A free trade union

Born in August 1980 from great strikes in the Baltic shipyards, the Polish trade union Solidarity was an inspiration both to those in the Eastern bloc opposed to communist dictatorship, and beyond. Along with economic demands the strikers sought the seemingly impossible: the right to organise independent self-governing trade unions, free of state control.

 

 

Walesa addressing supporters outside the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk (l).

Andrzej Kolodziej addressing strikers at the Paris Commune shipyard in Gdynia (r).

They were led by Lech Walesa, a fast-talking electrician with a distinctive black moustache. The country was at a standstill. The government was paralysed. Russian tanks were reportedly poised to invade. The world held its breath. But after just over two weeks, on 31 August, the Polish government signed up to the famous 21 points of the Gdansk accords. The strikers, combining discipline with audacity, had won; starting a collapse, many believe, that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years later.

 

Walesa and deputy prime minister Jagielski sign the agreement.

In Britain reports of militant workers locked in struggle with a supposedly socialist government impressed, among many others, three dissident Marxists on holiday in Wiltshire: Karen Blick, Robin Blick and Adam Westoby. They decided to form a support organisation and called a public meeting. It was there, on 26 August, at Conway Hall, in London, that the Polish Solidarity Campaign (PSC) was born.

More battles

In Poland the union leadership struggled, in the face of chicanery and provocation, to force the government to deliver on its promises. A tide of national reassertion swept into every corner of Polish life: sparking off innumerable local disputes, swelling Solidarity's membership to over 10 million, animating students, academics, even private farmers, and inspiring a major extension of independent civil society behind the protective wall of the union.

 

January 1981, private farmers demanding registration of their union (l).

June 1981, Poznan: unveiling of the memorial to workers killed in 1956 (r).

Meanwhile in Britain

PSC was essentially a coalition of the Left, bringing together disaffected Marxists, Labour Party activists, young British-born Poles and older representatives of the Polish socialist tradition in exile. The particular target of its campaigning was to persuade the Labour party and the trade unions to break off relations with the state-run puppet unions in Poland and to recognise Solidarity instead. It was hard fight since many of the unions had very cosy relations with their fraternal counterparts in the East. As early as September 1980 PSC was demonstrating and leafleting outside the TUC annual congress in Brighton.

It was a volatile coalition, marked by schisms and resignations. The membership was small - 66 by the first annual general meeting in May 1981 - but it plugged away with small-scale actions and determined lobbying, extending its base and gradually expanding its membership. The publication PSC News appeared more or less regularly from March 1981. That autumn it hit upon a major source of income: Solidarity T-shirts, sold by mail-order.

Giles

The man who spotted this potential was Giles Hart. A humanist with a passion for freedom, he was absolutely central to the organisation, serving variously as treasurer, secretary, and for four years as chairman. Tragically, he was killed in July 2005 in the bus bombing in Tavistock Square. (See Citizen Giles for more).

Repression

In Poland Solidarity had from the outset acknowledged the leading role of the Party. Through 1981 it struggled to maintain this self-limiting stance amid a turbulence of economic deterioration and growing food shortages, on the one hand, and an angry radicalisation of its membership on the other. In September a triumphant national conference in Gdansk attracted nearly 900 delegates.

Three months later, in the night of 12-13 December 1981, the government imposed martial law, outlawing the union, interning 10,000 leading activists and ending 500 days of freedom.

 

Tanks and helicopters at the Huta Katowice steelworks, December 1981.

In London PSC responded with a small demonstration outside the Polish embassy on the afternoon of the 13th and a large demonstration the following Sunday, the 20th. The latter, marching from Hyde Park in a snow-storm, pulled in some 14,000 people.

Flying the flag

Support for PSC now burgeoned. At the same time a large splinter-group broke away to form Solidarity with Solidarity, which drew support from a younger generation of recent arrivals from Poland. They found PSC too 'lefty' and bureaucratic; but did great work in parallel. A major challenge from another quarter came in 1982. At its annual general meeting in March that year PSC had to fight off a takeover by Trotskyists from the International Marxist Group.

PSC continued to fly the flag for Solidarity during the 1980s - through the years of repression to its re-emergence with strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins towards the end of the decade. 

 

                                    

Demonstration in Krakow in August 1982 to mark the second anniversary of the Gdansk agreement (above left).

"Solidarity Lives!" May Day demonstration in Warsaw 1985 (above right)

Sit-in at Warsaw University, May 1988 (below)

While other people came and went, or faded away altogether, Giles stuck to the cause with dogged persistence. Lech Walesa acknowledged his huge contribution when he visited Britain in December 1989.

In this annus mirabilis Poland's road to independence took the form of a round-table agreement between Solidarity and the government for partially free national elections. Sixty-five per cent of the seats in the Sejm were reserved for the communists and their allies. When votes were cast in June 1989 Solidarity won every one of the 35 per cent of freely contested seats.

 

 

Campaigning for Solidarity in Krakow, May 1989

In September that year one of Solidarity's leading advisers, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became prime minister. In December 1990 Lech Walesa, the erstwhile electrician, was elected president of the Republic.

In memoriam

The history of the Polish Solidarity campaign is documented in a volume entitled For our Freedom and Yours (1995), edited by Giles Hart and reissued here online.Now Giles is dead. A memorial to him, inscribed in English and Polish, was unveiled in the summer of 2008 in Ravenscourt Park, Hammersmith.