Solidarność: Trade Unionism or Self-Organisation?

Political and economic crises led to the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. The downturn in the post-war accumulation cycle, the Cold War, the USSR’s disastrous intervention in Afghanistan, as well as the popular revolts in Central and Eastern Europe all played a role. But it is the class struggles of 1980s Poland to which we turn our eye here.

Submitted by Internationali… on May 23, 2019

Thirty years ago, on 6 February 1989, the Polish government administered by the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) invited opposition groups, among them representatives of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union "Solidarność", to a set of Round Table Talks in Warsaw in order to prepare a peaceful political transition out of the crisis engulfing the country. These talks lasted until 5 April, and resulted in an agreement which legalised independent trade unions, introduced the office of President and allowed for the formation of a Senate. Two months later, the first semi-free election took place on 4 June. Solidarność now controlled 35% of Sejm seats and 99% of the Senate. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a member of Solidarność, was appointed Prime Minister, and finally, in November 1990, the first presidential election was won by Lech Wałęsa, the leader of Solidarność. Representatives of a once illegal trade union climbed all the way up to the highest reins of state power in less than 10 years.

The history of Solidarność demonstrates how trade unions, as permanent economic bodies which aim to mediate the relationship between capital and labour, stand in direct opposition to working class self-organisation. It also highlights how a political organisation of the class with a clear vision of communism (what we would call a party, for lack of a better term) has to exist prior to the outbreak of generalised class struggle, as otherwise other groups will fill in the political vacuum with ideas hostile to the emancipation of the working class.1


The working class movement in twentieth century Poland was characterised by outbreaks of generalised class struggle, some more violent than others, which can roughly be divided into the following periods: 1905-7, 1918-23, 1935-7, 1944-8, 1956, 1970-1, 1976, 1980-1, and to a lesser degree: 1988, 1992-3, 1999-2003. These struggles expressed themselves in a variety of forms – often they included the formation of strike committees and at times even workers’ councils (1905, 1918, 1944, 1956), as well as mass demonstrations, riots, and armed uprisings. The structural role that the trade unions played within the working class movement however has changed over time.

The trade unions first appeared in Poland, at the time divided between the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires, at the end of the nineteenth century. They were set up under difficult conditions as Polish workers faced repression on the basis of both their class and their nationality, and in the Russian Empire unions were altogether illegal (laws were only briefly relaxed in 1906 and 1910). The Polish trade unions that did exist were primarily set up on an explicitly ideological basis – solidarism/corporatism (as was the case for the Catholic and nationalist unions)2 or class struggle (as was the case for the socialist unions subordinated to either the PPS, SDKPiL, or the Bund). With Polish independence in 1918, trade unions became legal, regulated and from then on grew in size.3 The process of state-ification and depoliticisation of the trade unions was already underway in the 1920s, but was completed during the post-war Stalinist period with the centralisation of the re-emerging trade unions into the state controlled Association of Trade Unions (Zrzeszenie Związków Zawodowych, ZZZ) in 1949. As such, the workers’ uprisings of 1956, 1970 and 1976 had to be carried outside of the trade union framework (instead strike committees or workers’ councils provided alternative forms of organisation). The demand for “independent trade unions”, which in theory could better represent workers than the state controlled ZZZ, had already appeared in 1970, but it was the events of 1976 which prepared the ground for the birth of Solidarność.

1976-9: Origins of Solidarność

Edward Gierek came to power in 1970 replacing Władysław Gomułka, the previous First Secretary of the PZPR who was discredited after ordering the army to open fire on striking workers in 1970 (42 workers were killed during these events and hundreds injured). The state had to appease the situation and Gierek promised a number of reforms to that end (wage increases and reversal of price increases). He ushered a brief era of consumerism, paid for by money borrowed from Western banks. Between 1971 and 1975 foreign debt rose from $1.2bn to $7.6bn. The worldwide recession of 1973-75 put an end to this – Western banks now began to pressure Gierek to repay the loans. Once again the state sought to resolve the problem by shifting the responsibility onto the back of the working class, and price increases on basic commodities were reintroduced in 1976. In the past, these so called “price-income operations”, intended to restore market equilibrium and reduce monetary overhang, brought with them a violent working class response (this was the case in 1953-6 and 1970). And 1976 was no different – protests began in Radom with a strike in the Łucznik factory. Other factories joined in, and soon 20,000 were on the streets and the local PZPR office was ransacked. Spontaneous strikes broke out in 100+ factories, including in other cities like Warsaw and Płock. The state moved in quickly to clamp down on the movement, but this time the riot police were told to avoid using live ammunition.

