Tuesday marks the 41st anniversary of the signing of the “August agreements” between Poland’s communist government and the striking workers in Gdańsk, northern Poland. The event started the process of dismantling the Communist empire created under the Soviet Union regime after WWII.
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The first strikes in the summer of 1980 were the reactions of the Polish workers to the rise in the food prices introduced in July. In the middle of August 1980, strikes began along the Polish coast.
The strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard, organised by activists of the illegal organisation called the Free Trade Unions (WZZ), began on August 14 following the dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz, who was removed from her position for being an opposition activist. Lech Wałęsa, who had also been fired from the shipyard in 1976, then joined the strike and became its leader.
On August 16 the strike was nearly brought to an end when the director of the shipyard agreed for the workers’ primary demands: the re-hiring of Ms Walentynowicz and Mr Wałęsa, higher salaries, the construction of a monument commemorating the massacre of December 1970 and the guarantee of immunity for the striking workers.
Mr Wałęsa then announced the end of the strike, but some members of the strike committee disagreed and called for solidarity with other factories that remained on strike.
On the same day, the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS) was established, which included delegates from other facilities that were on strike. Its chairman was Lech Wałęsa and the management included leaders of the WZZ. Similar committees were also established in some Polish cities.
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The famous postulates
On August 17, the committee announced its famous 21 postulates. The first and the most important was the creation of independent trade unions. MKS also demanded the right to strike, freedom of speech, the rehiring of workers dismissed for political reasons, releasing political prisoners, rationing of meat and processed food, a decrease of the pension age, paid three-year maternity leave and the introduction of all Saturdays as days off.
The entrance gate to the Gdańsk Shipyard, where the postulates were announced, was nearly flooded with flowers, Polish flags, and portraits of Pope John Paul II.
The successful negotiations
After direct negotiations with workers, on August 22 the government started negotiating with MKS in Szczecin, north-western Poland. A day later, a general strike started at the coast and the then deputy PM started negotiations with MKS in Gdańsk.
The first agreement was signed in Szczecin, north-western Poland, on August 30. The Communist authorities agreed to the strikers’ demands, including the creation of trade unions. On the same day, the Central Committee of the Communist party approved the signing of agreements with protesters in both Szczecin and Gdańsk. The last demand that was stalling the agreement regarded the release of political prisoners, a point which the communist party agreed upon at the last moment.
The most recognised agreement was signed in Gdańsk on August 31 by Lech Wałęsa and deputy PM Mieczysław Jagielski. The Communist regime allowed the creation of new and independent trade unions, introduced the right to strike, agreed to the construction of the monument of the December 1970 victims, the transmission of Sunday holy masses by Polish Radio and the limiting of censorship. The unionists acknowledged the leading role of the Communist party in the state.
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On November 10, 1980, the Supreme Court registered the Independent Self-governing Labour Union “Solidarity,” which was joined by nearly 10 million people soon after. The organisation was established in all companies and workplaces, with the exception of the Polish Army and the Citizens’ Militia (MO).
“Solidarity” was the first legal independent organisation allowed to act behind the Iron Curtain after WWII. It survived 16 months until the introduction of martial law in December 1981, when it was suspended and finally made illegal in 1982. The period when it was a legal union is often referred to as the “carnival of freedom” or “carnival of Solidarity”, and it paved the way to the Round Table agreements and the first partially free elections in 1989 and – consequently – to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A turning point in Polish history
To mark the 41st anniversary of the signing of the “Gdańsk agreements,” the official website of Polish President Andrzej Duda posted a message from the head of state.
“The events of August 1980 are one of the turning points in the history of our homeland. They were a great triumph of freedom and solidarity, two ideals forming the core of the Polish national and state ethos,” the President wrote.
“I am convinced that the legacy of August 1980 is and will remain a valuable inspiration for us. Let the libertarian, fraternal, thoroughly Polish spirit of those memorable events accompany us every day. Especially when we decide together about the fate of the Republic of Poland,” Andrzej Duda concluded.