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This Day in Labor History: August 7, 1980

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On August 7, 1980, a Polish shipworker named Anna Walentynowicz was fired from her job at the Gdansk shipyard five months before she was due to retire for engaging in illegal trade union activity. This firing led to the Polish Solidarity movement, the independent workers movement that helped bring down the Polish communist government and communism in eastern Europe more generally.

Despite the rhetoric about communism being the workers paradise, from the beginnings of Leninism, independent worker activity outside the state was deemed counterrevolutionary and suppressed. The violent repression of the Kronstadt Rebellion was the final moment when any worker activism was possible in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s version of Leninism most certainly had no further space for worker activism and it was this version of communism that was imposed on eastern Europe after World War II. It goes without saying that while communist governments did provide some services for some workers that they would have had to fight hard for under capitalism, the inability of workers to express their own desires and feelings actually made the communist governments anti-worker, not pro-worker.

Such was the case in Poland. Even since the imposition of communism after World War II, independent workers movements were not allowed. But by the 1970s, things were not great there. The economy stagnated in that decade. In response, the nation raised the price of food without raising wages. Westerners, both liberals and conservatives, often want to tell a story about communism that it was a repression of freedom that led to its decline, but that’s not really the case. It wasn’t all oppression, all the time. What it was the everyday experience of poverty and anger toward a state that did not alleviate that, despite its rhetoric. The decline in the standard of living is what started workers protesting against the state. The first protests of the modern Polish workers movement came in June 1976 and a mixed government response that combined military repression with politically backing off both angered and opened up more space for worker activism. Independent labor unions formed and were part of underground protest networks developing in the years after that moment of activism.

Anna Walentynowicz was a welder and crane operator in the Gdansk shipyards. She had been a Stakhanovite after World War II, one of the exceptional workers that became state heroes. This was a huge thing in early Polish communism and I highly recommend Andrzej Wajda’s astounding film Man of Marble on this topic, which came out just as these underground movements were forming, in 1977. By the early 1970s, Walentynowicz had turned against the communist system after strikes in 1970 over food prices were violently suppressed by the state. She began to fight for independent worker movements when possible. When a supervisor stole money from the paychecks of her and her fellow workers to fund a lottery, she publicly denounced him. That led to the secret police harassing her and making her a dissident. In 1978, she joined a group called Free Trade Unions of the Coast, which became the centerpiece of the independent union movement in Poland by 1980. They printed underground newspapers which activists such as Walentynowicz distributed on the job. She was known for openly calling out supervisors and basically taking her life in her hands by providing a sharp, worker-centered challenge to the Polish state.

So it was not surprising when this finally led to Walentynowicz getting fired. This was a huge mistake by the state agency operating the shipyard. She was a hero to them. The workers erupted in fury. On August 14, a strike began to demand her rehiring, as well as bread and butter issues around pay and prices. She was the head of the strike committee. Today, Solidarity is synonymous with her co-worker Lech Walesa and he would become its most public leader, but in the early days, he was an important but secondary figure. In fact, it was Walesa who typed the list of the strike committee that named Walentynowicz as its head. On August 16, management granted the demands around pay and other working conditions issues. For most of the strikers, Walesa included, this was enough. But for Walentynowicz and her comrade Alina Pienkowska, this was not enough. For them, the strike had the potential to create a social movement to challenge the state. Other workplaces were now on strike. They demanded their colleagues continue to shut down the shipyard in solidarity with them. After some confusion, they succeeded.

The Polish state began to cave in the face of this worker pressure. On August 31, they and the workers signed the Gdansk Agreement, which permitted independent trade unions in Poland for the first time since World War II. Solidarity registered soon after, with a mere 10 million members almost overnight. This was a huge challenge to communism throughout the eastern bloc. And it would be answered soon by the state.

In September 1981, Solidarity elected Walesa as its president. In October, state security forces attempted to poison Walentynowicz. In November, the government declared martial law, possibly to forestall a Soviet intervention, though this remains debated. Over the next few years, Walentynowicz would serve a bunch of time in detention camps. Nine workers were killed protesting at a coal mine in December. In 1982, another wave of mass demonstrations led to more workers dying. The CIA got involved at this point and funneled money to Solidarity. Walesa became the international voice and was more than happy to take lots of credit for it as well. Wajda followed Man of Marble with Man of Iron, a film about Solidarity that actually has appearances in it from both Walesa and Walentynowicz. The great director was forced into exile in France after that, where he continued to make political films that were hardly hidden allegories about his own nation–in this case, Danton. Solidarity became the face of the Polish opposition through 1989 and in the aftermath of the fall of communism that year, formed the first post-elections government.

Walesa became internationally famous by this time and was feted globally. But Walentynowicz remained deeply committed to the cause of worker justice. By this time, she felt that Solidarity had sold out and was not responsive to the causes of workers. She became an open critic of Walesa and said that the original demands of the 1970s were still not fulfilled, even after communism. She was also a Polish power player in her own right. She died in 2010 in the plane crash that also killed the nation’s president and leading military figures. Solidarity is a still a trade union movement in Poland today, though not one with a ton of power or political agenda.

This is the 323rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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