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1980: Gdansk, Poland. Workers at the Lenin Shipyards are outraged by the recent decree by the Polish government that meat prices will increase. Led by electrician Lech Walesa, the workers began to strike on August 14. Against all attempts by the Polish government, the message of the strike soon spread to other strike committees leading to the creation of the Interfactory Strike Committee. The committee proposed 21 demands ranging from reformed rights for the Church to improved national health system; but foremost in these demands was the right to strike and form trade unions independent of the Communist Party.

With the whole country shocked by factory shutdowns, on August 31, the Gdansk Agreement was signed between the government and the strikers. The agreement spelled out the rights to strike and form free labor unions--which would allow workers' concerns to receive proper representation in the political system--at the cost that the striking movement would never act as a political party. On September 17, representatives in coalition with Walesa formed the first independent labor union in the Soviet Bloc, Solidarity.

The union quickly grew in numbers, eventually rising to 80% of the general population--roughly nine to ten million members. The union quickly disregarded its claims in the Gdansk Agreement and called for "an active Solidarity role in reforming Poland's political and economic systems." Strikes and other forms of protest became the new norms for influencing policy by the movement. On March 19, 1981, 27 Solidarity members were beaten by state police during a National Council meeting. A national strike--the largest in the Eastern bloc at approximately half a million--forced the Polish government to release the story to the international press and investigate the beatings.

Intimidated by Solidarity's influence, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. Hundreds to thousands of members, including Walesa, were imprisoned were strikes around the country were crushed by riot police. Solidarity was declared illegalized by October 1982. By November, Walesa was finally released from prison. The movement moved underground, were some of its mass support began to falter. The radicals of the union created the Fighting Solidarity, a more militant arm of the movement, but Walesa continued to lead his more moderate approach. July 22, 1983, martial law was finally revoked; however, many of the liberties forfeited were not returned. For his efforts, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; however, he sends his wife to Oslo to fetch the award for fears that he would not be readmitted to his country.

In 1988, with Poland in the worst economic state yet--imposed from foreign sanctions and the rigid anti-reformist policies--the government discussed negotiations with Solidarity. As a result of these talks, on April 7, 1989 Solidarity was legalized once more and allowed to offer political candidates in the upcoming elections. Shockingly, Solidarity won every contest seat, of the 35% available--in the Sejm (legislative body) along with 99 out of 100 Senatorial seats. The communist Jaruzelski, as promised, was elected president but the Sejm elects Solidarity-based Tadeusz Mazowiecki to the premiership as the first non-communist prime minister in Poland since 1945. Soon only Jaruzelski remained of the old Communist rule. Walesa announced he was running for president in the upcoming 1990 elections and won. He became the first Polish president ever elected by a popular vote.

Solidarity proved an example of nonviolent reform. The movement's success proved the weakness at the time of the Polish communist control and contributed humiliation to the communist system as the working class--the foundation of who the Communists were trying to help--was disgruntled to the point of removing the current regime. Solidarity maintained a strong popular foundation through close ties to newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II and through its appeal to students, workers, and the intelligentsia. The non-violent attempt provided a model for other Eastern European reforms at the time while also leading to a sense of legitimacy to the Polish people.

Eric DeVoe
Lauren Huus
Molly Burke