Solidarity's First Congress

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Solidarity's First Congress


By: J. B. Weydenthal

Date: October 19, 1981

Source: de Weydenthal, J. B. From RAD Background Report/291 (Poland). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1981.

About the Author: J. B. Weydenthal is a long-serving Radio Free Europe Correspondent based in Eastern Europe. Radio Free Europe is a United States government-funded radio station that broadcasts throughout the world. Its mission is to: "promote democratic values and institutions by disseminating factual information." Radio Free Europe served Eastern Europe during the Cold War (1946–1991) era, when it would broadcast news otherwise censored by Soviet-backed governments.


In the context of the Cold War, the 1970s began a period of deétente between East and West. The era is also marked by economic hubris that occurred across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Eastern Europe. This economic mismanagement, which involved the taking on and wasting of large-sized western loans and the building up of huge trade deficits with the west, would help lead to a collapse in living standards across the region, the discrediting of the Soviet regime, and eventually, its collapse.

In Poland, the limitations of its planned economy gave its leaders few tools with which to correct economic distortions. One of the few ways in which they could bring in funds was to increase food prices. This was deeply unpopular, however, and had contributed to the fall of Wladyslaw Gomulka as Communist Party leader in 1970. When his successor, Edward Gierek, abruptly tried to do the same on June 24, 1976, he brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of Poland's cities and was forced to backtrack within twenty-four hours. Many of the demonstrators were incarcerated and hundreds were imprisoned.

This legitimacy took a further blow in October 1978 when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected Pope John II. His elevation to Pope unleashed an unprecedented sense of national and religious self-confidence. When he made a victorious return home the following June, the ecstatic reception that he met highlighted the contrast between his vibrant and charismatic papacy and the moribund and ineffectual leadership of the Communist Party.

The economic crisis came to a head in the summer of 1980. The inability of the Polish government to stem its economic deficit had seen its hard currency debt treble to more than 20 billion U.S. dollars in just five years. On the brink of economic collapse, on July 1, 1980, the Communist Government resorted to the tactic that had already twice failed and increased meat prices.

A wave of strikes and factory occupations began immediately, but whereas participants in previous protests—factory workers, students, intellectuals—had been divided, in 1980 they united in a solid phalanx. The spearhead of the protests was the Baltic shipyards, where workers were led by Lech Walesa, a former electrician. Walesa formed an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, which articulated the demands of 600 factories from all over Poland. Its extensive list of demands included calls for new and independent trade unions, the right to strike, an extension of the Catholic Church's freedom of expression, the freeing of political prisoners, improvement of social services, and a freer media. Disorientated by the extent of the protests, the Polish Government agreed to many of the demands in a series of accords in late August and early September 1980 that became known as the Gdansk Agreements. Buoyed by the success of the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, Walesa formed a national trade union based upon its organizational structure. Inaugurated on September 17, 1980, it was called Solidarity.

Over the following twelve months, the Solidarity movement led a period of political debate unparalleled in Poland's communist era. Aimed at shaping the country's political destiny, the freedoms enjoyed by Solidarity caused panic amongst Poland's Warsaw Pact allies, although the Soviet President, Leonid Brezhnev, ignored the calls of the East German leader, Erich Honecker, to send in Soviet tanks and restore order. Walesa became a globally recognized figure and even met Pope John Paul II in Rome in January 1981. Later on that year, from September 5-10 and September 26-October 7, Solidarity staged its first national congress. Walesa was elected its president.


The congress was a lengthy affair, lasting far beyond initial expectations. While the first stage lasted six days (September 5−10) instead of the planned three, the second session went on for twelve days (September 26 until October 7), whereas only seven or eight had been scheduled.

There were several reasons for the extension of the discussions; one of them was the scope of issues covered. They ranged from the general principles of the movement's future activities and its existing political and economic system to specific problems of internal organization. Draft proposals on those questions were presented to the delegates by special working teams formed during the first stage of the congress. (2) In addition, the congress devoted considerable time to discussing specific queries and demands raised from the floor by regional delegations or individual delegates with regard to their separate interests and problems.

