Sunday, September 25


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.


Joshua Clark said...

Hello, Dr. Grant! First off, I'd like to say that I love your blogs, lectures, books, and such. Always wise, substantive material. I really admire your focus on helping the poor (i.e., loving mercy).

So, some thoughts and questions on unions... I used to think unions were a crummy idea, because they messed up free enterprise--if you don't think you're getting paid enough or have enough benefits, then you should go find another job. But now I'm thinking this is kind of a bogus position, lacking both care for the common man and a proper understanding of economics.

It does not care for the common man because there are a lot of people who are not able to just jump around changing careers all the time. They have their particular job, their training, have been working at it for years, and then a big, oppressive corporation is trying to take advantage of them. In which case I would grab a sign and join the line.

Now, my understanding of economic theory is more shaky. I'm particularly interested in the connection between the distributist concept of the guild and good labor unions. Now, the distributist vision is a lot larger than that of the trade unions, with more people minding their own business(es), every man having his house, horse, and cow, and all this. Which is not exactly what unions are always shooting for. But the idea of workers banding together, to avoid the oppression of both government and domineering big business, seems to be a bit of a common point between guilds and unions.

Of course, this sort of banding together can also cause problems. The worker can get greedy, and suddenly he really is asking for something his employer can't provide, and so he loses his job and capsizes business. And then power always corrupts, and we see that a bit in unions as well, getting ties with the Mafia and the like. And suddenly the calf is boiling in the mother's milk.

I was hoping you could add some comments to this fine historical note, maybe pontificating a bit on different sorts of unions, ideal unions (Solidarnosc!), the dangers, the benefits, and this sort of thing. It seems unions can be great, but they can also be quite bad. What can we do to ensure that unions remain instruments devoted to the oppressed workers, and don't get bought out by politicians, the mob, or whomever?


-- Joshua Clark

Ian Hugh Clary said...

As a Canadian, I have mixed feelings when it comes to the notion of trade unions. Especially because I come from a "car town."
Our country is already so socialistic and one of the major contributors to that is the Canadian Auto Workers union.
My sister works at Chrysler as a line supervisor and therefore is not in the union. She is also not considered management and therefore doesn't receive their wages nor much of their support. Essentially, she's caught in the middle between the two.
If one of the guys on her line came to work drunk and she wrote him up, mangagement would likely fire him only to rehire him a month later with a higher wage because of pressure from the union.
In Canada, the union gives workers the right to sleep on the job, leave early and come in late, drink, smoke pot, oggle women...the list goes on and on.
When I read about Marx and his desire for "worker" rights, I just laugh. Neither he, nor those who have followed in his footsteps, really care about the working class. It seems to swing one of two ways: either extreme oppression or extreme laziness.
I'm thankful for your post about "Solidarity." I do believe, in spite of the rant above, that a union can be a good thing. It is nice to see that in some quarter of the world it worked.
Even still, they crumbled once they came to power.
The hymn that just sprung into my mind gives me solace:
"My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness."

God bless

Unknown said...

The book REAGAN'S WAR--The Epic Story of His 40 year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism by Peter Schweizer gives some great details on how Reagan watched the Solidarity movement closely and went out on a limb to support the Poles. Boy, I am glad the Soviet Bloc, the Iron Curtain, and the Evil Empire are all gone. This world is still with devils filled, but at least a few of them got it in the neck.