Solidarity Movement and Poland’s Democratic Evolution

In its 35-year history Solidarity went through a number of transformations. It was a workers’ union, an underground opposition movement, a political party and a member of the governing coalition. More importantly, Solidarity served as a platform for civil education, self-organization and consolidation for millions of Poles.

The Solidarity independent trade union was established in Poland 35 years ago. It made an important contribution to the dismantling of the authoritarian political regime in the country. The Solidarity movement helped overcome the artificial division of Europe into spheres of influence, one of the key elements of the post-World War II international relations. In fact, Poland was the first among Central and Eastern European countries to accomplish a peaceful transition from communism to build a civil society and a democracy, thereby embarking on a challenging, and in the end successful, transformation from one of the poorest socialist countries to EU and OECD member. Mass worker protests abruptly changed the course of history not just in Poland, but across the region. By the early 1990s, the names and borders of all of its neighboring countries had changed.

Massive outbursts of public discontent were not uncommon for the People’s Republic of Poland, and occurred with higher frequency than in other socialist countries. These protests usually emerged as a spontaneous response by society to the deteriorating economic environment in the country.

When Edward Gierek became First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1970, the Polish government attempted to replenish stores with consumer goods, buying them with funds borrowed from the West. Merely a stop-gap solution, this move did nothing to solve problems. The country’s foreign debt exploded against the background of highly volatile global prices of raw materials and a decline in Polish exports. The economic situation was short of a disaster. It was at this moment that Solidarity’s predecessors, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and the Movement for Defense of Human and Civil Rights (ROPCiO) were created. Their aim was to assist arrested workers and all those suffering from government repression. Members of these organizations, including Adam Michnik, Wojciech Onyszkiewicz, Antoni Macierewicz, Jan Olszewski, Karol Modzelewski, Andrzej Woźnicki and others, later proactively contributed to Solidarity.

By the late 1970s, the Polish economy was in dire straits. In 1971-1979, the country’s foreign debt surged more than 18-fold. In July 1980, the Council of Ministers passed yet another resolution to increase the prices of meat, which resulted in strikes in Gdansk, Lublin, Szczecin, and other cities. This led to the establishment of an independent trade union, Solidarity. On top of economic reform and higher pay, its leaders demanded access to the media, the right to strike and form trade unions outside of the United Workers’ Party. It didn’t take long to bring the whole country to a halt, which forced the government to take an unprecedented step by agreeing to negotiate with the independent trade union and make substantial concessions. By late September 1980, over 5 million people in Poland left government-sponsored trade unions, and by early 1981 Solidarity had nearly 9 million members.

Solidarity’s success is attributable to a number of factors. First, it was the first time that the liberal community, students and the clergy got behind the workers. The clergy’s support made a huge impact, especially after a Polish priest, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope. During Pope John Paul II’s first official visit to Poland in 1979, over 13 million people attended his Mass. The Catholic Church sought to take a neutral stance regarding the conflict between the society and the authorities, trying to serve as a mediator. That said, most priests sympathized with Solidarity and opposed the political regime that preached atheism and suppressed religious beliefs.

Second, the leaders of the People’s Republic of Poland proved to be unable to remedy the country’s economy and implement the much-needed reforms, which did nothing to ease public tension. Moreover, there was discord within the political elite. Once at the helm of the country, Gierek started appointing people from his native Silesia to key government positions, which irritated leaders of the Polish United Workers’ Party’s regional branches.

Third, the government was not sure that the Polish Army would fire at demonstrators if the decision to suppress the strikes was taken. The perspective of USSR leaders on this issue mattered. Although they supported a crackdown against the striking workers, they were not prepared to send Soviet troops to suppress the protest. Kremlin viewed military intervention as undesirable, since it would have come on the heels of the 1980 Olympics and against the background of escalating anti-Soviet sentiment in Poland.

As for the West, its perspective on the developments in Poland was also far from unified. US President Jimmy Carter sympathized with Poland and the changes taking place there without, however, taking any active steps, fearing to bring about an escalation of the conflict and an intervention by the USSR. The United States also signaled that it did not intend to lend Polish workers military support in case of an armed face-off. At the same time, a number of Western European countries viewed developments in Poland as threatening to the stability on the continent. For instance, Federal Republic of Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was ready to carry on the détente policy with the USSR even in case of a Moscow-led intervention.

Solidarity’s legitimate status and a relative liberalization of the trade union law led Stanisław Gomułka prominent Polish economist, to think that the authorities were laying the groundwork for Hungarian-type economic reforms, albeit in a somewhat abridged form. However, things did not quite turn out to be this way. The Polish government was preparing to strike back against Solidarity since the fall of 1980, eventually forcing the trade union underground. The Polish authorities started to change tack with respect to Solidarity only in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the USSR and renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine in foreign policy, replacing it with the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs within the socialist bloc. During the Roundtable Talks between the authorities and the opposition it was agreed to end Solidarity’s illegal status and hold parliamentary and presidential elections in the summer of 1989. The vote showed that the support for the Polish United Workers’ Party was waning, undermining the legitimacy of its rule. The USSR and Hungary welcomed the outcomes of the Roundtable Talks and the elections. In 1990 the Polish United Workers’ Party dissolved and Wojciech Jaruzelski was forced to resign as President.

From its very founding, Solidarity lacked a unified ideology or political platform, bringing together people with a wide variety of views and beliefs, which resulted in frequent conflicts within the organization. There were two main ideological currents within Solidarity: the conservative right and the liberal left. Throughout the 1980s, disputes and discussions among Solidarity members mostly focused on decision-making mechanisms for the trade union, Lech Wałęsa’s leadership style, and the outcomes of negotiations with the government. The only thing that united the members was the opposition to the authoritarian communist regime. The liquidation of the Polish United Workers’ Party, which up until then played a consolidating role, reinforced the centrifugal forces inside Solidarity. The diverging and contradicting views on the future of Poland and its economic development strategy came to the surface, leading to an inevitable split. In 1990-1991 a number of political parties broke away from Solidarity, most notably the Liberal Democratic Congress, the Christian National Union, Citizens' Movement for Democratic Action, Center Agreement, and Democratic Union.

Solidarity and the parties that broke away from it had a modest showing at the 1991 and 1993 parliamentary elections, which led to the creation on its basis in 1996 of a center-right coalition with over 30 parties. It won 33 percent of the vote at the parliamentary elections and together with the Freedom Union formed a new government headed by Jerzy Buzek. However, the coalition was ultimately shattered by internal conflicts and corruption scandals, leading to the withdrawal of Solidarity in 2001. Since then, the trade union ceased to operate as a political organization, although it still supports presidential candidates from the Law and Justice party. The two organizations have much in common in terms of ideology, and a number of leaders from Law and Justice are connected to Solidarity in one way or another.

With the change in its leadership, Solidarity has been distancing itself even more from politics since 2010, focusing on protecting workers’ rights and advocating better working conditions, lower prices, raising the minimum wage and creating new jobs.

In 2013, Solidarity staged a major strike in Warsaw when over 2 million people took to the streets. In early 2015, it organized a series of miners’ strikes, demanding the preservation of government subsidies and cancelation of a decision to close down several mines. This shift in strategy didn’t fail to yield results, and Solidarity’s appeal and influence grew substantially. Over one half of the country’s population approves its activities.

All in all, in its 35-year history Solidarity went through a number of transformations. It was a workers’ union, an underground opposition movement, a political party and a member of the governing coalition. More importantly, Solidarity served as a platform for civil education, self-organization and consolidation for millions of Poles.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.