The strikes of 1976 were put down, but workers managed to reverse the price increases. The repression galvanised the liberal opposition and two influential organisations were founded to defend workers against human rights abuses. The Workers' Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR) was set up in 1976, and counted amongst its members many activists from the loosely defined PPS milieu as well as Jacek Kuroń, the former dissident Marxist turned left-liberal. In 1977, the Movement for Defense of Human and Civic Rights (Ruch Obrony Praw Człowieka i Obywatela, ROPCiO) was founded, which came from a more right-wing and religious background. The third important group were the Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża, WZZW) founded in 1978 to organise workers in the Tricity area of Poland (its members included Andrzej Gwiazda and Lech Wałęsa).

KOR, ROPCiO and WZZW became the basis of a “democratic opposition”. The individuals involved within these organisations mingled with each other and at times clashed but the political perspectives they advocated through their publications and gatherings became the dominant ideas within Solidarność: in essence a mixture of civil society discourse, market socialism, social Catholicism, solidarism and patriotism (the last three made the alliance with the Vatican and the cult of the Polish Pope only natural).

1980-1: The Mass Strike

The economic crisis was not resolved. Gierek had no other tactic than to try again – in 1980 prices were increased. In July wildcat strikes broke out in Mielec, Poznań and Tarnobrzeg, culminating in a mass strike in Lublin. On 7 August at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, a popular local agitator of the WZZW, Anna Walentynowicz, was fired. This lead to a WZZW organised strike on 14 August and the birth of the first Inter-Factory Strike Committee on 16 August, made up of delegates from the striking factories in the region. The committee was led by Lech Wałęsa (a WZZW member who collaborated with KOR), while its vice-chairmen were Andrzej Kołodziej (a ROPCiO and WZZW member) and Bogdan Lis (another WZZW member). In other words, members of KOR, ROPCiO and WZZW, through their agitation in Gdańsk both in the years leading up to the strike as well as during the strike, were elected to the committee and gained control over the strike movement. The next day the committee drew up a list of 21 demands. These demands included: legalisation of independent trade unions, the right to strike, freedom of speech, release of all political prisoners, wage increases, reduction of the retirement age, paid maternity leave for three years, Saturdays free from work, as well as economic and healthcare reforms to bring the country out of the crisis.

Unlike in 1956, 1970 or 1976, in August 1980 workers mainly occupied their factories instead of marching out into the streets. Workers' militias were formed to manage the occupations, and Inter-Factory Strike Committees sprang up across the country. Some of these drew up their own demands in the footsteps of Gdańsk. Between 30 August and 11 September, the government sat down with four of these committees (Szczecin, Gdańsk, Jastrzębie-Zdrój and Dąbrowa Górnicza) and signed agreements. The right to form independent trade unions was granted, and so the Inter-Factory Strike Committees were gradually transformed into local union branches and at a national congress on 17 September centralised into a new entity: the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union "Solidarność" (the name suggested by Karol Modzelewski, another former dissident Marxist). Two months later it became an officially registered trade union. In a matter of months the union ballooned in size to an enormous 9-10 million members (in a country of 35 million – in contrast, the PZPR had “only” some 3 million members).

