Poland, August 1980: the rebirth of the mass strike

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Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1980, the working class in Poland made the world hold its breath. A gigantic strike movement spread throughout the country: several hundred thousand workers came out on wildcat strike in numerous cities, making the ruling class tremble in Poland and across the globe.

What happened in August 1980?

Following the announcement of a rise in the price of meat, the workers spontaneously came out on strike in a number of factories. On the first of July, the workers of Tczew near Gdansk and of Ursus on the outskirts of Warsaw came out. At Ursus, general assemblies were held, a strike committee was elected and common demands put forward. In the days that followed, strikes continued to spread: Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, etc. The government tried to prevent further extension of the movement by rapidly making concessions such as wage increases. In mid-July, the workers in Lublin, an important railway crossing point, walked out on strike. Lublin is situated on the railway line which connects Russia to eastern Germany. In 1980, it was a vital link for supplying the Russian troops in East Germany. The workers' demands were as follows: no repression against the striking workers, withdrawal of the police from the factories, wage increases and free elections to the trade unions.

Where did the workers' strength lie?

The workers had drawn the lessons of the strikes of 1970 and 1976[1]. They clearly saw that the official trade union apparatus was on the side of the Stalinist state every time they put forward their demands. This is why, this time round, they directly took the initiative. Not waiting for any instructions from above, they marched together, held assemblies and themselves decided on the time and place to fight.

Common demands were put forward in the mass assemblies. A strike committee was formed. At the beginning, economic demands were to the fore.

The workers were extremely determined. They did not want a repeat of the violent crushing of the struggle as in 1970 and 1976. In the industrial centre of Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot, an inter-factory strike committee (MKS) was formed. There were 400 delegates, two from each enterprise. In the second half of August, there were between 800 and 1,000 delegates. Every day general assemblies were held in the Lenin shipyards. Loudspeakers were installed to enable everyone to follow the discussions in the strike committee and the negotiations with government representatives. Then, microphones were installed outside the meeting room of the MKS so that the workers present in the general assemblies could intervene directly in the committee's discussions. In the evening, the delegates - most of them bringing cassette recordings of the debates - went back to their workplace and reported back to the general assemblies of their factories.

These were the means used to enable the greatest number of workers to take part in the struggle. The delegates had to return their mandate; they were revocable at any moment and the general assemblies were always in charge. All these practices were the complete opposite of those of the trade unions.

While the workers of Gdansk-Gdanyia-Sopot were getting together, the movement was spreading to other towns. To sabotage communication between the workers, the government cut the telephone lines on 16 August. The workers immediately threatened to extend the strikes even further if the government didn't restore them. The government had to give in.

The general assemblies then decided to set up a workers' militia. Alcohol consumption is very widespread in Poland, but there was a collective decision to ban it from the assemblies. The workers knew that they needed a clear head in their confrontation with the government.

When the government threatened to use repression against Gdansk, the railway workers of Lublin declared: "if the workers of Gdansk are physically attacked and if a single one of them is touched, we will paralyse the most strategically important rail link between Russia and East Germany".

In nearly all the main towns, the workers were mobilised. More than half a million of them understood that they were the only force in the country capable of standing up to the government. They knew what gave them this strength:

  • - the rapid extension of the movement instead of exhausting it in violent clashes as in 1970 and 1976;
  • - their self-organisation, i.e. their capacity to take the initiative themselves instead of counting on the trade unions;
  • - the holding of general assemblies in which they could unite their forces, exert control over the movement, allow the greatest mass participation and negotiate with the government in front of everyone.

The extension of the movement was the best weapon of solidarity; the workers were not content to make declarations of support, they took the initiative and joined the fight. This dynamic made it possible to radically alter the balance of forces. As long as the workers were struggling in this massive, unified way, the government was unable to use any repression. During the summer strikes, when the workers were facing the government in a united manner, not one of them was hurt or killed. The Polish bourgeoisie knew that this would be a mistake and that it needed to weaken the working class from within.

The reaction of the bourgeoisie: isolation

The danger posed by the struggles in Poland could be seen in the response of the neighbouring countries.

The frontiers between Poland and East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were immediately closed. And the bourgeoisie had good reasons for taking such a step! Because in the nearby coal region of Ostrava in Czechoslovakia, the miners, following the Polish example, also came out on strike. In the Romanian mining regions, in Togliattigrad in Russia, the workers were doing the same. Even if, in the countries of western Europe, there were no strikes in direct solidarity with the Polish workers, workers in a number of countries took up the slogans of their class brothers in Poland. In Turin, in September 1980, demonstrating workers could be heard shouting "Gdansk shows us the way!".

How the movement was sabotaged

  Although at the beginning there was little trade union influence, the members of the ‘free trade unions' began their work of blocking the struggle[2].

