable talks, which include Solidarity, to discuss Poland's future.
June 4, 1989Solidarity wins control of the government in free elections.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate LECH WALESA was born in Popowo, Poland in 1943. After graduating from vocational school, Walesa worked as a car mechanic, and then as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard starting in 1967. Within three years he was already something of a leader and by December 1970, he was briefly detained when the shipyard workers clashed with the government. He spent the new six years working hard at his job but also putting heat on his bosses to improve the work conditions. In 1976, after clashing yet again with officials Walesa was fired. He spent the next four years taking a variety of jobs and honing his organizing skills.
In August 1980, Walesa led the Gdansk shipyard strike, which inspired a wave of strikes over much of the country. The strike was successful, and the Polish authorities were forced to yield to worker demands. On August 31, 1980, Walesa negotiated the Gdansk Agreement with the Polish authorities, which gave workers the right to strike and to organize independent unions.
To show its support of the movement, the Catholic Church invited Walesa to the Vatican in 1981 to be received by Pope John Paul II. Later that year, Walesa was officially elected Solidarity Chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk. Poland’s leader, General Jaruzelski, fearing Soviet armed intervention in the face of continued worker unrest, imposed martial law. Walesa was interned in a country house in a remote location in southeastern Poland.
By November 1982 Walesa was released and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards. The following year, in 1983, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, seen as many as the world’s blessing on the Polish people’s cause
As the Jaruzelski regime became more unpopular and economic conditions worsened, government authorities were forced to negotiate with Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues. Negotiations resulted in parliamentary elections, which led to the creation of a non-communist government. Walesa, now head of the revived Solidarity labor union, began a series of meetings with world leaders. In November 1989 he became the third person in history, after the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill, to address a joint session of the United States Congress. In December 1990 Walesa was elected President of the Republic of Poland, and served until his defeat in 1995.
Walesa has been granted many honorary degrees from universities, including Harvard University and the University of Paris. Other honors include the Medal of Freedom; the Award of Free World (Norway); and the European Award of Human Rights. He remained active in politics, and ran for president again in 2000 but received only 1% of votes.
In January 2006, Lech Walesa saw for the first time the files communist-era police kept on him, tracking his activities as an anti-communist and labor organizer from the 1970s through to 1990. The files are currently being prepared for publication.
In 1950, ANNA WALENTYNOWICZ began working as a crane operator in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. She had been a loyal member of the communist party since she was a young woman, because she believed in their promise to build a just and equal society. But it wasn’t long before Walentynowicz became disillusioned with what the party had to offer. Workers in the shipyard were not allowed to organize or speak out about labor conditions, and Walentynowicz eventually became a pariah within the party.
On August 7, 1980, only months before her retirement, Walentynowicz was fired from her position for distributing Robotnik Wybyzez, an illegal newspaper for which she served as an editor. Other activists were quick to condemn the shipyard management’s decision, and called for collective action. By week’s end, the workers were on strike. First on the list of demands presented by Lech Walesa was the reinstatement of Walentynowicz. This Gdanks shipyard strike ultimately led to the historic August 31 agreement, which gave workers the right to form independent unions.
On December 14, 2005, Anna Walentynowicz accepted the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom on behalf of the Solidarity trade unio,n during a ceremony at Poland's embassy in Washington, D.C. The medal is awarded by the U.S. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization established by an Act of Congress to commemorate victims of communism and to honur those who struggled against communism. Walentynowicz is currently retired and living in Gdansk. She is considered one of Poland’s labor heroines.
Born in 1954, ZBIGNIEW BUJAK was a key leader of the Solidarity underground movement after the imposition of martial law. During the 1980 strike he organized committees at the Ursus tractor factory near Warsaw, where he worked as an electrician, and was one the few Solidarity leaders to escape arrest in 1981. Bujak then proceeded to establish and maintain an intricate clandestine communications system for the movement until 1986, when he was finally arrested after eluding the secret police for nearly five and a half years.
After his release, Bujak participated in the Round Table Negotiations with the government in 1989, successfully negotiating a peaceful compromise with the communists that set the stage for a democratic Poland. Two years later Bujak was elected to serve in Parliament. He later held the post of Minister of Customs. No longer in government, Bujak writes frequently on Polish politics and travels the world as a lecturer and panelist, speaking about his experience as a leader of Solidarity.
JERZY KOLODZIEJSKI served as Provincial Governor at the time of the labor strikes in Gdansk. As governor, Kolodziejksi went to the Lenin Shipyard to work out the details of the meeting between the Inter-Factory Strike Committee (MKS) and the government committee. Currently, Jerzy Kolodziejski is a professor at the Institute of Electron Technology in Warsaw.
The list of 21 demands presented by the Inter-Factory Strike Committee to the Polish government:
The Tasks of the Factories and Institutions on Strike, Represented by the Inter-Factory Strike Committee at the Gdansk Shipyard
1. Acceptance of free trade unions independent of the Communist Party and of
enterprises, in accordance with convention No. 87 of the International Labor
Organization concerning the right to form free trade unions, which was
ratified by the Communist Government of Poland.
Dissidents and "Self-Organization"
On August 20, 1968 Polish troops joined the armies of the Warsaw Pact (the military alliance of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies) in invading Czechoslovakia, ordered by Moscow to smash the democratic changes introduced by communist reformers there. For Poles intent on reforming their own society, the outlook was bleak. But in the early 1970s a number of people who had worked in the opposition during the 1960s moved toward a new strategy of political action, one better adapted to life after 1968.
Among the architects of this strategy were Jacek Kuron, and Adam Michnik. Each of these men had gone from faith in socialism, to disillusionment with the party, then into stark opposition. In 1956, Jacek Kuron had been a student protest leader at Warsaw University. He also had been a Marxist who believed that critically thinking people could work within the party - and he organized a scouting troop to imbue the next generation with communist values. But by the early 1960s he had become disaffected, and he and a colleague drafted an "Open Letter to the Party," saying it could not be reformed, only overthrown by a workers' revolution. In 1964 Kuron was ejected from the party; the next year he was arrested and sentenced to prison. Kuron was out of jail in time to organize rallies in March 1968, only to find himself under lock and key again in just two days.
Michnik, the son of communist intellectuals, had joined Kuron's scouting troop at the age of eleven. "A Communist is a man who fights for social justice, for freedom and equality, for socialism," he later recalled having been taught. "He goes to prison for years because of his beliefs. . .and, once released, he again undertakes his revolutionary activities." Like his mentor, Michnik discovered that the party had no room for idealists. In high school he was arrested for distributing Kuron's and Modzelewski's Open Letter. He led protests at Warsaw University in 1968; the next year he too was sitting in jail.
In a series of articles in emigré and underground journals in the early and mid-1970s, these men diagnosed their own mistakes. They had assumed, Michnik wrote, "that the system of power could be humanized and democratized. . ." They had bet on "reformists" in the communist elite – but 1968 broke "the umbilical cord" that tied them to the party.
Trying to overthrow the regime, Michnik noted, was unrealistic. The Soviet Union could intervene, just as it had in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Besides, a revolutionary underground would "only serve the police, making mass hysteria and police provocation more likely." The communists would be in their element demolishing a conspiratorial opposition. Even if successful, achieving power by raw force might only replace one dogma with another. "By using force to storm the existing Bastilles we shall unwittingly build new ones."
Gradual reformism had turned out to be barren, and a frontal assault was also a dead end. But Kuron and Michnik believed something else could be done: Rather than trying to change the government, opponents of the regime could change Polish society - by resisting the party's propensity to control every corner of social life. Each independent initiative by citizens, each example of self-organization by people acting outside of party control, Kuron declared, "challenges the monopoly of the state and thereby challenges the basis upon which it exercises power." The immediate task of opposition intellectuals, Michnik wrote, was to build "a real, day-to-day community of free people."
Paradoxically, the road to political change for Poles began with a dismissal of politics. "Our freedom begins with ourselves," Michnik proclaimed - and, in doing so, echoed the spirit of Gandhi's ideas sixty years before. "Self-rule" in the lives of Indians seeking independence from the British had to be achieved before the nation could rule itself. The patrons of the Polish opposition were borrowing two jewels from the crown of Gandhi's strategy: declining to use violent force and sparking private work to develop the habits of a self-responsible people.
Independent self-organization did not, however, mean relinquishing the goal of reforming the state. Kuron and Michnik thought that the regime could be prodded to change. "Organized society is a power," Kuron wrote, "and a power every authority must reckon with." As Michnik put it, "Nothing instructs the authorities better than pressure from below." Democracy and civil liberties were the ultimate prizes; activating and organizing the Polish people were necessary first steps.
