After World War II, the Soviet Union set up puppet governments all over Central and Eastern Europe, creating what we refer to today as the Soviet bloc. Despite the best efforts of the Armia Krajowa and the Polish Government-in-Exile, Poland was incorporated into the Soviet bloc, with a communist regime taking over.
Poles lived under a communist regime for over forty years. There comes a point in everyone’s history, though, where enough is enough. Poland hit that point on August 14, 1980.
The city of Gdańsk – Danzig, in German – has always had an attitude. In recent history, the Treaty of Versailles (the treaty that ended World War I) recognized Gdańsk as the Wolne Miasto Gdańsk, or the Free City of Gdańsk. Basically, the city and the area around it were declared semi-autonomous, keeping it separate from post-war Germany and tying it only through customs to inter-war Poland. World War II began when Gdańsk steadfastly refused to allow Nazis easy entry to the city. One of the favorite local stories is how the Gdańsk Post Office workers held out against the Nazi army, who wanted the building for its telegraphing capabilities, for over twenty hours. The Nazis ended up taking the city, but they had to work much harder for it than they had planned. After World War II, when Gdańsk was incorporated into the Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (pohl-skah zhech-pos-pohl-eet-ah loo-doh-wah; the Polish People’s Republic), it did what it had always done: shipping. The newly re-named Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk was one of the most important ports in the Baltic, and certainly in the PRL. And they knew it.
Under the communist regime, trade unions were outlawed. Theoretically, the workers are the backbone of a communist society, and deserve respect; furthermore, all people are equal with regards to labor, so everyone should be treated equally. Unfortunately, equally does not mean well. It was a common practice to fire workers just before retirement age, so that there was no need to pay a pension. While this is extremely rude and a far cry from ethical, it would have been more palatable had people been allowed to work after the retirement age; however, that was impossible, and the burden of supporting people in their old age fell on their children, if they were lucky enough to have children who were employed.
Not only was wrongful termination rather commonplace, but workers’ rights were almost non-existent. In the shipyards in Gdańsk, for example, crane operators sat in a box (which functioned rather like an oven, with no ventilation to speak of) and played dominoes with cargo containers and the lives of the people below for twelve hours at a time. People worked under such conditions for pay that would disgust even college interns, which had to stretch far enough to support themselves, their children, and, more often than not, their parents, in a market where food was getting more and more expensive. Without trade unions, there was no one to complain to, and certainly no one to do anything about it.
Finally, the shipyard workers in Gdańsk had enough. They locked themselves into the shipyard and refused to work unless their demands for the formation of a trade union were met. The authorities sat outside the gates, waiting, and feeding stories to the news outlets that the shipyard workers were trying to undermine the state. Unluckily for the perpetrators of such stories, the shipyard workers had wives, husbands, and friends on the outside who would smuggle them food and messages through the gates. The workers were informed that they were being painted in an unfavorable light by the government, and they decided to tell everyone what they stood for without help of the ‘news outlets,’ which were all controlled by the government.
Someone found two large plywood boards, and someone else found some paint, and they drew up a list of twenty-one demands, or “twenty-one postulates,” and hung them on the shipyard gate. A few days later, Lech Wałęsa (leh vah-wen-sah), the famous leader of the strike, returned to the shipyard from talks with government authorities and announced, “We have an independent, self-governing trade union! We have the right to strike!”
That was the beginning of Solidarność (sol-ih-dar-noshch; Solidarity), the first trade union in communist Poland and the first chink in the armor of the Soviet bloc. The movement gained momentum, and after just a few months, a quarter of Poland’s workforce had joined the union. Moscow, however, was not impressed, and at this point, martial law was declared and all trade unions – including and especially Solidarność – were outlawed again.
The violent reaction to the success of Solidarność did nothing to discourage the activists. Lech Wałęsa in particular was untiring in his efforts to have trade unions recognized, saying again and again that the only way to accomplish this end was through non-violence. His strict adherence to non-violence won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and even Pope John Paul II visited Wałęsa to encourage his efforts. This meeting was huge; the recognition of the pope gave Solidarność credibility on an international level, and the knowledge that the pope was aware of the people’s plight in Poland was the morale boost the general population needed to continue the struggle.
Ultimately, Solidarność was recognized by the state, and in 1988 Solidarność won the majority in both houses of parliament in the first free elections to be held in the Soviet bloc.
Today, the shipyards in Gdańsk have been fitted with a museum, funded by the European Union, that tells the story of the rise of Solidarność and, consequently, the fall of communism. The exhibit starts with the working conditions at the shipyards, and continues chronologically through the events that led up to the 1988 elections. Naturally, Pope Saint John Paul II has his own room in the exhibit.
Outside the museum, the wall of the shipyards still stands, but it’s covered with memorial plaques. The plaques come from people all over Poland, whether they personally had something to do with the movement or not. The movement was so important in Polish history, and did so much for the Polish people, that they’ve come together and hung their support on the walls of the shipyard, in the same way that the shipyard workers hung their demands for the people of Poland on the gate.