Whereas, at the beginning, the negotiations were held in the open, after a certain time it was claimed that ‘experts' were needed in order to go into the details of the negotiations with the government. Increasingly, the workers were unable to follow the negotiations, still less to take part in them. The loudspeakers which had been transmitting them no longer worked because of ‘technical' problems. Lech Walesa, a member of the ‘free trade unions', was crowned leader of the movement, and a new enemy of the working class took shape - the ‘free trade union'. The new organisation began to distort the workers' demands. Although at the beginning economic and political class demands were at the head of the list, Walesa and the ‘free trade union' now pushed the demand for the recognition of independent trade unions so that the other demands were relegated to second place. They were following the old ‘democratic' tactic: defend the trade unions instead of defending the workers' interests.

The signing of the Gdansk accords on 31 August showed that the movement was wearing out, even if strikes continued in various other places. The first point of the accord was the authorisation of a ‘free and self-managed trade union' which took the name Solidarnosc. The fifteen members of the praesidium of the MKS constituted the leadership of this new trade union.

While the workers had been clear about the fact that the official unions were part of the state, most of them now thought that the newly-formed Solidarnosc, ten million strong, would not be corrupt and would defend their interests. They had not been through the experience of workers in the west, who have been confronted for decades by the ‘free' trade unions.

Walesa had already declared that he wanted Poland to be  second Japan, bringing prosperity to everyone, and many workers, due to their inexperience of the reality of capitalism in the west, shared similar illusions. They expressed the weight and impact of democratic ideology on this section of the world proletariat. The poison of democracy, already very powerful in the western countries, was even stronger in a country like Poland after several decades of Stalinism. The Polish and world bourgeoisie understood this quite well; it was these democratic illusions that enabled the bourgeoisie and its Solidarnosc trade union to carry out its anti-working class policies and unleash the repression that was to come.

In autumn of 1980, as workers came out on strike again to protest against the Gdansk accords, as they recognised that their situation was getting worse even with a ‘free' trade union at their side, Solidarnosc began to show its true colours. Soon after the end of the mass strike, Walesa was going here, there and everywhere in an army helicopter to call on the workers to stop their renewed strikes: "We don't need any more strikes because they are pushing our country into the abyss. We need to calm down".

From the start, Solidarnosc had begun to sabotage the movement. Whenever it was possible, it took the initiative away from the workers, preventing them from launching fresh struggles.

In December 1981, the Polish bourgeoisie could finally unleash outright repression against the workers. Solidarnosc had laid the ground by politically disarming the workers. In the summer of 1980, as we have said, not one worker was hurt, because of the self-organisation and extension of the movement, and because there was no trade union to hold them in check. In December 1981 more than 1200 workers were murdered, and tens of thousands were jailed or exiled.

Later on the former leader of Solidarnosc, Lech Walesa, was elected president of Poland. He had already shown himself to be an excellent defender of the interests of the Polish state in his role as a trade union leader.  

The historic meaning of the struggles

Even though 30 years have passed since then, and even though many of the workers who took part in the strike movement at the time have become unemployed or forced to emigrate, their experience is of inestimable value for the entire working class. As the ICC already said in 1980: "On all these points the struggles in Poland represent a great step forward in the world-wide struggle of the proletariat, which is why these struggles are the most important for half a century".

(Resolution on the class struggle, 4th Congress of the ICC, 1980, International Review 26). They were the high point of an international wave of struggles. As we affirmed in our report on the class struggle in 1999 at our 13th Congress:     

"Historic events on this scale have long term consequences. The mass strike in Poland provided definitive proof that the class struggle is the only force that can compel the bourgeoisie to set aside its imperialist rivalries. In particular, it showed that the Russian bloc - historically condemned, by its weakened position, to be the ‘aggressor' in any war - was incapable of responding to its growing economic crisis with a policy of military expansion. Clearly the workers of eastern bloc countries (and of Russia itself) were totally unreliable as cannon fodder in any future war for the glory of ‘socialism'. Thus the mass strike in Poland was a potent factor in the eventual implosion of the Russian imperialist bloc" (IR 99, 1999).

ICC 01/08/10

[1] In the winter of 1970-71, the workers of the Baltic shipyards struck against price rises in basic necessities. At first the Stalinist regime reacted with ferocious repression against the demonstrations, leaving hundreds dead, especially in Gdansk. This however did not put an end to the strikes. In the end the party chief, Gomulka, was dumped and replaced by the more ‘sympathetic' Gierek. The latter had to discuss with the shipyard workers of Szczecin for 8 hours before convincing them to go back to work. Obviously he soon broke the promises he had made at that moment. So in 1976, new brutal economic attacks provoked strikes in several towns, especially at Radom and Ursus. Again, the repression left scores dead.  

[2] They were not strictly speaking a trade union but a small group of workers who, in liaison with the KOR (Committee for the Defence of the Workers), set up by intellectuals from the democratic opposition after the repression of 1976, were calling for the legalisation of independent trade unions.

Historic events: 

History of the workers' movement: