The Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe stretched beyond the 1980s. Central to what was to lead to the fall of the Eastern Bloc was the Polish trade union Solidarity. The leader Lech Walesa in particular played a big role. In September 1980, the trade union Solidarit was founded. The leader was Lech Walesa. Central to Poland and Eastern Europe’s way away from the arms of the Soviet Union is the port city of Gdansk and especially the Lenin Shipyard. A shipyard where Lech Walesa worked. But really it all started 10 years earlier. When Lech Walesa was a member of the illegal strike committee at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk.
The 1970 strike at the Linen Yard
Strikes were illegal in communist Poland at the time. The workers at the Linen Yard went on strike with demands for economic and political reforms. The Communist Party felt its power threatened. The police were deployed against striking workers. The result was over 80 workers killed. An action that perhaps seemed more unifying to the shipyard workers than it seemed threatening.
The leaders of the strike were sentenced to prison terms. Of them Lech Walesa who received a sentence of 1 year in prison for anti-social behaviour. The strike was put down with brutality. But the thoughts lived on among the host workers. In 1976, Lech Walesa was fired at the shipyard. The reason was that he collected signatures to get a memorial at the shipyard in memory of the workers who were brutally killed by the police a few years earlier. Walesa ended up on a list of blacklisted workers. This made it impossible for him to find a new job. However, it is now that good friends are good to have. The family managed because they got help from friends.
Free Trade Union of Pomerania
In 1978, Pomeranian Free Trade Union was started by Walesa together with a couple of others. The association was of course illegal in Poland at the time and the leaders were arrested a number of times for running an anti-state organisation. But Walesa was acquitted in court and released in 1980. Then he was also allowed to return to his old work at the Lenin Works.
Later in August 1980, a new strike broke out at the Lenin yard. Workers occupied the entire yard area. Lech Walesa quickly designated himself as the leader of the strike. This strike was something more than a local conflict in Gdansk. The strike set off a wave throughout Poland.
Solidarity across Poland
Eventually the strike in Gdansk and other cities in Poland ended. But the striking workers had shown their strength and in September 1980 they negotiated an agreement with the Communist Party which made free trade unions legal in Poland.
This was a very important victory for the democratic forces throughout Eastern Europe. Until then, trade unions in Eastern Europe were unions governed by the Communist Party and puppets of the ruling elite. With free trade unions, Poland takes a long step towards what later became the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
Lech Walesa was elected chairman of what had now become a legal Polish trade union with 10 million members.
But the problems were not over. Walesa worked at the linen yard until December 1981. Then the government introduced a national state of war and Lech Walesa was interned in southern Poland. He was there until November 1982. In 1983 he was allowed to return to his job at the shipyard, but was in practice under house arrest until 1987.
Solidarity, Strikes and talks
In the period 1987 to 1990 there were a series of strikes all over Poland. The demand was increased democratization and full legalization of the free trade unions. The strikes had their clear effect.
There were a number of talks between Lech Walesa who was a representative of non-state authorities and the government. Finally, the Polish government signed an agreement that restored Solidarity as a free trade union and a promise that elections would be held in Poland to elect members to parliament. But the Communist Party would still have control of 65% of the seats in parliament.
The solidarity trade union had now more or less become a political party. In the elections to the National Assembly, the opposition received 99% of all votes cast. Lech Walesa managed to gather all opposition parties to a common fight against the Communist Party.
In December 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president for a 5-year term. The changes in Poland in the latter half of the 1980s came at the same time as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Several countries in the Soviet sphere underwent a development away from communism and towards free elections and market economic thinking. Soviet Union was almost powerless to watch developments among the countries it had previously controlled indirectly. The economy in the Soviet Union had almost collapsed and Moscow was essentially left with no way to hold on to its sphere.
The trade union Solidarity and Lech Walesa are central to the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Lech Walesa received several international awards for his work for democracy and human rights, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.