Poland, August 1980: The proletariat rediscovers the weapon of the mass strike

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After the announcement of increases in meat prices workers responded in many plants with spontaneous strikes. On July 1st the workers of Tczew near Gdansk and the Warsaw suburb of Ursus downed tools. At Ursus, general assemblies were held, a strike committee was elected and common demands were put forward. During the following days the strikes continued to spread: Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk...

By making quick concessions through pay increases the government tried to prevent a further extension of the movement. In mid-July the workers of Lublin went on strike. Lublin is located on the railway line which links Russia to East Germany. In 1980 this was a vital supply line for the Russian troops in East Germany. The workers’ demands were: no repression against striking workers, withdrawal of theing workers, withdrawal of the police from the factories, wage increases and free elections of trade unions.

While in some places the workers resumed work, in other enterprises more workers joined the strikes. At the end of July the government hoped to extinguish the strikes by using the tactic of negotiating with the workers factory by factory. But on August 14th the movement was on the rise again: the tram drivers of Warsaw and the shipbuilders of Gdansk came out on strike. And in other towns many more workers joined the movement.

What made the workers strong ...

The workers had drawn the lessons of the struggles of 1970-71 and 1976. They saw that the official trade union apparatus was part of the stalinist state and always took sides with the government whenever the workers came forward with their demands. This is why it was vital that the workers in the mass strikes of 1980 took the initiatives themselves. They did not wait for any instructions from above, but came together and held meetings in order to decide themselves about the time and focus of their struggles. This could be seen clearest at Gdansk-Gdynia-Zopot, i.e. the industrial beltopot, i.e. the industrial belt on the Baltic Sea. At the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk alone, some 20,000 were employed.

Common demands were put forward at mass meetings. A strike committee was formed. At the beginning, economic demands were put into the foreground. The workers were determined: they did not want a repetition of the bloody crushing of the struggles as had happened in 1970 and 1976. In an industrial centre such as Gdansk-Gdynia-Zopot it was obvious that all the workers would have to unite in order to make the balance of forces tip in their favour. An inter-factory strike committee (MKS) was formed, which was composed of 400 members, two delegates for each factory. During the second half of August some 800-1000 delegates met. By forming an inter-factory strike committee the usual dispersal of forces was overcome.

Now the workers could face capital in a united way. Every day there were mass meetings at the Lenin shipyards. Loudspeakers were installed to allow the workers to follow the discussions of the strike committees and the negotiations with the government delegation. Shortly afterwards microphones were installed outside of the meeting room of the MKS, so that workers attending the mass meetings could directly intervene in the discussions of the MKS. In the evenings the delegates . In the evenings the delegates – mostly equipped with cassette recorders to record the debates – went back to their plants and presented the discussions and the situation to factory assemblies, giving back their mandate to the general assemblies.

This allowed for the largest number of workers to participate in the struggles. The delegates had to hand back their mandate, they were recallable at any time, and the general assemblies were always sovereign. All of these practices are in total opposition to the way unions function.

As soon as the workers from Gdansk-Gynia and Zopot joined, the movement spread to other cities. In order to sabotage contact between workers, the government cut the telephone lines on August 16th. The workers immediately threatened further extension of the movement, if the government did not re-establish phone lines immediately. The government gave in.

The general assembly of the workers decided to set up a workers’ militia. Previously consumption of alcohol was widespread with workers, it was collectively decided to prohibit alcohol consumption. Workers were aware that they needed a clear head to confront the governmentar head to confront the government.

A government delegation met the workers in order to negotiate. They met in front of the entire general assembly and not behind closed doors. The workers demanded a new composition of the government delegation because their leaders were only from the lower ranks. The government gave in.

When the government threatened the workers of Gdansk with repression, the railway workers of Lublin declared that if any of the workers in Gdansk were physically attacked or hurt in any way, they would paralyse the strategically important railway line between Russia and East Germany. The government grasped what was at stake. Its war machine would have been hit at a most sensitive spot – and during the Cold War this would have been fatal.

In almost all the major cities workers were mobilised. More than half a million workers, they were the only force in the country capable of confronting the government. What gave them their strength was:

  • the rapid extension of the movement, rather than getting worn down in violent confrontations as had happened in 1970 and 1976,
  • self-organisation, that is, workers taking the initiative themselves instead of counting on trade instead of counting on trade unions,
  • holding mass meetings where they could unite their forces and exercise control over the movement, allowing for the biggest possible mass participation and negotiation with the government in front of all the workers.

The extension of the movement was the best weapon of solidarity – instead of only making declarations, the workers were going into the struggles themselves. This made it possible for a different balance of forces to develop. Since the workers struggled so massively, the government could not impose its repression. During the strikes in the summer, when the workers were confronting the government in a united manner head on, not a single worker got beaten up, let alone killed. The Polish bourgeoisie realised that it would have to weaken the workers from inside the movement.

The workers at Gdansk demanded that the concessions the government had granted to them would apply to workers in the rest of the country. They wanted to oppose any divisions and offered their solidarity to the other workers.

The working class acted as a central point of reference. Apart from other workers who went to Gdansk in order to establish a direct contact with the striking worontact with the striking workers, both farmers and students came to the factory gates in order to receive the strike bulletins and other information. The working class was the leading force in society.

The reaction of the bourgeoisie – isolation

The danger that the struggles in Poland constituted for the bourgeoisie could be seen in their reactions in the neighbouring countries.

The borders between Poland and East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the USSR were sealed off immediately. Previously Polish workers had travelled every day to East Germany, above all to Berlin, to go shopping (in Poland there were even fewer goods in the shops than in East Germany). But the bourgeoisie wanted to isolate the working class. Direct contact between the workers of different countries was to be prevented at all costs. And there was every reason to take such a measure! In the neighbouring Czech coal mining area of Ostrava the miners also went on strike – following the Polish example. In the Romanian mining districts, in Russian Togliattigrad the workers also followed the Polish road. Even if there were no direct strikes as a reaction to the Polish workers’ struggles, the workers in many countries in the west took up the slogans of their class be slogans of their class brothers and sisters in Poland. In Turin in September 1980 the workers shouted: "Let’s struggle as the Polish workers did".

Because of its scope and its methods the mass strikes in Poland had a massive impact on workers in other countries. Through their mass strikes the workers showed – as they had already done in 1953 in East Germany, in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, 1970 and 1976 in Poland again – that the so-called ‘socialist’ countries were in reality state capitalist governments, enemies of the working class. Despite the isolation imposed around the Polish borders, despite the Iron Curtain, the Polish working class, as soon as it took action, functioned as a massive pole of reference with a world wide impact. Precisely at the height of the cold war, during the war in Afghanistan, the workers in Poland sent an important signal: they opposed the arms race and the war economy by their class struggle. The question of the unification of the workers between East and West, even if it was not yet concretely posed, resurfaced as a perspective.

How the movement was sabotaged

The movement was able to develop such a strength because it spread quickly and because the workers themsel and because the workers themselves took the initiative. Extension beyond the confines of individual factories, general assemblies, revocability of delegates – all these measures contributed to their strength. While, in the beginning, there was no union influence in the movement, the members of the newly founded ‘free and independent’ trade union, ‘Solidarnosc’, soon started to hold back the movement.

Initially the negotiations took place in the open, but it was soon proposed that ‘experts’ were needed in order to work out the details with the government. Step by step the workers could no longer follow and participate in the negotiations. The loud speakers in the halls and in the ship yards, which transmitted the negotiations, no longer worked because of some ‘technical’ problems. Lech Walesa was crowned as leader of the new movement. Solidarnosc (1), the new enemy of the workers, had managed to infiltrate the movement and started its job of sabotage. Solidarnosc completely distorted the workers’ demands. Whereas initially economic and political demands were in the forefront, they now pushed for the recognition of the ‘free’ trade unions, with economic and political demands only to be second on the list. They followed the old tactics: defence of the trade unions, insteaence of the trade unions, instead of defence of the workers interests.

Previously workers in Poland had been clear that the official unions took sides with the state, but now many workers believed that the 10 million strong Solidarnosc was not corrupt and would defend their interests. The workers in Poland had not yet gone through the experience of the workers in the west in dealing with ‘free trade unions’.

