Solidarity--or, in Polish, Solidarnosc--was a remarkable workers' union founded 25 years ago this month. What began as just another group of hopelessly idealistic, disgruntled shipyard workers and dissident intellectuals became an unstoppable force for change that ultimately toppled the Communist bloc and changed the balance of power in the world.
The Poland that begat Solidarity a quarter century ago is hardly recognizable today. Then, Poland was a totalitarian, satellite state of the Soviet Union, under Moscow's firm hand. Today, Poland is a democratic country and a member of the European Union as well as NATO. Much of that development is due to the influence of the trade union that got its start in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980.
The origins of Solidarity go back even further, to 1976, when a "Worker's Defense Committee" was founded by a group of dissident intellectuals after several thousand workers who had been on strike were attacked and jailed by authorities in various cities. In 1979, the committee published a charter of worker's rights.
In 1980, a new wave of strikes again broke out, this time sparked by a seemingly insignificant event. The communist government had raised the price of meat in the cafeteria of the Lenin Shipyards in the northern industrial city of Gdansk. A female worker had complained about the price hike and was fired. That led 17,000 workers to put down their tools and barricade themselves inside the plant under the leadership of Lech Walesa, an electrician at the shipyard.
By mid-August, strikes had spread throughout the country and millions of Polish white and blue-collar workers took to the streets demanding better working conditions, even though only 10 years earlier, similar strikes had ended in bloodshed with dozens of people killed by machine gun fire and over 1,000 injured.
But in August and September, 1980, after weeks of the strike action, the workers in the shipyard reached their goal. The strike movement, which would soon be formally known as Solidarity, was accepted as an independent trade union.
"Finally we have an independent union under our own administration," said Lech Walesa. "We now have the right to strike and we are going to demand more rights soon."
Organizers were anything but sure of their victory, though, even when, at the end of that strike, the government signed the "Gdansk Treaty" with its 21 demands, including freedom of expression, a free trade union and the right to strike. "Getting the right to have an independent trade union was a breakthrough," said Bogdan Lis, one of the founders of Solidarity. "It was so unbelievable that we could only wonder then how long it would last."
The reformers got their answer less than a year later, when the former defense minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who took over the reins of government in February 1981, took away the new-found freedoms. "I hereby proclaim martial law in all of Poland," he announced on television as a shocked nation watched.
Martial law lasted two years after that and the communist leaders did what they could to cripple the Solidarity movement. Government critics and union adherents were put in internment camps, including the leadership circle around Walesa. The Party tried to rid the country of what it considered a trade union disease.
While forced underground, the drive for freedom was not easily stopped, according to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, one-time chair of the Polish writers association and Polish foreign minister in the 1990s. "The breakup of the trade unions was a step that cannot be without consequences," he said after his release from an internment camp in October 1982. "Many have been released from prison, but many are still behind bars, even renowned writers and professors. There are many who are still being arrested and sentenced, many women among them. We Catholics in Poland are very upset and worried."
Lech Walesa himself was arrested and stayed under house arrest until the end of 1982. But the movement he led, although officially dissolved by parliament in 1982 and driven underground, remained active. The unrest in the country could no longer be quieted by draconian measures from on high.
In 1988, a new wave of strikes and labor unrest spread across the country, and high on the list of strikers' demands was government recognition of Solidarity. General Jaruzelski announced he was ready to talk with the opposition and in April 1989, the government agreed to legalize the trade union and allow it to participate in free elections to a bicameral Polish parliament.
In 1990, Solidarity experienced its perhaps sweetest triumph when Walesa was elected president. But at the same time, that marked the beginning of its long demise. The movement began drifting apart with internal fighting over interests and the speed of reforms leading to its losing popularity and influence. Even Walesa, a national hero, became a target for criticism with his high-handedness. He narrowly lost a bid for re-election in 1995 to a former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance.
But the story does not end there—at least not for Poland. Today, twenty-five years after Solidarity was launched, Poles head to the voting booths again. This time they seem certain to return a center-right coalition to power. And all around the world, the yearning for freedom against totalitarianism remains a vital concern. The idea of Solidarity is the "most important answer to the globalized world in the 21st century," Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has said. "The message of 'Solidarnosc' lives on,” he argued, “as we recently saw in during the orange revolution in the Ukraine." Viktor Yushchenko, the victor of that orange revolution likewise said, “By storming freedom, Poland gives an example for the continuing path toward freedom. Each country does it in its own way. But Solidarity was a guidepost for all of us.”
And it still is. As ex-Czech president and longtime dissident Vaclav Havel asserted, “On the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, we should all be reminded of the countries where there are still dissidents fighting for human rights, and where people are not free. Solidarity does not only mean freedom, it means responsibility,” adding that the people in “Belarus, Burma, Cuba and North Korea still need clear signs of support, still need freedom, still need Solidarity.” We might add to that list all the nations in the grip of poverty and tyranny in the Islamic Bloc, across the heart of Africa, and throughout China. Indeed, may God be pleased to raise up another Solidarity for these oppressed masses.