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This Day in Labor History: February 10, 1971

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On February 10, 1971, mostly female textile workers in Lodz, Poland, went on strike in an incredibly brave worker actions against the communist regime. It was relatively apolitical, but was still a huge risk to take against the communist government. The government would solve this hot spot of labor discontent, but it was a precursor for the coming worker rebellion of the 1980s.

First off, it’s worth noting that the supposed workers’ paradises under communism never even came close to happening. Because workers and now the state were supposedly one and the same, workers were expected to work for the interests of the state, which was personified in all the people. What this meant in reality was a governing class that had no meaningful connection to the actual workers, while worker activity to improve their lives was not only banned, but considered counterrevolutionary. A neat trick for employers, if you can pull it off. This is by no means to say that socialism is not good for workers. But it is to say that Leninism is not good for workers. The idea of a vanguard class teaching the workers how they need to be revolutionary almost inevitably is going to put intellectuals in power who see workers as not their equals and thus to be experimented upon.

Add to this the puppet states created by Stalin in eastern Europe after World War II and you have a situation in which the conditions for workers were not good and nor was the state good for the workers.

In 1971 and early 1972, the economy of Poland was not in good shape. In truth, the economy of Poland was never really fixed after World War II. Early farm collectivization efforts largely failed and the nation had chronic food shortages. In 1956, there were significant food riots in the city of Poznań, leading to the military shooting dozens of workers. Reformist elements in Poland, particularly Władysław Gomułka rose to power after this and returned land to individual farmers. But that didn’t really solve the problems. More food demonstrations in 1970 led to five dead workers and the end for Gomułka, who was ousted.

So the state ushered in what was called “consumer socialism,” where the nation borrowed money from the west to spur economic activity. At best, this was a short-term move. In any case, things were rough enough in Poland by the beginning of 1971 to announce both price hikes on food and a wage cut. Meanwhile, working conditions in these mills were as bad as they were throughout the global textile industry–very high heat and humidity in the plants (needed according to managers to keep the fibers workable), very loud noise, and fiber dust in the air breathed in by workers, slowly destroying their lungs. They had no way to respond to the realities of their lives that would not challenge the supposed worker paradise of the communist state.

The strike started at Marchlewski Cotton Industry Plant in Lodz, which was the center of the nation’s textile industry. The workers were just done and it was a spontaneous strike. It spread fairly quickly. By February 12, about 12,000 workers were on strike. The government offered…nothing. It was concerned and having just dealt with the shipyard workers protesting over food and then killing them, they weren’t in the mood to give in much. Then, on February 15, Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz came to intervene. His indifference to the workers and the offensive speech gave about it actually led to the strike spreading to thirty different mills in the area. The workers shouted him down on the stage. They demanded a pay raise and, most importantly, no retaliation from the state for their action. They also wanted better conditions and, notably, plant management that actually ran the plants efficiently. They took pride in their work, but the management did not and ran the things terribly.

By this time, 55,000 workers were on strike. This was becoming a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the Polish state. It really didn’t have any kind of larger political aim. It wasn’t intended to challenge the state really. It was about wages, prices, and conditions, the same kind of stuff that tends to motivate workers under any government. In fact, the workers were quite clear they were not engaging in a revolutionary action (or counter-revolutionary, if you prefer). They did not march in the streets. They just didn’t work. This made it much harder for the military to crack down.

So what the government did was blame the ousted Gomułka. It promised to fix all the problems. So that basically ended the strike right there. By February 16, the government, despite the missteps of the day before, had acted quickly enough to get the workers back on the job. These strikes had spread into other industries, including the vodka industry, and so it was the government’s top priority to not deny the population their favorite beverage. But the blaming everything on Gomułka and the pretty empty promises got most of the region back to work by about February 25. Moreover, the price increases were in fact repealed, which helped a lot.

In the aftermath of this strike, especially given the difficulty of finding out information in a Eastern Bloc state, it was unclear what had really happened. Historians have discovered some level of leadership in the strike, in that some workers encouraged others to stop working. But there was never a strike committee or anything like that. So it was pretty unplanned.

Perhaps in part because of that, the strike was kind of memory-holed for a long time. The world is pretty familiar with one part of the Polish labor movement–the dock workers at Gdansk led by Lech Walesa. There’s a good reason for that. But there were other workers’ movements that led up to the Solidarity movement and even if they were forgotten in Poland over the years, they still existed.

This is the 469th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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