The Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (in Polish Niezależny Samorządowy Związek Zawodowy “Solidarność”) is a Polish trade union federation important historically for the role it played as a nonviolent, anticommunist mass social movement in Poland between 1980 and 1989. Solidarity was formed in Gdańsk, Poland, in August 1980 after a nationwide wave of strikes, sparked by price increases imposed by a government facing economic crisis, forced the ruling Communist Party to acknowledge the constitutional right of workers to form free trade unions. As a non-party-sponsored, legally recognized civil organization, Solidarity represented an unprecedented new development in state-society relations in the former Eastern bloc.
Prior to 1980 Poland had been convulsed by several economic and political crises accompanied by widespread social unrest. In each case, however, the party had been able to weather the crisis either by reorganizing its top leadership and introducing new, liberalizing economic and cultural policies (in 1956 and in 1970) and/or by targeting the most outspoken group with harsh reprisals, as occurred in 1968, 1970, and 1976. Signs of a broader, more concerted opposition to the regime came in 1976, with the formation of the Komitet Obrony Robotników (KOR; the Worker’s Defense Committee), a group founded to provide legal and financial support to workers arrested in strikes in Warsaw and Radom of that year. Ranging in composition from former revisionist intellectuals and anti-communist left oppositionists to clergy, KOR became the focal point of a movement to establish links among workers, intelligentsia, and the Church and to form and defend an alternative public sphere outside the bounds of official, state-controlled institutions. If in 1970 striking workers had responded to state violence in kind by setting fire to Gdansk party headquarters, the new opposition’s strategy was that of peaceful self-organization, signaled by left KOR intellectual Jacek Kuroń’s popular motto: “Don’t burn down party committees, found your own!”
By 1980 striking workers were able to draw on a half-decade of experience in one of the most developed underground cultures of opposition in the Eastern bloc. Strikes broke out in Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyards on August 14, and by August 17 an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, formed under the leadership of electrician Lech Wałęsa and including KOR intellectuals in an advisory capacity, had drafted a list of twenty-one demands, many of which extended beyond immediate concerns and addressed fundamental injustices of Communist-Party rule in Poland. The demands called for, among other things, acknowledgment of the right to form free trade unions, for freedom of speech, access to government-controlled media, a halt to reprisals against outspoken critics of the regime, and economic and health care reform. Strikes spread quickly throughout Poland and by August 21, a hitherto recalcitrant government announced its readiness to negotiate. Between August 30 and September 1, state representatives signed a series of agreements recognizing the workers’ right to self-government and obligating the regime to initiate a nationwide debate on the issues presented in the postulates.
The period of Solidarity’s first legal existence (August 1980–December 1981) can be divided into three main stages, as detailed by Timothy Garton Ash in The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (2002, pp. 303–308), David Ost in Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics (1990, pp. 78–79), and Jadwiga Staniszkis in Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution (1984, pp. 17–28). Initially, propelled by its success in Gdańsk, Solidarity emerged as a powerful social movement, while at the same time containing its opposition within the legal structure of the trade union and refraining from competition with the party for political power. In the second stage, confrontations with the state as well as internal disagreements between reformist and revolutionary factions revealed the inadequacy of this formula. Finally, in its third stage, Solidarity moved into the political arena, openly working for regime change.
Solidarity proved to be too much of a direct challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly, itself facing pressure from the Soviet Union, and on December 13, 1981, martial law was declared throughout Poland by recently appointed party secretary General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Prominent Solidarity leaders were arrested and interned, strikes and demonstrations were forcefully suppressed by armed riot police, and Solidarity was subsequently delegalized.
The early and mid-1980s saw Solidarity gradually reconstituting itself, now as an underground organization. In 1988 economic crisis forced the party back to the negotiating table with the opposition. This time, with the effects of perestroika being felt throughout the Eastern bloc, politics could be placed squarely on the agenda. Between February and April 1989, in an extraordinary series of negotiations known as the Roundtable Talks, state and Solidarity leaders hammered out an exit from communism for Poland. Free elections were to be held for a portion of seats in parliament, a new senate was to be formed, and a presidency was to replace the role played by the general secretary of the Communist Party. Though the party had insured that key elements of the new government would remain under its control for a transition period, Solidarity won the free portion of the elections by a landslide. With the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, events in Eastern Europe soon outstripped the gradual exit from communism mapped out during the Polish Roundtable Talks, and new, free elections were held in Poland in 1990. Meanwhile, Solidarity, deprived of its opponent, collapsed dramatically as a unified formation, fragmenting into numerous smaller political parties.
The trade union returned to political prominence in 1997 as the animating force behind a coalition of conservative right parties, which won the parliamentary election of that year and governed until 2001.
SEE ALSO Berlin Wall; Communism; Glasnost; Solidarity; Totalitarianism; Unions; Warsaw Pact; Working Class
Ash, Timothy Garton. 2002. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ost, David. 1990. Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Staniszkis, Jadwiga. 1984. Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution, ed. Jan T. Gross. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Christopher J. Caes
"Solidarność." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/solidarnosc
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