This proliferation of issues was expected. Solidarity, a worker's protest movement that has developed in the course of the last year into a nationwide social movement, has always been regarded by its members as an organization symbolizing hopes and expectations that exceeded the functions of a mere labor union. Indeed, in the eyes of many, Solidarity is both the representative of society in general and the recipient of popular demands for change. The demands have come from many quarters. Since the congress provided the first opportunity ever to present and articulate those demands in a formal manner, n social group could have been expected to forego the chance of having its preferences embodied in Solidarity's future program. This inevitably resulted in interminable discussions, seemingly empty squabbles, and even occasional quarrels, all of which greatly contributed to the impression that the debates were chaotic and fruitless.

Another factor that prolonged the congress was the scrupulous attention to procedure, particularly over the leadership elections. While the important position of Solidarity's chairman was filled relatively quickly, Lech Walesa having won after a single ballot, the selection of the members of the National and Audit commissions proved much more difficult. The election of 21 members of the Audit commission was, for example, completed only on October 5, following 4 rounds of balloting. As for the National commission, an important body charged with setting the main policies of the movement in the months to come, 64 out of 69 elective seats were filled after 2 rounds of voting; 4 of the remaining 5 required 5 ballots; and the last seat was filled only after 6 rounds of voting.

…. On October 2, the sixth day of the session, Lech Walesa was elected chairman of Solidarity. The former electrician, who had headed Solidarity's National Coordinating Commission since its establishment in September 1980, outpolled three other contenders, drawing 462 votes, or 55.2% of the 844 ballots cast. His closest competitor, Marian Jurczyk, received 201 votes (24%), while Andrzej Gwiazda and Jan Rulewski received 74 (8.8%) and 52 (6.2%), respectively; 7 votes were declared invalid, and 48 delegates reportedly failed to vote, perhaps because of abstention. Walesa's victory had, of course, been expected. The already legendary leader of the successful August 1980 strikes in Gdansk, a seemingly simple man but also a remarkably skillful political tactician, a populist capable of attracting both workers and the intellectuals, and a tough negotiator with a strong pragmatic touch, Walesa had emerged in the course of the year both as Solidarity's most popular leader and as a personality who, in the eyes of many, symbolized the movement as a whole. Largely because of that Walesa had long been regarded by both domestic and foreign observers as the heavy favorite for the movement's chairmanship.

And yet, despite Walesa's popularity and prestige, the margin of his victory, while considerable by any democratic standards, was smaller than had been anticipated. This could be significant because it did not result from the competitive strength of his rivals. It is that Andrzej Gwiazda, a cofounder of the first free trade union movement in Gdansk in mid-1978, a leading organizer of the 1980 Gdansk strikes, and a man widely recognized as solidarity's principal ideologist, has long enjoyed nationwide prestige and respect. It is also that Marian Jurczyk, the main leader of the 1980 Szczecin strikes and the chairman of one of the movement's most successful regional organizations had been directly involved in several crucial negotiations with the authorities on issues of national importance. It is, finally, that Jan Rulewski, a victim of police brutality in the Bydgoszcz incident in March and a prominent solidarity activist involved in key areas of the movement's organizational and political work, had long enjoyed the political limelight. None of them, however, had ever been able to match Walesa's popularity or equal his prestige both within the movement and in relations with other groups or institutions.

As to the political implications of the election, Walesa's victory would seem to affirm what has been regarded as a "moderate" orientation that favors negotiation, rather than confrontation, with the authorities on various problems in Poland's public life. Over the past year, Walesa has established a solid record of dealing with the authorities, a record with numerous successes in hammering out compromises and agreements….

The basic fact remains, however, that political moderation reflects not only the views and preferences of particular leaders of the movement, but also the authorities' behavior toward Solidarity. It has become clear in recent months that the political conflicts between solidarity and the authorities resulted not so much from the aggressiveness of the former as from the latters's reluctance to accept changes in the country's social and economic life. It is that those changes have been stimulated by the operations, and the very existence, of Solidarity. They have, nonetheless, materialized through society's pressures for change in the existing system rather than calculated designs of the movement's leaders or its activists. There is no reason to assume that the essence of Poland's politics will change following these elections. The Solidarity leadership's future policy is likely to depend not so much on its own preferences or political predilections as on the attitudes of the public, and the willingness of the Polish party and state leaders to act as partners in good faith.

