Poland's solidarity -- then and now

FIVE years ago this week, on Aug. 31, 1980, the workers' Interfactory Strike Committee signed a historic agreement with the Polish government after a 17-day strike in Gdansk. Apart from a series of economic concessions won by the workers, the agreement allowed them to set up an independent trade union, provided for the release of political prisoners, called for the lifting of media censorship, and stipulated that religious faiths should have access to radio broadcast time. The only one of the 21 points of the Gdansk agreement still in force is the Roman Catholic Church's regular radio broadcast of its Sunday Mass.

The Polish authorities stalled, backtracked, and significantly evaded fulfilling the terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, the Independent, Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity was legally registered in November 1980. In December 1981, however, General Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law, suspending the activities of all trade unions. In October 1982, a new law on trade unions was adopted which delegalized Solidarity and provided for the establishment, in stages, of a new officially approved union.

What is the legacy of Solidarity?

The Solidarity experience showed that the workers could unite to defend their interests and compel the authorities to make economic concessions, assuming both sides renounced violence. It proved that workers without higher education understood their country's problems and could develop ideas and solutions for them. Polish workers and intellectuals joined to negotiate issues with the authorities. The Solidarity period revealed a Polish hunger for free speech and democracy. It gave a moral and spiritual b oost to Polish society and furnished hope that, under other circumstances (read: the termination of Soviet hegemony over Poland), the Poles could regain their full independence and sovereignty.

Although the Solidarity union is now illegal, it is alive and busy. It still collects dues from 10-20 percent of its members, publishes uncensored weeklies and biweeklies in every major city, and looks out for the welfare of the families of imprisoned members.

This underground Solidarity organization consists of perhaps several thousand activists. The organization's Interim Coordinating Committee meets periodically, issues communiqu'es, and announces the union's attitude on public affairs. Each regional center has its committee to coordinate activities and issue appropriate bulletins. In major plants nationwide, clandestine factory committees collect dues, distribute the factory's underground paper or other publications, and organize local actions in defense of workers' interests.

Aboveground, active Solidarity members and sympathizers can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Besides distributing underground publications, they lend assistance to underground activities in unseen ways. They also organize public appeals, issue statements of principle, and form groups for specific purposes.

The Polish government's policy, so-called normalization, means a return to a strict totalitarian system in which the authorities, through the credible threat of using much-expanded police powers, permit no deviation from the rules they establish. The murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko by Ministry of Internal Affairs officials last October was no accident. The accident was that they were caught in the act.

After the purge of some officials, police and security services have resumed their previous practices and enjoy the confidence of the prime minister. Finding a solution to Poland's economic woes and debt obligations is no doubt a major task of Poland's government, but maintaining total political control and diminishing the impact of the opposition is the first priority.

Poland, as has been pointed out often enough, is divided into two camps: the rulers, which consist of the Army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Communist party, state, and government bureaucracy; and the ruled, who include most of the nearly 10 million Solidarity members, other opposition opinion, the Catholic Church, and private farmers.

Little communication takes place between the two camps. Efforts to stimulate a dialogue between Solidarity and the government have thus far failed. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa periodically repeats his readiness for a dialogue and negotiations, but the government, believing it has the upper hand and need not negotiate as long as it is willing to use force, ignores him.

Such as it is -- a far cry from its 1980-81 existence -- Solidarity is unlikely to disappear. Young people in their 20's and 30's who were the mainstay of the union, cannot write it off as a failure and forget it. Too much of the promise of 1980-81 remains fresh in their hearts and minds. So the struggle for Solidarity ideals continues because the Communist system has nothing comparable to offer.

Nicholas G. Andrews, author of ``Poland 1980-81,'' was US deputy chief of mission in Warsaw from July 1979 to July 1981.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Poland's solidarity -- then and now
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today