Poland's Solidarity Union Movement Turns 20 Years Old

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Celebrations in Poland today will mark the 20th birthday of the Solidarity Union, the first independent labor movement in Eastern Europe under the communist system.

It was on August 31, 1980, that workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, led by electrician Lech Walesa, signed a 21-point agreement with the government that ended a countrywide dispute against the communist government in Poland.

The agreement will be commemorated on Thursday. The celebrations began on Tuesday with the opening of the exhibition "Roads to Freedom" at the historic Gdansk shipyard, where the Solidarity union movement was born.

A key provision of that agreement was the guarantee of the workers' right to form independent trade unions in Poland. After that agreement was signed, the Solidarity union movement began.

But Poland's communist government was determined to wipe out Solidarity. The Soviet Union proceeded with a massive military buildup along Poland's border in December, 1980, and on December 12, the government declared martial law, under which the army and special riot police were used to crush the union. Virtually all Solidarity leaders and many affiliated intellectuals were arrested or detained.

In February, 1981, Polish Defense Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski assumed the position of Prime Minister. In October, 1981, he also was named the Polish Communist Party First Secretary. The same month, Lech Walesa was elected national chairman of the Solidarity Union.

The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years.

Gradually, the Polish communist regime rescinded martial law. In December, 1982, martial law was suspended and a few political prisoners were released. Martial law formally ended in July, 1983, and a general amnesty was enacted even though several hundred political prisoners remained in jail.

In 1986, all political prisoners were released by the government. But Solidarity activists and other dissidents continued to be harassed. Solidarity publications were banned by the government and independent publications were censored.

A wave of worker strikes gripped Poland in 1988 due to the government's inability to forestall the country's economic decline. Later that year, the government gave de facto recognition to Solidarity. Talks between the government and Lech Walesa began and produced an agreement for open National Assembly elections the next year.

Those elections produced a strong showing for Solidarity and a failure for the communists because one-third of the seats in the Sejm (Poland's lower house of the National Assembly) and virtually all the seats in the Senate went to Solidarity.

In December, 1989, the Sejm approved a government reform program to transform Poland's economy from a centrally planned to a free market one. They also amended Poland's constitution to eliminate references to the "leading role" of the Communist Party and renamed the country, "Republic of Poland."

In 1990, the Poland United Workers Party, which was communist, dissolved itself. The constitution was amended to curtail the term of President Jaruzelski and in December, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland.

On Wednesday, during one Solidarity celebration, the now-retired Walesa called on Solidarity activists to stay united and "on the side of Poland."