Walesa promised that "we want to create a second Japan and establish prosperity for everyone" and many workers, due to their inexperience with the reality of capitalism in the west, had illusions in such a possibility. Solidarnosc, with Walesa at its head, quickly took over the role of playing the fireman for capitalism, trying to extinguish workers struggles. In autumn 1980, workers, protesting against the Gdansk agreement, went on strike again. They had seen that, with a ‘free’ trade union on their side, their material situation was getting even worse. Solidarnosc was already beginning to show its true face. Soon after the end of the mass strikes Lech Walesa was being flown around in an army helicopter, taken to striking workers to urge them to abandon their strikes: "We don’t need any more strikes because they push our country into acause they push our country into an abyss, we need calm".

From the very beginning Solidarnosc sabotaged the movement. Whenever possible it snatched away the initiative from the workers, prevented them from starting new strikes. In the summer of 1980 the mass strike movement could reach such proportions because the Polish bourgeoisie, as well as the stalinist regimes in the rest of Eastern Europe, were ill equipped politically for confronting the class other than with repression. This was unlike the west, where trade unions and bourgeois democracy play the role of a buffer. In the context of political backwardness in the capitalist class in Eastern Europe, and in the context of the Cold War, the Polish bourgeoisie was very suspicious of Solidarnosc. However, it was not their subjective feeling, but the objective role which Solidarnosc was to play against the workers, that was decisive. Thus, in 1981 there was a growing recognition in the stalinist government that Solidarnosc – albeit an ‘alien’ body in the stalinist set-up – could play a useful role.

The balance of forces was changing.

In December 1981 the Polish bourgeoisie could finally start repression against the workers. Solidarnosc had done its best to disarm the worone its best to disarm the workers politically – preparing their defeat. While, during the summer of 1980, the workers had not been attacked because of the self-initiative and the extension of the struggles, and because there was no union to disarm the workers, in December 1981 more than 1,200 workers were killed, and thousands of workers were imprisoned or driven into exile. This military repression took place following an intensive co-ordination between the ruling class in the East and the West.

After the strikes in 1980 the western bourgeoisie offered Solidarnosc all sorts of assistance, in order to strengthen them against the workers. Campaigns of ‘assistance for Poland’ were started, and cheap credits from the IMF were granted, in order to prevent the idea spreading that workers in the west could follow the Polish example. On Dec. 13th 1981, the day when repression was unleashed, the West German social-democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the arch-stalinist GDR leader Erich Honecker met outside Berlin and pretended not to know anything about what was going on. However, in reality, not only had they given their backing to repression, they had also passed on their own experience of confronting the working class to the ruting the working class to the ruling class in the East.

In the summer of 1980 it was not possible for revolutionaries to intervene within Poland due to the sealing off of the borders. But in September 1980 the ICC distributed an international leaflet in more than a dozen countries, which also circulated in Poland thanks to the help of some contacts. In our later interventions in Poland, the ICC always criticised the illusions of the Polish workers. As revolutionaries, we saw that our job was not to share the illusions of the workers, but to warn workers in Poland about their lack of experience in confronting ‘radical’ unions, telling them about the experience of the workers in the west. Even if our positions on the union question was not very popular in Poland, forcing us to ‘swim against the tide’, events proved us to be right.

One year later, in December 1981, Solidarnosc showed what a terrible defeat it had been able to impose on the workers. Subsequently, Lech Walesa became President of Poland. This was an expression of the confidence he enjoyed from the church and the western countries. He had already been an excellent defender of the interests of the Polish state in his capacity as leader of Solidarnosc.

The historical significance of the struggles

In the 20 years that have since passed, many of the workers who took part in the strike movement have retired, become unemployed or been forced into emigration. But their experience is of inestimable value for the whole working class. The ICC wrote in 1980 that "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 highpoint of an international wave of struggles, the lessons of which we underlined 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 respon– was incapable of responding to its growing economic crisis with a policy of military expansion. Clearly the workers of the 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). David.

(1) Even if the foundation of a ‘free’ trade union can only be explained by the illusions and the lack of experience of the workers in Poland itself, there is no doubt that organised efforts by the KOR (a partially pro-western oppositional group) were only possible because of help from the west for the systematic construction of Solidarnosc. Despite the enmity between the two imperialist blocs, there was a unity against the working class.

History of the workers' movement: