TCS Daily

No Ordinary Shipyard

By Kamila Pajer - August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

In the summer of 1980, after years of suffering under a regime that wasted their energy and suppressed their wills and minds, thousands of Polish workers in Warsaw, Swidnik, the Silesia region, Poznan, Lodz, Gdynia and many other cities and regions went on strike. By mid-August, when the shipyard workers in Gdansk joined and called for reemploying Anna Walentynowicz, who had been recently dismissed for supporting the Free Trade Unions, the entire country experienced "breaks at work" as the Communists euphemistically called the strikes.

On August 31, 1980 the ruling Communists signed an agreement with the protesting workers in Gdansk. That summer the Solidarity movement was created as a result of the nation's solidarity towards the common oppression. But at that time -- only ten years after a tragedy in Gdansk when several protesters were killed by the secret service -- no one was sure if the Communist regime would refrain from using violence against the people.

When Polish Communists were negotiating with the workers, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appointed a special Commission for Poland to be sure Poland wouldn't try to gain independence. And Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski -- who established martial law a year later killing the Polish hope for freedom -- warned:

        "One should be sensitive to things Soviet, to safeguard them. Our friends are 
        highly disquieted by what is taking place in our country".

For the ruling Polish Communists the "friends" were Soviets and "enemies" Poles. And that summer when Solidarity was born, Poles had every reason to be afraid of Communist tyranny but bravely united against it.

Formally, Solidarity was just a trade union but in reality it was a lot more than that. Its 21 postulates called not only for salary increases but also for: "reemploying those who were dismissed after the strikes in 1970 and 1976" and for the "freedom of speech".

Today, 25 years later, those who created the organization admit they did not dare to dream of changing the system, believing it was then impossible. They even refrained from postulating free parliamentary elections. And yet, it was Solidarity that laid the foundation for the avalanche of changes in Europe.

On the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity movement, Poles celebrate in a free country. But, it is a place still ruled by some of those who created communism in Poland and where the rulers often treat the country as a private farm the way the Communist nomenklatura did. And it is still a place where the fundamental laws of economics are ignored and the people suffer from poverty. But it is not at all the same Poland as in 1980. Today we can speak openly and not risk being spied on, imprisoned, tortured or even killed.

Ironically, however, the overall opinion about the achievements of Solidarity in Poland is negative. According to a recent study by the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" only 24% of people think their life changed for better thanks to Solidarity, 31% think the opposite and 45% do not see any changes at all! Paradoxically, if the system had not changed such criticisms would not be uttered for fear of severe punishment.

The judgments can be, to some extend, justified by the fact that Poland still lacks economic freedom: many areas are overregulated and many are very similar to 25 years ago -- such as the health care and judiciary systems.

But Poland celebrates the anniversary of the movement that was not just a trade union but a symbol of resistance and hope. Pope John Paul II visiting Poland in 1999 reminded us:

        "Solidarity opened the gate of freedom in the countries enslaved by the 
        totalitarian regimes; it destroyed the Berlin wall and contributed to unification 
        of Europe divided since the Second World War. ... The work of Solidarity 
        belongs to our national heritage and we shall never obliterate it in our memory".

Exhibitions, conferences, TV programs, press and internet publications, among them a great website (at: prepared in six different languages by the Polish Karta Center, remind Poles and the world of the days when Communism in Europe started to fracture. "For the workers then and now," and for thousands of people gathered in Gdansk shipyard French artist Jean-Michel Jarre repeated, "We owe them a lot".

We do.


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