The Rise and Fall of Poland’s Solidarity Movement

Poland’s Solidarity movement, Solidarność, was one of the most impressive social movements in the history of the Soviet Eastern bloc.

Apr 14, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
chris niedenthal solidarność photo
Solidarity photo by Chris Niedenthal, 1982, via Adam Mickiewicz Institute


Poland’s independent trade union, Solidarność (Solidarity), was founded in 1980. It began as a powerful strike in Gdańsk, with over 20,000 workers protesting poor economic conditions and labor rights. In a context of general social unrest, the movement posed a direct challenge not only to the Polish communist regime but also to the Soviet Union itself. The communist regime drove the movement underground after declaring martial law in December 1981. Despite its achievements in the past, the Solidarity movement could not end the communist government in Poland on its own without Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) that were introduced in 1985.


The Roots of Solidarność

Lech Walesa, Polish workers’ union activist and leader, as well as Poland’s future first democratic President, during a speech to the strikers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Rue des Archives, 1980, via Adam Mickiewicz Institute


In June 1976, the first strike took place in the cities of Płock, Radom, and Ursus in Poland. These worker protests involved several violent incidents caused by worsening economic conditions and the instabilities of the Cold War. Specifically, demonstrations took place following Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz’s announcement of a plan that would have implemented an unexpected increase in the prices of many essential goods, particularly food (butter by 33%, meat by 70%, and sugar by 100%). Even though the protests were violently suppressed, the central government did reject the plan to increase prices and Prime Minister Jaroszewicz was forced to resign.


After the 1976 riots and subsequent detentions and dismissals of militant workers, Solidarność reconnected with the intellectuals in the opposition and formed close ties to the Committee for Defense of the Workers (abbreviated KOR). KOR was a “dissident” group established in 1976 to support victimized working classes in Poland. KOR was later renamed the Committee for Social Self-Defense.


By 1980, economic and political unrest culminated in the economic crisis. The communist government decided to increase prices and slow down the growth of wages that acted as a catalyst to form even bigger waves of strikes and mass protests across Poland. The first major protest wave began on July 8, 1980, in Świdnik. With the help of the Committee for Defense of the Workers, protesters were able to set up a communication network and spread information about their struggles. The aim was to attract more working-class representatives in major urban centers. As a result, on August 14, 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk put their rage into action. The strike was organized by the Free Trade Unions of the Coast.


Pope John Paul II hugs Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity trade union during his visit to the northern port of Gdansk by Arturo Mari, 1987, via The Guardian

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The Union demanded the following: to rehire Lech Wałęsa, an electrician and former shipyard worker fired in 1976, and Anna Walentynowicz, former crane operator. They also demanded respect for workers’ social rights, the legalization of trade unions, and raising a monument for the shipyard workers who had been killed in 1970.


In December 1970, after a year of poor harvests, the government decided to suddenly increase the prices of basic commodities, particularly dairy products. In response, protests erupted on December 14th in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg, and Szczecin. On December 15, strikers set fire to the ruling party’s Provincial Committee building in Gdańsk. Six people were killed when Soviet military personnel repelled the protesters. In Gdynia, police and military forces surrounded the shipyard on December 16-17. At least 11 protesters were killed when Soviet soldiers opened fire on December 17. In total, at least 44 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. However, the government reported only six deaths at that time.


The stimulus behind the strikes and relatively quick mobilization of the protesters can be attributed to Karol Wojtyła, bishop of Kraków, who was elected Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. He visited Poland in 1979, and during a mass in Warsaw, he stated, “Be not afraid,” advocating for the respect of human rights, religious traditions, and a national identity that gave moral and spiritual force to the victims of the Soviet regime in Poland, especially to the working class. Within days, 10 million Poles had joined the Union.


Workers’ Power and the Creation of Solidarność

Poland, Lech Walesa, 1980, via Associated Press Images


Soon after the initial strike, shipyard protesters and other strike committee representatives established an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS). The committee elaborated 21 demands, including the right to protest and strike, the freeing of political prisoners, freedom of the Church, lifting the censorship, and improvement of the national health system.


Within a few days, more than 200 factories had joined the Strike Committee. By August 21, the strikes had affected most of Poland. Over time, more unions joined the federation. Due to widespread popular support in Poland and media exposure, the Gdańsk workers held out until the government finally agreed to collaborate. On August 21, the Governmental Commission arrived in Gdańsk, where workers and government leaders signed an agreement that ratified many of the workers’ demands, including the right to strike.


As a consequence, on September 17, the first independent labor union behind the Iron Curtain, Solidarność, was created by Lech Wałęsa and other workers’ representatives. Lech Wałęsa was elected as the president of the union’s national congress.


Transformation of Solidarność into a Social Movement

Lech Walesa- Poland’s first democratically-elected president in 1990, via The Times, United Kingdom


Over the year, Solidarność gained power and transformed itself from a trade union to a social movement with almost 10 million workers, intellectuals, and young people. They voluntarily joined the union and its sub-organizations, which included the Independent Student Union, Rural Solidarity, and Independent Farmers’ Trade Union. “History has taught us that there is no bread without freedom… What we had in mind was not only bread, butter and sausages, but also justice, democracy, truth, legality, human dignity, freedom of convictions, and the repair of the republic,” the Solidarity movement’s program underlined.


Members of the Solidarity movement used peaceful means of protests–strikes and mass rallies–as tools to achieve their aims of justice and freedom. The biggest mass protest of the Eastern bloc took place on March 27, 1981, involving 2 million people who were protesting violence against 27 Solidarność members. On March 12, 1981, farmers organized a strike in Bydgoszcz. They demanded the legalization of agricultural trade unions and had the support of the local “Solidarity” led by Jan Rulewski. Rulewski decided to bring up the issue of farmers at the Provincial National Council on March 19. Since the trade unionists and farmers’ delegation were not allowed to speak during the session, they began to occupy the hall. Soviet forces, which had been mobilized in Bydgoszcz the day before, attacked the building and violently removed protesters from the room.