Between September and November 1980, the people who were originally delegated by their workplaces towards the aims of the strike now became union officials. Members of KOR, ROPCiO (and its splits) and WZZW filled in these roles – in fact all three organisations dissolved into Solidarność. Early on, the union bureaucracy adapted to its role as managers of struggle – calling strikes on and off when necessary, so as to appear like a responsible negotiating partner to the government. Meanwhile Gierek, blamed for the whole ordeal, was swiftly removed from power and even kicked out of the PZPR. He was replaced by Stanisław Kania in September 1980. Solidarność continued its activity – in response to a physical attack on its members in Bydgoszcz, a 4 hour warning strike was declared on 27 March 1981, to be followed by a general strike planned for 31 March. This was the peak of working class ferment – strike committees and workers' militias were again set up, preparations were being made at the local level in factories across the country for a general strike, but also in case of martial law or foreign intervention (the memory of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 was still fresh). The 4 hour warning strike took place as planned and more than 12 million workers participated, bringing the country to a halt. The government was taken aback and called in Solidarność to negotiate. The day before the general strike was to take place, the Solidarność delegation (Lech Wałęsa, Marian Jurczyk, Andrzej Gwiazda) made a deal with the government. The deal achieved very little, the government simply apologised for the handling of the Bydgoszcz events, while the working class was told to back down. The rank and file, including the workers assaulted in Bydgoszcz, criticised the decision, as did Modzelewski (who resigned from his position as the Solidarność national press spokesman) and Gwiazda (who handed in his resignation but it was not accepted) as both were unhappy with how Wałęsa overstepped his powers. At a moment when the working class was most ready to act, Solidarność played the role of the mediator, as advised by the likes of Archbishop Stefan Wyszyński. Now the government finally had the upper hand. Whether on 31 March 1981 revolution was on the cards or not is not the point (the Polish working class did not have a political programme of its own, only that passed down by the liberal intelligentsia, and without similar movements in the Eastern Bloc, any uprising would have been quickly isolated). What is true however, is that the working class was already capable of organising mass strikes without a trade union (thanks to the strike committees), and that Solidarność demobilised workers at a crucial point. When further negotiations with the government failed to bring any results, the working class was left unprepared for the backlash.

Between September and October 1981, as Solidarność was calling off local strikes, the first national congress of the union took place. By this point the union was already being infiltrated by secret services and its agents, present at the congress, were trying to influence the proceeding (although how successful they were is a matter of dispute). Lech Wałęsa was elected the chairman of the union, it was agreed that the decision to start a strike could only be made by the National Commission, and a programme was adopted. The programme stated that Solidarność “draws from the values of Christian ethics, from our national traditions and from the workers' and democratic traditions of the labour world.” While reassuring that “workers’ self-government will be the basis of the Self-Governing Republic”, it also made it clear that the bourgeois Sejm will have the “role of the highest authority in the state”. The programme combined calls for workers’ self-management with the democratisation of the state apparatus and the separation of private enterprises from the state, which together with Christian morals, it argued, would in the end lead to a “national rebirth” of Poland.4 The programme did not propose a viable vision of a different society, one without exploitation and oppression, merely the democratisation of the current state, based on the Western model (think West Germany with its works councils). A message to the workers of Eastern Europe was also prepared, which showed that at least some sections of Solidarność recognised that their struggle was not a purely Polish affair:

“We assure you that despite lies disseminated in your countries, we are an authentic representative organ of workers with 10 million members, an organ that was created as a result of workers’ strikes. Our goal is to struggle to improve the lives of all working people. We support those of you who have decided to embark on the difficult path of struggle for a free union movement.”5

As soon as the national congress was over, more spontaneous strikes broke out against the wishes of the Solidarność leadership (e.g. of textile workers in Żyrardów) which Solidarność then tried to put an end to. Sections of the working class were now gradually losing confidence in Solidarność, becoming exhausted with tit for tat scuffles and fruitless negotiations with the state, and wary of more serious retaliation. On 12 December, a call for another general strike was backed by Solidarność in the case of martial law being introduced. But it was far too late. The night of 12 December, the Military Council of National Salvation was already being formed. Once organisationally demobilised by Solidarność, workers were now outmanoeuvred by the state.

1982-8: Solidarność goes underground

Kania proved unable to break the impasse, and was removed from his position as First Secretary of PZPR in October 1981. In his place came Wojciech Jaruzelski, a military officer and the Prime Minister at the time. He declared martial law on 13 December, a military junta (Military Council of National Salvation) took power, and effectively drove Solidarność underground. Although local strikes broke out, with little time to prepare no general strike took place. Instead, thousands of Solidarność members, including its leadership, were arrested overnight and strikes were broken up by riot police. Tanks and helicopters were brought out onto the streets. Independent radio stations and printing presses were ransacked, prison sentences were handed out. Twice the government opened fire at demonstrators (famously at the Wujek Coal Mine, where 9 miners were killed). The last strike collapsed on 28 December – miners at the Piast Coal Mine in Bieruń spent 14 days underground occupying their workplace (including over Christmas), and only emerged on the condition they would be guaranteed safety, but repressions followed anyway.

