Solidarity, a fancy name for the 1st independent trade union in the Soviet bloc

By Diana Cristolţean

Solidarity started off as a trade union in 1980, in People’s Republic of Poland, but it was clear from the start that it would go for far more than standing up for the workers’ rights. It is seen as a cultural movement of national, ethnic and religious nature. The Solidarity fought the country’s communist party obeying the Soviet Union.

A “social movement” refers to the act of militating for a change (or for the absence of change) by reflecting some values in a society. The members are disciplined, meaning they are acting in a certain way, they represent a certain way of thinking, being subjected to an ideology of their own. They truly believe in what they are taking part in, while to the rest of the world their requests for social change might seem just some illusions. Because a social movement implies organization, it needs a coordinator, a leader to guide them along.

(click on the photos for the original source)

Historic context

After WWII, USA and the Soviet Union agreed for Poland to belong to the latter state. Even though they were promised free elections, the Poles were dissatisfied to see that their freedom was restricted through the means of propaganda. While the communists started controlling Poland, the food was diminishing, the supplies were nonexistent and the money was little. Poland started to import more than to export and eventually was indebted to the West. The citizens were becoming bolder in their reactions as the conditions in Poland worsened and the propaganda was lifting, revealing a society in serious need of help. Any demonstration, however, was met with force.

Warsaw after 1945

The lifespan of Solidarity

Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk was the place where the charismatic (soon-to-be) leader, Lech Walesa, founded the trade union which was the first one to be allowed to operate in the socialistic state. There were almost 17 000 workers who decided not to leave the factory until their wishes were granted. The strikers agreed to protest in a non-violent way and more industries did the same thing, leading to a shutdown of production and forcing the communist representatives to negotiate with the workers.

The work men in strike asked for basic rights which could enhance a decent life, like the right to establish a union, the right for healthcare, time off work, a better wage, education, less propaganda. And the party, realizing the costs of not collaborating with the workers, did agree on some of the requests. It was an important moment in history because, this way, the citizens asked the government to decrease its monopoly on power, something that didn’t happen in a soviet country before.

Other citizens from different working domains began establishing their own “Solidarity” unions, which were abiding the ideology of the original. In a bit more than a year, the movement reached almost 10 million members.

Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity

Solidarity was closely scrutinized by the state, the government fought against it through propaganda, mainly criticizing it via national television and official newspapers as means of trying to influence the people. But their techniques weren’t very efficient because Solidarity had its own newspapers (official and underground) and it was supported by the international media, even by USA which had its “Let Poland Be Poland” news program.

The countries’ governments controlled by Moscow were afraid that his movement would spread in the rest of the Soviet bloc through the founding of more trade unions. Moscow put pressure on the Polish communists to end this movement with the reduction of oil, gas, and other materials. People were afraid that the historic event known as Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet tanks entered the capital of Czechoslovakia, could be re-enacted.

Afraid of unprecedented chaos, the martial law was imposed on the 13th of December 1981, denouncing the Solidarity’s leaders as having intended to conduct a coup d’état. That forced the Solidarity to activate only underground, only occasionally protesting, but it also shows how much of a threat it has been until then to the communist powers.

In April 1989, a round table negotiation meeting between the representatives of the party, of the Solidarity and of the church was held in order to find a solution for the Polish economical and political systems. It is believed that these meetings were the result of some “wildcat strike” of the Polish coal miners, which convinced the communist party to give in, again. The result of their discussion at the negotiation table was the free elections where Solidarity could join as a political power. In the Senate, after the voting period, Solidarity won 260 seats out of 261.

Communists and Solidarity members at the same negotiation table

Catholic Church and Women’s role in Solidarity

Women played a significant role in the Solidarity movement, especially in the “underground” times, when the secret police was looking for the men involved in strikes (check out the sexist views they had). Women could safely contribute to the newspaper distribution, their identities remaining unknown. They also joined the organization due to its goals: education for children, more free time (so that they could be at home more often, because Polish society always had considered family values to be utmost important), but also because of the possibility to advance in position at the workplace (the communists system didn’t allow them to do that, thus a significant change, like the one promoted by Solidarity looked appealing to people wanting the opportunity to advance in careers).

Roman Catholic Church was, as well, a key figure in the way Solidarity worked, whether people actually believed in it or not (note that the majority of Poles are claiming to be Catholics). Not only it was offering spaces to held discussions and gatherings of the organization, but it also represented, as a belief, an opposition to the values and ideology of the communists. Pope John Paul II was himself, a great supporter of the movement and an inspiration for the people to fight for a better world, one with “nonconformists” like the Solidarity members were. The Church still holds an important position in the Pole society.

Pope John Paul II

Solidarity – a total social movement

Alain Touraine closely analyzed the Solidarity movement which he regards as being a “total social movement”, because it both had democratic and class goals. It was total in the sense that (just like all the movements in communist countries) the state party possessed the political and the economical power. By aiming to change this, the movement was meant to change both of these powers. It was total because it had a social, democratic and national dimension.

Solidarity didn’t aim just to give the workers the basic rights they deserved, but also aimed at liberating the society from some of pressures made by the party, even though it didn’t mean to take over the function of governing the country. The ultimate goals of Solidarity were the restoration of democracy and human rights to its citizens.



Nicholas John Cull, David Holbrook Culbert,David Welch, “Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present”

Nathan P. Buhr, “Contemporary Perceptions of the Solidarity Movement Held by Polish Nationals”


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