A demonstration of the Independent Students’ Union is suppressed by ZOMO (special political police forces). A secret service undercover agent aids in the apprehension of a student by Jaroslaw Stachowicz, via Adam Mickiewicz Institute


The communist government was forced to promise to further investigate the case following the mass protests on March 27. This compromise, along with Lech Wałęsa’s deal to postpone further strikes, appeared to be a setback for the movement as the excitement that had pushed Polish society to protest had started to fade. With the communist economy declining and the communist government reluctant to negotiate with Solidarity, it became evident that the government would have to restrict the Solidarity movement or face a truly revolutionary situation.


Martial Law and the Fall of the Solidarity Movement

Swierczewskiego Street (currently Senatorska Street) in Zbąszyń, Poland, 13 December 1981 by Grzegorz Onierkiewicz, collections of the KARTA Center via Institute of National Remembrance, Poland


By the end of 1981, it was evident that Solidarność transformed itself into much more than a trade union and was posing a threat to communism in Poland. After the Gdańsk Agreement, the Polish communist party remained under pressure from the Soviet Union to strengthen its position and deter the wave of public dissatisfaction.


As a result, on December 12, 1981, martial law was declared in Poland. Thousands of people were arrested, including the leaders of the movement. Censorship and curfew were imposed, communications and transportation were severely restricted, and military forces controlled the streets. Strikes and demonstrations occurring after martial law were deterred with violent means, killing and injuring many. However, Poles resisted the violent response of the communist government with relatively little enthusiasm to gather the mass protest. Part of the reason was that Solidarity’s popularity was slowly diminishing in December 1981.


Strikes and economic instabilities in 1981 had lowered Poles’ living standards, leading many to believe that stability within the Soviet Union could be restored. By the end of December, strikes and demonstrations had ended. Solidarity was banned and then made illegal on October 8, 1982, just a year and a half after its formation. These repressive measures effectively crushed the social force and drive of Solidarność as a popular movement. The crackdown on Solidarity was impressively quick and effective, ”serving as a textbook example of how an authoritarian regime can bring a rebellious society to heel,” as Mark Kramer outlined. Despite the lifting of martial law in July 1983, restrictions on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, persisted until the mid-to-late 1980s.


The Second Solidarność & End of Communism In Poland (1988-1989)

Strike at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, Gdańsk by Jerzy Kosnik, 1988, via Adam Mickiewicz Institute


Even though Solidarność re-emerged in the late 1980s, its pathos and spirit were changed. Initially, it was purely a workers’ organization trying to alter how the communist regime has set up means of production by making workers “real managers of the economy,” as social theorist Jan Sowa stated. Its representatives did not demand a transition to capitalism and a free market. However, the organization certainly made clear the discontent of the Polish people with communism and its rule by uniting half of the population into one social movement, something which had never occurred before in the whole Eastern bloc.


Nevertheless, by introducing martial law, the communist regime managed to oppress the movement in December 1981. As a result, Solidarność was barely functioning underground until Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new economic and political reforms of uskorenie, glasnost, and perestroika to improve the deteriorating economic and social situation in the Soviet Union.


Perestroika aimed to restructure the Soviet economy and politics by introducing western economic and social policies. Glasnost loosened the grip of communism internally by imposing fewer regulations on media and information sharing. The introduction of western liberal ideas in communist satellite countries and freedom of expression paved the way to increased civil activism of the wider public. These changes were even more prominent in Poland, where the first social movement of the Eastern bloc, Solidarność, was on the edge of diminishing.


Round Table Talks by Jaroslaw Stachowicz, 1989, via Adam Mickiewicz Institute


Gorbachev’s economic reforms failed to improve the poor living conditions in Poland, which, in turn, led to wider public discontent, strikes, and mass demonstrations. However, glasnost created a wave of greater changes: martial law was lifted, the Polish communist government was forced to release political prisoners and leaders of the Solidarity movement, intellectuals and social groups associated with liberal ideas had more freedom of expression, and greater media and press coverage of the strikes generated unprecedented support locally and internationally. All of these factors influenced newly re-emerged Solidarność to push for revolution against the Soviet Union and communism in general with more enthusiasm. In addition, in the spring of 1989, the first free election in 70 years was held in Russia. New elections introduced new political forces within the Soviet Union that were not content with communism and were eager to change the system.


In this broader context of revolutionary changes, the Polish communist regime realized that it needed to adjust itself to the new reforming structure. As a result, in 1989, in response to growing public dissatisfaction, the Polish government invited representatives of the movement to participate in roundtable discussions. The three conclusions reached by the participants represented major changes for the Polish government and people. The Round Table Agreement recognized independent labor unions, established the Presidency (which removed the power of the Communist Party’s general secretary), and formed a Senate. Solidarity became a legally recognized political party in 1989 when it defeated the Communist Party in the first truly free Senate elections and won 99 percent of the seats.


Solidarity Poster, Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, via Contemporary LINX


The role that the Solidarity movement played in 1989 was made possible due to fundamental changes in Soviet foreign policy under Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. Had Soviet policy not been drastically reoriented, the movement might have faded away in 1981. However, none of this diminishes the Solidarity movement’s valuable contributions to being one of the strongest forces to have influenced other eastern European communist countries, inspiring them to fight against the communist regime and ultimately end the Soviet Union. The Solidarity movement was unable to prevent martial law from being imposed that damaged its spirit, but the movement’s very existence showed the rest of the world the weakness of the communist system.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.