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Fifteen months in 1980-81:
The story of Solidarnosc

January 6, 2006 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS looks at the revolt of the Polish union Solidarnosc.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, workers in Poland welcomed the new year with the hope that their struggle was creating a better world.

The police-state regime that had ruled Polish society with an iron fist was still in office in January 1981, but not wholly in power. The power to determine Poland's future lay in the hands of Solidarnosc (Solidarity in English)--the independent trade union born in the wake of mass strikes and workplace occupations that began the previous July and August.

Within weeks of its formation in mid-September, Solidarity had some 10 million members--the vast majority of Poland's working class. At the national, regional and local levels, the union took action, not only to improve the wages and conditions of its mass membership, but to reshape political, economic and social authority--challenging the pervasive repression, corruption and upside-down priorities of a regime that claimed to be socialist, but in fact represented the opposite.

Solidarity's rebellion stands with the great revolutionary upheavals of the past--the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish civil war, France's May 1968 and others--in showing the promise of a new society based on workers' power.

Yet by the end of 1981, the regime had accomplished what had seemed impossible 12 months before. By December, it was able to re-impose its power with a martial law crackdown that drove Solidarity underground.

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FOR THE rulers of the former USSR and its satellite regimes like Poland in Eastern Europe, the myth that they were presiding over "socialism" was the justification for their authority--serving the same function as the rhetoric of America's elite about democracy.

In reality, the system in Russia had nothing to do with socialism. The genuine workers' revolution of 1917 had been strangled by civil war and isolation. Within 10 years, a state bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, consolidated its social grip by crushing all opposition that represented the traditions of the revolution.

But the forms and rhetoric of socialism remained after the counter-revolution--and were consciously used by the bureaucratic ruling class to defend its power.

Thus, the state owned all the important means of production in the USSR. But the real question was: Who owned the state? Certainly not Russian workers, who faced conditions as bad or worse than in the "capitalist West."

After the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the USSR took over in the eastern part of Europe that its armies had conquered, imposing new regimes that were carbon copies of the one in Moscow. "Socialism" had spread across one-third of Europe--without workers in these countries having taken any action, much less organized a revolution.

Actually, what's most striking about the Stalinist system in the ex-USSR or Poland is how much it resembled Western-style capitalism.

Strip away the rhetoric, and you're left with a society dominated by a minority ruling class that controlled the means of production--not through private ownership, but through the apparatus of the state. This ruling class, like its counterparts in the West, organized production to meet the demands of competition--not the market competition of individual capitalist companies, but the military competition of "state capitals."

The working majority had no say about any of the essential questions of production--whether at individual workplaces or the priorities of society as a whole.

This system wasn't socialism, but state capitalism--and its most damning indictment was the opposition of the working majority of the population to a system ruled in its name.

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THE MASS strikes of August 1980 weren't the first time that Polish workers had fought back.

In 1970, when the government announced that food prices would be going up by 20 percent, workers in the northern port cities of Gdansk and Szczecin on the Baltic Sea organized mass meetings and marches that were attacked by riot police, setting off days of street fighting that began to spread south to other cities until the government retreated.

Again in 1976, the regime tried to raise food prices, and again there were protests--led by workers at the giant Ursus tractor factory near the capital of Warsaw, who occupied a nearby rail line and refused to allow the Paris-Moscow express to pass until their demands were met. State officials responded with a similar combination of repression and concessions.

Through these and other struggles, dissident groups grew, despite the repression. The most important was the Workers Defense Committee (KOR, by its Polish acronym), an organization formed to support victimized workers that made connections in crucial workplaces like the Ursus factory and the shipyards of Gdansk and Szczecin.

In July 1980, the government tried again to get away with hiking food prices. This time, the bureaucracy was under orders to avoid confrontation and to quietly buy off workers at major factories. The strategy failed. In part because of KOR activists, word spread quickly of the government's local concessions, fueling the wave of strikes and demonstrations.

In Gdansk, emboldened workers at the Lenin shipyard occupied their workplace to demand the rehiring of a fired crane operator, Anna Walentynowicz, a KOR supporter. Local officials were sent in to negotiate a quick end to the action, and they nearly succeeded--after Walentynowicz was reinstated and management agreed to the largest-ever pay increase, occupation leader Lech Walesa announced over the shipyard loudspeakers that the strike committee had voted to end the occupation.

But workers on strike elsewhere in Gdansk confronted Walesa, demanding to know why the shipyard workers were ending their occupation while workers at other workplaces had gained nothing. Walesa, Walentynowicz and others hurried back to the shipyard and succeeded in convincing workers to resume the occupation.

In the next few days, representatives of workers across Gdansk formed the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee to represent striking workplaces throughout the region. It drew up a new set of demands--which came to be known as the "21 Points"--calling not only for higher pay, but broader political issues, including the right to form independent trade unions, an end to press censorship and freedom for political prisoners.

By the end of August, government ministers signed documents accepting the 21 Points. But the example of Gdansk had spread across the country--including, crucially, to the coal mines in the south, long a stronghold for the ruling party.

In mid-September, delegates from Inter-Enterprise Strike Committees throughout Poland--representing 3,500 factories and 3 million workers--met in Gdansk to form Solidarity. Within a few more weeks, Solidarity's membership had more than tripled to 10 million, about 80 percent of Poland's working population--a higher level of organization achieved in a matter of weeks than the labor movements of Western countries managed over many decades.

In the following months, Solidarity seemed able to turn back any threat or maneuver of the regime.

When the new union officially registered with the government, for example, a judge tried to amend Solidarity's charter to recognize the "leading role" of the regime's party. After another national strike threat, top government officials rounded up an "appeals court" to overturn the decision.

In Szczecin, when the local state-run newspaper attacked the union, Solidarity printed 400,000 leaflets and commandeered the local streetcar system so that student volunteers could travel the city with bullhorns--and insert a copy of the union's response in every copy of the next day's paper.

Above all, workers throughout Polish society gained confidence in their own power. As Solidarity's vice president, Andrzej Gwiazda, described one conference he addressed: "I could see with my own eyes how a workers' assembly, divided into groups and grouplets, terrified by the presence of the manager and other official figures, and with absolutely no faith in the possibilities of success, transformed itself into a fighting, democratic organization after four hours of discussion."

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NEVERTHELESS, THOUGH the regime seemed powerless to take the offensive against Solidarity, it remained intact. Solidarity took no steps to sweep aside the Polish state. On the contrary, its leaders--even those considered the most left wing--all believed that Solidarity's revolution must be "self-limiting."

Their main fear was the threat of intervention by the USSR, which had crushed previous uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But the continual calls for moderation and patience had a corrosive effect on workers' confidence to fight.

There were many points in this process. One important one came in March 1981, when regime hardliners organized an attack on union members occupying a town hall in support of Rural Solidarity, an organization formed to represent peasant activists. The national leader of the Rural Solidarity was among those sent to the hospital in the police assault.

Workers in the region responded with an immediate half-a-million strong protest strike, and there were calls for all-out national action. But Solidarity's national leadership settled for a four-hour protest strike, with the threat of all-out action if the regime didn't respond.

The four-hour strike was a total success, but at the last minute before an all-out general strike was to begin, Solidarity negotiators reached a compromise with the regime, heading off the confrontation.

During the summer of 1981, the strikes and demonstrations were still huge, but Solidarity--especially its moderate leadership, headed by Walesa--was increasingly putting the brakes on struggle in favor of negotiating with the government.

The regime, meanwhile, quietly prepared for a crackdown. When it finally came in December 1981, Solidarity leaders learned that the feared Russian invasion wasn't necessary. The Polish military and police were able to impose martial law on a demoralized movement.

A decade later, when the Polish regime collapsed with all the others in Eastern Europe during the revolution of 1989, the name of Solidarity was tarnished by leaders who had come to accept the doctrine of the free market--and were prepared to impose economic "shock treatment" that halved working-class living standards.

This may seem to have bolstered the seeming left-wing argument that Solidarity was, all along, a duped pawn of the U.S. government and the Catholic Church in the Cold War against the ex-USSR.

But that is to ignore what really took place in 1980-81. The 15 months from Solidarity's founding to martial law are a testament to the power of workers' action--and to the hope of achieving a better world.

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