Solidarność reorganised underground, but the union was dispersed and fractured. A Temporary Coordination Committee was formed, but other groups, whether due to personal or political reasons, splintered off (Solidarność Walczącą, Międzyzakładowy Robotniczy Komitet „Solidarności”, Grupa Robocza Komisji Krajowej NSZZ „Solidarność”, etc.). Yet another general strike was threatened if Solidarność was officially declared illegal, and large protests took place on May Day 1982. In October 1982 Solidarność was officially dissolved anyway. Protests followed but they could not turn the tide. Having accomplished its aim of putting an end to the wave of wildcat strikes and bringing back law and order, martial law was suspended on 31 December 1982 and ended on 22 July 1983.

It was around this time, in late 1982, when CIA first started materially supporting Solidarność under “Operation QRHELPFUL”. The CIA spent some $20 million (around $40 million in today’s money) on the operation, and used third parties to smuggle materials into Poland. While underground, the different cliques within Solidarność, separated from the mass movement, decentralised, and fuelled by CIA money, only grew stronger. Solidarność reorganised a couple more times, and towards the end of 1987, the existing underground structures were transformed into a united executive committee (Krajowa Komisja Wykonawcza), made up of Wałęsa and his people.

Between April and September 1988 strikes broke out again, but not on the same scale as in 1980-1. In many places workers demanded the legalisation of Solidarność. The ongoing economic crisis (shortages of basic commodities, rationing, foreign debt, inflation, low industrial output, etc.) forced the government to go back to the negotiating table again. In September 1988 in Magdalenka, a village near Warsaw, state apparatchiks and representatives of Solidarność met to discuss the future of the country and how to move forward. In December the Solidarność Citizens' Committee was launched, a proto-party organisation in preparation for elections. That same month, the Wilczek Act began to deregulate the economy and make the way for the free market.

1989-93: Solidarność manages the political and economic transformation

In February 1989 the Round Table Talks began. Following on from Magdalenka, the talks announced the legalisation of independent trade unions, introduction of the office of President and the formation of a Senate. In April 1989 Solidarność was legalised after seven years of underground existence. This time, it only gathered some 1,5 million members. The Solidarność Citizens' Committee was mobilised for the semi-free elections on 4 June, which, despite a low turnout (62% in first round, 26% in second round), were a major victory for the opposition. In December, the Polish People's Republic became the Third Polish Republic, and economic transformation was accelerated. Starting in January 1990, the Balcerowicz Plan, a “shock therapy” aimed at opening up the Polish economy to Western capital, began to be implemented with the help of Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank and the IMF. In April 1990, the second national congress of Solidarność took place. When in December 1990 Wałęsa won the Polish presidential election, the economic and political transformation of Poland was already well underway.

Just like in 1981, at the Round Table Talks in 1989 Solidarność was there to negotiate between the government and the working class. That is not to say there was agreement within the Solidarność milieu of how exactly the transformation should have been handled – the divisions among those who have made a political career on the back of Solidarność dominate Polish politics up to this day, as do various theories of what exactly happened (there is much controversy for example around the involvement of the secret state in orchestrating the whole process). The PZPR government knew that its time was up and only a peaceful transition could give it the chance to keep hold of state property after privatisation (PZPR members set up private companies with that aim in mind). Solidarność and particularly Wałęsa, who was such a symbolic figure, played a most useful role in managing the transformation and convincing workers of its desirability. Meanwhile, any talk of workers’ self-government was swiftly brushed aside. The working class bore the brunt of the economic transformation – unemployment, hyperinflation, wage cuts – but not without putting up a fight. A wave of strikes broke out in 1992-3 against the reforms of Balcerowicz. Two of these deserve a closer look, as they demonstrate how Solidarność, and its former leaders, continued to undermine the working class fightback.

In 1992, in response to a take-over by Fiat, workers at a car parts factory in Tychy set up a strike committee and occupied their workplace. The two main trade unions in the factory, Solidarność and the OPZZ, soon withdrew from the strike, making it illegal. Kuroń, at the time the Minister of Labour, opposed the strike. The workers however did not give in, the occupation went on for 56 days, and through perseverance and despite threats of dismissals they managed to win wage increases and save the company’s internal health service. According to some, it was the longest strike in post-war Polish history.

In 1993, after a number of warning and one day strikes had been ignored, a national teachers’ strike broke out over low wages. Thousands of schools were closed, some exams were cancelled. Teachers’ joined public sector demonstrations of 300,000 workers. Solidarność suspended the strike, and left the decision over future actions in the hands of its National Commission. The strike remained unresolved as Wałęsa, at the time still the President of Poland, dissolved the Sejm on 31 May, which triggered new parliamentary elections. The teachers did not win any wage increases.