To take them, intellectuals would need allies. The first accomplice had to be the Catholic Church, the one major institution in Poland with an independent voice, though it had not been on warm terms with Poland's intelligentsia. But now conditions were ripe for a rapprochement. The Church had spoken out in favor of human rights for all Poles, not just Catholics, and many intellectuals - disillusioned not only with communism but also with its materialism and hyperrationalism - began to seek new sources of moral authority.
Kuron and Michnik also hoped to find partners in the industrial working class. They recognized that twice before, in 1956 and 1970, workers had rebelled and pried concessions from the regime. The party, Michnik wrote, feared workers more than any other group, and so they had to be part of any movement that would push Poland toward democracy. Intellectuals had done nothing in 1970 when workers on the coast had been repressed by the ZOMO and the army, a source of personal shame for Kuron. The next time they would have to show some solidarity.
1 Peter Raina, Political Opposition in Poland, 1954-1977 (London: Poets' and Painters' Press, 1978), p. 179.
2 Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 135-136; David Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 58-60.
3 Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 22; Michnik, Letters, pp. 142-143.
4 Michnik, Letters, p. 148; Ost, Solidarity, pp. 64-69.
5 Stokes, Walls Came Tumbling Down, p. 22; Jan Kubik, The Power of Symbols Against the Symbols of Power: the Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of Socialism in Poland (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1994), p. 256.
6 Michnik, Letters, pp. 142-144; Robert Zuzowski, Political Dissent and Opposition in Poland: The Workers' Defense Committee "KOR" (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), pp. 67-68.
7 Michnik, Letters, p. 145; Zuzowski, Political Dissent, pp. 129, 132.
8 Lawrence Goodwyn, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 194; Michnik, Letters, pp. 144-145.
from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.
The end of the communist dictatorship is not the only measure of what Poland's nonviolent opposition movement accomplished. Communist governments collapsed everywhere in Eastern Europe during 1989, even in countries where resistance was spontaneous and disorganized. The Polish party may not have lasted long in power even had there been no KOR, no August strike, no Solidarity, and also no Kuron, no Walentynowicz, no Walesa, and no Bujak. What marks these names as momentous is not just that they triggered the end of tyranny but that they reinvigorated the popular character of Poland even before the communists fell.
The first kilometers in this road were paved in the 1970s when Polish intellectuals took direct action – helping workers, publishing journals and books, teaching courses. But what KOR and other dissidents could not do was to force the regime to accept institutional limits on its power and create a lawful sphere for a free society. That took large-scale nonviolent action – the August 1980 strike. Learning from the 1970 uprising and the experience of KOR, the Baltic workers organized themselves on a giant scale in a matter of weeks, roused the public, and outmaneuvered the party inside factories and across negotiating tables.
Solidarity then became a vehicle for all Poles. The dynamic new union used threats of a general strike to constrain the regime not only to accept its existence but to allow others to organize and speak out. If KOR had fought a nonviolent guerrilla war to liberate a beachhead of independent space, Solidarity seized a popular mandate for an entire coast of freedom. For a shining interval, communist Poland had a free, civil society. After the crackdown broke up the union, an opposition re-emerged to contest control of Polish life. Even under martial law, the struggle for self-organization went on. Then, at the end of the decade, as Jaruzelski looked for ways to save a sinking economy and stem a new tide of turmoil, he turned for help to the alternate power that Solidarity signified – and soon he was finished.
The victory of the movement that changed the history of Poland was the world's most striking display of people power against oppression since Mohandas Gandhi shook the foundation of British rule in India. For a century and a half, the British controlled India by having Indians collaborate in running the raj. Likewise for thirty years the communists in Poland kept the lid on discontent by co-opting reformers and isolating disruptive voices – until another way to oppose oppression was found, by disengaging from the state and engaging the people.
Zbigniew Bujak regarded Vaclev Havel's essay, "The Power of the Powerless," as the theory that explained his work. Havel saw the reliance of an authoritarian regime on the people's cooperation as a weakness, because it required them to live a lie – and those who found the space in which to "live in the truth" would open up "singular, explosive, incalculable political power." Those who remained "within the lie" could be "struck at any moment. . .by the force of truth," and as they changed, the truth would become visible – through "a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure. . ." 
Eighty years before in South Africa, Gandhi had said this "truth force," or satyagraha, when employed by resisters, would eventually draw power away from oppressors. So it was in Poland. Lech Walesa creates independent space in a shipyard, and the regime comes to him to negotiate. Bujak goes underground, and eight years later Jaruzelski invites him, Walesa, and others to help remake the country. All the oppositionists at the roundtable in 1989 were there because they had first refused to cooperate with the state – they stopped lying to themselves – and then they made space in their lives and workplaces for the truth to be the basis for action.
