Solidarity (Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity) is a Polish trade union that was founded on 17 September 1980 at the Gdańsk Shipyard under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. It was the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that was not controlled by the Communist Party. Its membership reached 9.5 million members before its September 1981 Congress (when it reached 10 million), which constituted one third of the total working-age population of Poland.
In the 1980s, Solidarity was a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement, using the methods of civil resistance to advance the causes of workers' rights and social change. The government attempted to destroy the union by imposing martial law in Poland, which lasted from December 1981 to July 1983 and was followed by several years of political repression, but in the end it was forced to negotiate with Solidarity. In the union's clandestine years, the United States provided significant financial support, estimated to be as much as 50 million US dollars.
The round table talks between the government and the Solidarity-led opposition led to semi-free elections in 1989. By the end of August, a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed. In December 1990, Wałęsa was elected President of Poland. Since then Solidarity has become a more traditional, liberal trade union. 30 years after its foundation, the federation's membership dropped to 680,000 in 2010 and 400,000 in 2011.
In the 1970s Poland's government raised food prices while wages stagnated. This (and other stresses) led to the June 1976 protests and subsequent government crackdown on dissent. Groups like the KOR and ROPCIO began to form underground networks to monitor and oppose the government's abusive behavior. Labor unions formed an important part of this network.
In 1979, the Polish economy shrank for the first time since World War II by 2 percent. The foreign debt reached around $18 billion by 1980.
For participation in the illegal trade union, Anna Walentynowicz was fired from work at the Gdańsk Shipyard on August 7, 1980, 5 months before she was due to retire. This management decision enraged the workers of the Shipyard, who staged a strike action on August 14 defending Anna Walentynowicz and demanding her return. Anna Waletynowicz and Alina Pienkowska transformed a strike over bread and butter issues into a solidarity strike in sympathy with other striking establishments.
Solidarity emerged on 31 August 1980 in Gdańsk at the Lenin Shipyards when the communist government of Poland signed the agreement allowing for its existence. On 17 September 1980, over 20 Inter-factory Founding Committees of free trade unions merged at the congress into one national organization NSZZ Solidarity. It officially registered on 10 November 1980.
Lech Wałęsa and others formed a broad anti-Soviet social movement ranging from people associated with the Catholic Church to members of the anti-Soviet left. Solidarity advocated non-violence in its members' activities. In September 1981 Solidarity's first national congress elected Lech Wałęsa as a president and adopted a republican program, the "Self-governing Republic". The government attempted to destroy the union with the martial law of 1981 and several years of repression, but in the end it had to start negotiating with the union.
In Poland, the Roundtable Talks between the government and Solidarity-led opposition led to semi-free elections in 1989. By the end of August a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed and in December Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected Prime Minister. Since 1989 Solidarity has become a more traditional trade union, and had relatively little impact on the political scene of Poland in the early 1990s. A political arm founded in 1996 as Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) won the parliamentary election in 1997, but lost the following 2001 election. Currently, as a political party Solidarity has little influence on modern Polish politics.
Catholic social teaching
In Solicitudo Rei Socialis, a major document of Catholic Social Teaching, Pope John Paul II identifies the concept of solidarity with the poor and marginalized as a constitutive element of the Gospel and human participation in the common good. The Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, was a very powerful supporter of the union and was greatly responsible for its success. Lech Wałęsa, who himself publicly displayed Catholic piety, confirmed the Pope's influence, saying: The Holy Father, through his meetings, demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid.
In addition, the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, who regularly gave sermons to the striking workers, was eventually killed by the Communist regime for his association with Solidarity. Polish workers themselves were closely associated with the Church, which can be seen in the photographs taken during strikes in the 1980s. On the walls of several factories, portraits of the Virgin Mary or John Paul II were visible.
The survival of Solidarity was an unprecedented event not only in Poland, a satellite state of the USSR ruled (in practice) by a one-party Communist regime, but the whole of the Eastern bloc. It meant a break in the hard-line stance of the communist Polish United Workers' Party, which had bloodily ended a 1970 protest with machine gun fire (killing dozens and injuring over 1,000), and the broader Soviet communist regime in the Eastern Bloc, which had quelled both the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the 1968 Prague Spring with Soviet-led invasions.
Solidarity's influence led to the intensification and spread of anti-communist ideals and movements throughout the countries of the Eastern Bloc, weakening their communist governments. As a result of the Round Table Agreement between the Polish government and the Solidarity-led opposition, elections were held in Poland on 4 June 1989, in which the opposition were allowed to field candidates against the Communist Party - the first free elections in any Soviet bloc country. A new upper chamber (the Senate) was created in the Polish parliament and all of its 100 seats were contestable in the election, as well as one third of the seats in the more important lower chamber (the Sejm). Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and all 161 contestable seats in the Sejm - a victory that also triggered a chain reaction across the Soviet Union’s satellite states, leading to almost entirely peaceful anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe known as the Revolutions of 1989 (Jesień Ludów or Wiosna Obywatelów), which ended in the overthrow of each Moscow-imposed regime, and ultimately to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Solidarity also supported the struggles of trade unions in capitalist countries. During the UK miner's strike of 1984-85, the President of Upper Silesia Solidarity David Jastrzębski voiced his support of the striking miners - "Neither the British government’s mounted police charges nor its truncheon blows, any more than the Polish junta’s tanks or rifle fire, can break our common will to struggle for a better future for the working class." This was despite the fact that Arthur Scargill, president of the British National Union of Mineworkers had been highly critical of Solidarity and publically supported the Polish government's attempts to crush the union after the imposition of martial law in 1981.
In late 2008, several democratic opposition groups in the Russian Federation formed a Solidarity movement.
Solidarity also inspired and influenced the protests of the Arab Spring as well as the Occupy movement. Former leader Lech Wałęsa visited protestors in Tunisia in 2011.
Secular philosophical underpinnings
Although Leszek Kołakowski's works were officially banned in Poland, underground copies of them influenced the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His 1971 essay Theses on Hope and Hopelessness, which suggested that self-organized social groups could gradually expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state, helped inspire the dissident movements of the 1970s that led to the creation of Solidarity and provided a philosophical underpinning for the movement.
The union was officially founded on 17 September 1980, the union's supreme powers were vested in a legislative body, the Convention of Delegates (Zjazd Delegatów). The executive branch was the National Coordinating Commission (Krajowa Komisja Porozumiewawcza), later renamed the National Commission (Komisja Krajowa). The Union had a regional structure, comprising 38 regions (region) and two districts (okręg). At its highest, the Union had over 10 million members, which became the largest union membership in the world. During the communist era the 38 regional delegates were arrested and jailed when martial law came into effect on 13 December 1981 under General Wojciech Jaruzelski. After a one year prison term the high-ranking members of the union were offered one way trips to any country accepting them (including Canada, the United States, and nations in the Middle East).
Solidarity was organized as an industrial union, or more specifically according to the One Big Union principle, along the lines of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (workers in every trade were organized by region, rather than by craft).
In 2010, Solidarity had more than 400,000 members. National Commission of Independent Self-Governing Trade Union is located in Gdańsk and is composed of Delegates from Regional General Congresses.