Solidarność: In opposition to the working class, now and then

Since those years, Poland has joined both NATO and the European Union. Its economic integration with the West has been completed. Meanwhile, Solidarność (which now counts only some 500,000 members, if not less) still remains a perfect example of how trade unionism undermines working class self-organisation.

In the context of rising nationalism in Poland6 , Solidarność has followed suit. Between 1996 and 2001 it stood behind the right wing political party coalition Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność. On a local level, there have been instances of Solidarność branches collaborating with the far-right, and in 2018 the union called on its members to participate in the Independence March in Warsaw. Its spokespeople have voiced anti-migrant, anti-LGBT and anti-women views. The current leadership is also cosy with the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party. On a political level then, we can see how Solidarność has embraced the values of social Catholicism, solidarism and patriotism, in a tradition that goes back to the nationalist trade unions of nineteenth century Poland.

The list of betrayals by Solidarność (or rather, the union doing its job as a negotiating body, only particularly badly) just over the past two years is long. The union did not back the strike in LOT Polish Airlines, over changes to employment contracts and the dismissal of a union representative. During the protest of people with disabilities and their carers due to lack of institutional support, Solidarność officials criticised the protesters. When court employees went on strike for a 1000 złoty pay rise, Solidarność only asked for 650 złoty. Solidarność also refused to back the struggles of junior doctors and nurses. And now, most recently, during the teachers’ strike over wages, in which 14,000 schools and kindergartens walked out, Solidarność simply signed the agreement proposed by the government. In response, some Solidarność members joined the strike anyway, while others left the union altogether.

In 1981, in a leaflet about the situation in Poland, distributed by our tendency in Britain, France, Italy and the USA, we argued that:

“the new unions in Poland, which seemed to be a victory for the working class, were from the first day a weapon in the hands of the capitalist class; a barrier to class struggle both now & in future. [...] In struggling against the state, the Polish working class has got mixed up with those capitalist factions which oppose the state — namely the pro-western dissidents and the Church. This doesn't mean, as the Stalinists say, that the Polish working class is counter-revolutionary. On the contrary, it shows that it is still relatively easy for capitalist factions to gain control of the workers struggle and channel it towards false objectives and therefore to defeat. It would be much easier for the working class to overcome these diversions if it had, within its ranks, a political force acting on the basis of a revolutionary programme to take the lead in fighting the forces and organisations which are used by the bosses to influence the workers. The presence of a revolutionary minority does not mean that every struggle ends in a victory for the class. Nevertheless it is a guarantee that the experience of a partial defeat would enable the workers to avoid the same trap in the next struggle.”7

But no such political force existed. What made the Polish working class so strong at the beginning of the 1980s was self-organisation, characterised by powerful strike committees and factory occupations. Even at its peak in 1981 Solidarność still ended up demobilising the working class and delivering it on a platter to the state. In 1989-93, Solidarność, and the people whose political careers it launched, helped to make the transition to the free market smooth by disciplining the working class. In 2019, at its nadir, it behaves no different to any other union which puts defence of its position in the state before defence of its members. The working class doesn’t need Solidarność. It needs real solidarity, which goes beyond the boundaries delineated by the trade unions.8


  • 1See also our Class Consciousness and Revolutionary Organisation pamphlet.
  • 2Solidarism is an economic and philosophical ideology inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), the Catholic social teachings of Heinrich Pesch (1854-1926) and the sociology of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). It opposes both socialism and unregulated capitalism, in favour of an organic unity between individuals and groups in society. Corporatism was defined in 1884 by a group of Catholic theologians (commissioned by Pope Leo XIII) as a “system of social organization that has at its base the grouping of men according to the community of their natural interests and social functions, and as true and proper organs of the state they direct and coordinate labor and capital in matters of common interest”. In other words, both solidarism and corporatism promote the idea of a cross class alliance working together for the good of the nation, taking the division of labour and the existence of classes as natural. It is in this context that John Paul II would refer to solidarity as “undoubtedly a Christian virtue.”
  • 3For more on Polish independence, see:
  • 4Program NSZZ „Solidarność” uchwalony przez I Krajowy Zjazd Delegatów
  • 5Message to the Working People of Eastern Europe, Warsaw Radio, September 1981
  • 6For more on Polish nationalism, see:
  • 7Lessons of the Class Struggle in Poland, CWO & Battaglia Comunista, 1980-1, see:
  • 8For our alternative to trade unionism, see: