Solidarity, or the Polish Trade Union that Ended Communism

The Solidarity movement was a formal Polish trade union, founded in the Gdansk shipyard in the 1980s. The used the strategy of non-violent opposition and strikes to fight for worker’s rights and protest against bureaucracy, the economic crisis of the 1970’s/80’s, and rising food prices.[1] The success of the Solidarity movement represents a turning point in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Bloc finally moved past violence and oppression as a response to protests and moved instead towards democracy and dialogue.

To recognize the significance of Solidarity’s success, it is important to understand the history of opposition movements in Poland. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Poland had many instances of citizen opposition that brought together intellectuals, students, workers, and even the Catholic Church; student opposition in the 1960s, the Worker’s Defense Committee (KOR) in 1976 which fought for “legal rights for strikers,” and activism by the Catholic Church are some of the most prominent opposition movements.[2] However, not all of these opposition movements brought about change as peacefully as Solidarity.

As a formal Polish trade union founded in Gdansk shipyard in 1981, Solidarity was at first met with crushing opposition. East German leader Erich Honecker, as well as communist Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, urged Gorbachev and Poland to crack down on Solidarity. Poland painfully remembered the workers’ uprisings in 1956 in Eastern Europe, in which protests were violently crushed by Soviet forces, resulting in the death of many young students. Also, in the 1980’s, at the time Solidarity was gaining momentum, similar protests for workers’ rights in China at Tiananmen Square were met with a violent response from the Chinese government.[3] Fear rose throughout Poland that Soviet forces might intervene at any time and violently end the movement.

Nevertheless, the Solidarity movement gained strength throughout the 1980’s, despite the fear of Soviet invasion, imprisonment of Solidarity leaders, and martial law meant to “keep workers from rising up.”[4] By the end of the decade the Polish government knew they had no choice but to sit down with Solidarity leaders, which led to Round Table Talks in 1989 and the subsequent election, where Solidarity won 99/100 seats and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was elected president.[5] In the documentary “The Wall Comes Down,” Gorbachev says, “The use of force had discredited itself completely,” meaning that violence would no longer be effective in maintaining control of a country.[6] No longer in Eastern Europe could violence and oppression be used to silence opposition, and communist governments all over Eastern Europe were doomed.

The success of the Solidarity movement left an important legacy in Eastern Europe, demonstrating the power of non-violent protest and the power of citizens to enact social change. The Solidarity movement represented a “mobilization of the nation” and a forceful push away from communism.[7] Gorbachev’s decision to not intervene in Poland, and instead to let the situation unfold, went against the urges of Honecker and Ceausescu,[8] and demonstrated the power of democracy and dialogue in solving issues between the people and their government.

[1] Annika Frieberg, “The Fall of Communism” (lecture, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, April 2, 2012).

[2] Annika Frieberg, “Polish and East German Opposition and Authors” (lecture, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, March 21, 2012).

[3] “Cold War: The Wall Comes Down,” Documentary, Cold War International History Project, Washington, DC, London, Moscow, 2012.

[4] Annika Frieberg, “The Fall of Communism.”

[5] “Cold War: The Wall Comes Down,” 2012.

[6] “Cold War: The Wall Comes Down,” 2012.

[7] Annika Frieberg, “The Fall of Communism.”

[8] “Cold War: The Wall Comes Down,” 2012.

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