Welcome to the old Lenin shipyard, the place where Poland’s road to democracy began!
“Oh god, she’s showing us a rickety old sign and an enormous rusty-looking building. Is this a tourist attraction? Does she take people here when they visit? The coal smoke must be getting to her” your inner monologs must be saying.
The answers are yes, I am going to show you through this rusty-looking building. It is indeed a tourist attraction, but an educational one. I do take people here when they visit. And just a bit, to the coal smoke.
Welcome to the European Solidarity Centre, a large, comprehensive museum situated in the old Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk, the location where the Solidarność trade union was founded.
Gdańsk, as you may well know, was the backdrop for where the first shots of World War II rang out. It only seems fitting that it was also the place where the undoing of the subsequent Soviet empire that clutched all of Eastern Europe in its grasp began.
Solidarność (pronounced so-leh-dar-noshch) labor union was established as the first self-governing and independent labor union in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe in September 1980. Born out of frustrations with the communist government and the unjust firing of a long-term employee of the Lenin Shipyard, the workers, led by Lech Wałęsa, founded the union and held a strike in protest.
Of course, tensions had been running high in Poland for decades. During the 70’s, the communist government hiked prices on staples, like bread and butter, but subsequently never raised wages. To add insult to injury, there were also country-wide food shortages.
For the ship workers themselves, working conditions were dangerous, and their rights were limited. At the time, no organized labor unions were independent of the communist Polish government. As part of the strike, the workers wrote their 21 demands down on wooden boards and hung them up on the gates of the shipyard for all to see. Among these demands were:
- The recognition of free trade unions that were independent of the communist government
- The right to strike and guaranteed safety for strikers
- Freedom of speech and freedom of the press
- Wage increases
- Reduction of the retirement age
- Improvements to working facilities & employee safety
They Came By the Millions
Following the difficult negotiations between the government and the strikers, Solidarność took off as a social movement, boasting 10M + members among its ranks. This was due not only to Polish citizens feeling slighted by their inefficient communist government but also to the 20 or so other factories across the country that joined the movement. The party was formally established and recognized by the government on November 10, 1980, as NZSS Solidarity. In September 1981, the Solidarność first national congress elected Lech Wałęsa (Va-wen-sa) as president.
Shortly after Wałęsa’s appointment as president, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leader of the Polish Communist party, instated martial law on December 13, 1981. For the strikers, it meant no more safety during demonstrations and a strict curfew. Hundreds of people were arrested during violent strike breakups without any reason other than they were striking.
Nationwide what the strike meant was all forms of media were taken back under strict government control. It seemed that all the Solidarność movement had worked toward for a year and a half had been wiped out in an instant. However, the martial law only drove Solidarność underground where it operated stronger than ever before.
Members of the movement found ways to publish their own papers and operate their own radio stations. The farther underground the movement got, the more flack the Polish government caught from critics abroad. Most of those criticizing nations’ citizens were also sending all kinds of supplies to the members of the resistance. Packages of supplies came from as close as just beyond the Berlin wall to halfway around the world from Japan.
The Road to Democracy
Following the lifting of martial law in the summer of 1983, the feeling of the government’s control in political and social lives for all Polish citizens was still incredibly palpable. From 1983 to 1986, almost all Solidarność members who were previously imprisoned were released, but the monitoring and threats continued.
During this time period, the communist government had done little to reinvigorate the Polish economy. Inflation rates were sky high (leading to a 40% increase in food prices), sanctions imposed on Poland by foreign governments, and the continued unwillingness to acknowledge the desires of the people eventually led to country-wide strikes, just as in ’56, ’70, ’76, and ’80.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the government grudgingly sat down with opposition groups, including Solidarność, at the Round Table Talks in February 1989. After 2 months of almost daily negotiations, all negotiating parties signed the Round Table Agreement which included the following in its contents:
- Legalization of Solidarność as a labor union
- Restoration of the pre-WWII Senate to the upper house of Parliament and restoration of its veto powers with regards to decisions of the Sejm (lower house of Parliament)
- The promise of partially free elections for the Sejm
- The creation of a new independent judiciary, members of which would be appointed by the president from a previously submitted list from Parliament
As promised, Poland held its first partially free elections in June 1989. In desperate need of change, the people voted overwhelmingly for Solidarność; 99% of the Sejm seats went to Solidarność members and two months later, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarność representative, was elected Prime Minister. The new government immediately got to work in dismantling communism.
Little had the Polish communist party known, in opening up discussion with the opposition party, signing the Round Table Agreement, and allowing semi-free elections, they triggered the domino effect of the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc. In 1989 alone, Poland held its first free elections since before WWII, Hungary shook loose from its communist government and became the Republic of Hungary, and the Berlin Wall fell.
And little had Solidarność known that in 1980 they would be starting an incredible journey to paving the road to democracy for Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Not too bad for a bunch of shipyard workers.