In Communist Poland in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for the police to attack, or even kill, a striking worker, says Norman Birnbaum, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. But by 1980, prices of food and other commodities were rising quickly while workers’ wages were stagnant. Early in the morning of Aug. 14, nearly 17,000 workers took control of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. Employees of 20 nearby factories got word of the strike, and joined workers in the shipyard by the end of the day.
The leader of the strike, unemployed electrician Lech Walesa, was able to rally support from sympathizers throughout the country who instigated similar demonstrations and strikes across Poland. Seventeen days after taking over the shipyard, and negotiations with Poland’s communist government, Mr. Walesa announced to strikers that they were now allowed to organize and strike – a first for workers anywhere in the Soviet bloc.
“It was a pivotal movement that really pushed Poland to become a non-Communist nation,” says Charlie Lumpkins, who teaches labor studies at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.
The union Mr. Walesa founded called itself Solidarity and became a political opposition that eventually saw the dismantling of the Communist regime and, in 1990, the installation of Mr. Walesa as Poland's first directly elected president in the new era.