Perhaps the most important and politically significant decision of the congress was the adoption of Solidarity's program setting out policy and objectives for the next two years. The document consists of eight chapters, dealing with the movement's internal matters and its relations with other institutions as well as its views on the evolution of political, social, and economic relations in the country.

Defining Solidarity as "the greatest mass movement in Poland's history … a movement born from a revolt of a society that has been subjected over more than 30 years to violations of civil and human rights," the programmatic document said that his movement "unified people of different views and beliefs through a common protest against injustice, abuses of power, and autocracy." The objectives of the movement included work for "justice, democracy, truth, legality, freedom of opinion, and the renewal of the state" as well as for an improvement in economic conditions. (11) Both the origins of the movement and its objectives were said to have determined the role of Solidarity. It is to be that of both "a labor union" and "a social movement." The program said that it was precisely 'the inherent unity of those two aspects of Solidarity that has determined the importance of our organization and defined it's role in the nation's life," adding that through Solidarity "Poland's society has recovered its hopes … for a national renewal."

Expanding on solidarity's national role the program proclaimed that in the face of the current national tragedy, solidarity can no longer confine itself to waiting and exerting pressure on the authorities to meet their obligations stemming from the agreements between the labor movement and the government. We are the only guarantor for society for change in social and economic areas and that is why the union deemed it its basic duty to take all possible short and long-term steps to salvage Poland from ruin and society from poverty, despondency, and self-destruction. There is no other way to attain this goal but to restructure the state and the economy o n the basis of democracy and all-round social initiative.

More specifically, the program declared that "no support for the government's program of stabilization of the economy would be possible" unless "social control" were extended over all activities related to the resolution of difficulties and "individuals commanding social and professional respect were placed in directing positions in the economy."

At the same time, the program said that the process of innovation would have to take evolutionary rather than revolutionary forms. "The nation will never forgive anyone if his steps, born even from the best intentions, lead to bloodshed … we should implement our ideas gradually, so that each successful task has the public's support."

Underscoring Solidarity's insistence on the need for moderation in its political actions, was the program's approach to questions of Poland's relations with other countries. "Responsibility for the well-being of the country makes it imperative for us to acknowledge the alignment of forces existing in Europe since World War II, "the program stated; "we want to carry out the great transformation in domestic relations that has already been started by us without violating Poland's international alliances." At the same time, however, the program included a reminder that "Poland can serve as a valuable partner for others only if it defines by itself, and in full consciousness, it's own obligations."

Indeed, self-management and organizational autonomy provided the crucial elements behind the program's call for the establishment of a 'self-governing republic," that is, the introduction of major institutional changes within the system. In particular, the program said that Solidarity, acting on the principle that "public life should reflect the existing pluralism in social, political, and cultural areas," was determined "to support and defend civil activities aiming to present to society various political, economic, and social programs as well as to protect efforts at self-organization that would make it possible to implement those program."

Among the specific measures that could facilitate such a development, the program pledged Solidarity's support for reform of the penal system and the judiciary, for a reform of the educational system, for the full implementation of labor laws, and for a comprehensive restructuring of the country's institutions so that each would be accountable to the public and all of them would be equal before the law.

Furthermore, the program envisaged a major change in the country's legislative system that would both ensure the representative character of the parliamentary bodies and provide deputies with considerable prerogatives for independent activity. The program indicated that solidarity might make an effort to ensure that future elections to the Sejm and the local people's councils "include candidates nominated by various social organizations and civil groups" and that "no list would enjoy preferential treatment." Although the program stopped short of demanding free elections, the meaning of those declarations was clear. Until now, all candidates had to be proposed by the Front of National Unity, and within that body the communist party candidates had obvious advantages over the others. Solidarity's proposal would place them on an equal footing with any prospective rivals. The next elections will take place in December and will involve the selection of public representatives in the local people's councils; the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 1984.