As they did so, they refused to use violence in taking that action. Havel said real dissidence "is and must be fundamentally hostile toward the notion of violent change. . ." Bujak rejected "any acts of violence." Even in the face of violence? The year after the events in Gdansk in 1981, a worker wrote in his diary, "We were ready to take the cross upon our own shoulders, the cross in the form of the caterpillar tracks of the tanks, if it came to an assault on us..." 
In the twentieth century's armed liberation movements, portraits of gun-wielding martyrs – the Che Guevaras of the world – were often flaunted as symbols, but none of those struggles produced freedom. Throughout the years of Solidarity's ceremonies and marches, the only person whose picture was held aloft was the Pope, whose most inflammatory injunction to his fellow Poles was to be "nonconformists." And Solidarity's most common decoration, laid at factory gates and monuments, received by leaders and given to heroes, were garlands and wreaths of flowers. Hammers and sickles, fasces and clenched fists: symbols of revolution all, and each one easily used as a weapon. Not so, flowers.
Disdain for dictators is easy. Disdain for violence, their favorite tool, is not so easy, especially when it threatens you. But renouncing it pays, in the coin of achieving power. Polish workers remembered how little progress they had made in 1970 and 1976 by burning down party buildings. And had Solidarity stowed away caches of weapons only to be discovered later, as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev told Polish Prime Minister Kania to pretend it had, or if Bujak had organized hit squads to assassinate party bosses, would the general have dismissed the party hard-liners when they denounced Bujak and other Solidarity chiefs in 1989 as political criminals? You reap exactly what you sow, as Gandhi told India.
If the ultimate reward of forswearing violence was not foreseeable in August 1980, the immediate risks were in plain view. Every striker in the Lenin Shipyard realized that the regime, the nation, and the world were watching every move they made. If, when the shipyard's administrator first outwitted them, they had beaten and thrown him into the street, would the regime have been likely to return to the talks? Those who start the violence usually pay the cost of its dishonor. And if bloody revolt instead of nonviolent organizing had been the culminating action of the movement, would the regime have seemed so odious and Solidarity so worthy, all the long years of the "state of war"? Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 – the world's blessing on the Polish people's cause, and another mark of disrepute for those who held it back.
Those who sat in the chairs at the roundtable felt the weight of Poland's fate on their shoulders. But by then it was the people's leaders, not the officers of state, who had the wind of history at their backs. For twenty years its speed had gathered, then receded – then it rose again. The gale of power blowing communism out was not the weather of violence. It came out of the climate of a new civil society that Poles had built under the very awning of authoritarian will. It came up through the eaves and windowsills of every church where dissidents met, every factory occupied by strikers, and every house that harbored a member of the underground.
To plant the vine of freedom in the soil of communist Poland, the people's movement of the 1970s and 1980s challenged a regime that was heir to the deadliest family of modern tyrants. From Stalin's elimination of the kulaks to Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, whole peoples had been sacrificed in the name of communism if not in the service of its original ideals. The Polish variety was not as demonic, but the prison cells that awaited those who challenged its control were no incentive for opposition. Yet against this citadel, the movement set clear goals, rallied massive popular support, enlisted the Church and foreign help, avoided tactics that would trigger quick repression, and brought the use of strikes and self-organization to their highest development in the history of nonviolent action. Its only serious lapse was not to prepare for a military crackdown.
For all his ignorance of what was really going on in Poland, Leonid Brezhnev was right when he saw Solidarity as a dagger pointed at the heart of his empire's control. It refused to respect the guidance of the party. It defied the orders of the state. It demanded that the consent of Poles, not the fiat of government, determine the conditions of life and labor. And it had the audacity to press its demands by threatening the state with economic chaos, political stalemate, and international disgrace. It did all that, and it turned the history of communism on its head – without having to take the head of a single Polish communist. Had it aimed at heads, its own might never have taken power.
2 Ibid., p. 71; Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (Westport. CT: Praeger, 1994), p. 306; Kubik, Power of Symbols, p. 189.
from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Ash, Timothy Garton. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1984.
Bernhard, Michael H. The Origins of Democratization in Poland: Workers, Intellectuals and Oppositional Politics, 1976-1980. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Laba, Roman. The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Persky, Stan. At the Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1981.
Ramet, Sabrina Petra. Social Currents in Eastern Europe: The Sources and the Consequences of the Great Transformation. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Stokes, Gale. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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