On other matters, the program demanded the punishment of officials judged responsible for past repression of members of the public (1956, 1968, 1970, 1976). No specific names were mentioned, but the program said that "the investigation aimed at finding those who were responsible should not be subject to any restrictions, extending to individuals occupying the highest positions in the party and the government." Such demands have been repeatedly made by solidarity activists in the past. Equally consistent was the program's demand for the movement's access to the broadcasting media. Here, the program maintained Solidarity's well-established position that the broadcasting media should "serve society as a whole and should be placed under its direct control."

The program concluded with an appeal to the authorities to accept "a new social contract" with the public, a contract that would center on a threefold agreement. First, "an agreement to cope with the crisis," ensuring means of overcoming the difficulties of the coming winter and providing "the first indication of cooperation between the authorities and society." Secondly, 'an agreement on economic reform" which would imply official acceptance of "major economic changes." And thirdly, "an agreement on the self-governing republic," which would "chart the directions toward democratization of public life."

The program was officially adopted by the delegates by 455 to 65 votes with 91 abstentions.


Solidarity's first congress increased the alarm the nascent trade union organization was sending across the Soviet-bloc. In particular, their message of fraternity addressed to workers across eastern Europe and the USSR antagonized Poland's neighbors. With the domestic situation deteriorating under Solidarity's increasingly unrealistic demands and Moscow putting pressure upon the Polish government, Poland's new Prime Minister, General Jaruzelski, declared martial law on December 13 and initiated a huge crack down on Solidarity members. Hundreds of strikes broke out across the country but were broken up by riot police. On several occasions, government forces opened fire on protesters.

Martial law lasted until July 1983, during which time Solidarity was banned and its assets seized. Walesa was just one of its many supporters imprisoned for much of its duration, but even after his release and the end of martial law he was banned in 1984 from collecting the Nobel Peace Prize that October. News of the Polish government's repression frequently made it to the west, and the 1984 kidnapping and murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, an outspoken pro-Solidarity priest, prompted a global outcry.

Solidarity continued to operate covertly throughout the mid−1980s, supported by the Catholic Church and the CIA. The Polish Government's repression of it earned it global condemnation and it faced economic sanctions, which worsened the country's already bleak economic condition.

In April 1988, with Poland's economy in tatters and the standard of living quickly deteriorating, a new wave of strikes broke out. By August they were nationwide, but rather than declare martial law again, the government this time opened talks with Walesa. Over the following six months, Solidarity was legalized and a schedule was made for parliamentary elections. Solidarity was only able to contest thirty-five percent of seats for Parliament's main house, the Sejm, but all of the 100 seats in the newly resurrected Senate.

At the open elections staged in June 1989, Solidarity won ninety-two of the 100 Senate seats and all but one of the 162 Sejm seats the party was allowed to contest. The Polish communist party still had sixty-five percent of Sejm seats that it had not opened up in the elections. Although General Jaruzelski was designated President on July 19, his power was tentative as several Communist Sejm designates defected to Solidarity. By August 24, this shift had become inexorable. Jaruzelski, seeking some form of political consensus, chose Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a leading Solidarity member, as the country's first non-communist Prime Minister since 1945.

Solidarity's significance extended far beyond ushering Poland out of its communist era, however. News of developments in Poland spread far beyond its borders and initiated profound change across Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. By the end of 1989, communism had fallen in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

Unlike many other opposition groups in Europe at the time, notably Czechoslovakia, Solidarity was not a human or civil rights-based organization. It was a trade union, albeit one which placed considerable emphasis on human rights as part of its program for change. However, assuming that democracy is the first precondition for allowing human rights to flourish, it was a profoundly important organization. By enabling democracy to exist in Poland, and inspiring its spread elsewhere, Solidarity arguably did more to help free eastern Europe from the cloying grasp of Soviet rule than any other organization.



Ost, David. Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Rothschild, Joseph. and Nancy M. Wingfield. Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Weschler, Lawrence. The Passion of Poland: From Solidarity Through the State of War. New York: Pantheon, 1982.