top of page

The Peaceful Revolution 1980

Author: Grzegorz Litynski

1980—THE RISE OF SOLIDARITY. Brief introduction on the occasion of the 40th anniversary.

Gdansk Shipyard Gate Number 2, 2015. Photo Grzegorz Litynski

Time stood still during the rule in the Soviet Bloc. Every so often, the communist empire crackled, but it seemed that it would last forever. Until it fell. In the late 1970s, its demise was unimaginable. Let’s take a look at the peaceful revolution that started in Poland in 1980. This social movement paved the way for sweeping changes in Central and Eastern Europe.

The End of the Communist "Propaganda of Success”

In the late 1970s, Poland's economy was so bad that even the leaders of the governing Polish United Workers’ Party, or PZPR, had to admit it. Poland's communist government desperately tried to stop the erosion of the economy. It slowly crumbled after a period of relative prosperity in the 1970s, fueled by foreign loans. On January 1, 1980, Edward Gierek (1913-2001), the leader of the Polish Communist Party (officially: First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, or PZPR), in his New Year's speech, blamed the drought of 1979 and the heavy winter of 1979/80 for the economic difficulties.

July 1, 1980: Polish communist leaders announced a significant increase in food prices. Under the communist regime, governmental agencies dictated all prices as the free market did not exist. The drastic rise in food prices would push millions of Poles toward poverty and malnutrition. Within days, many factories across the country ceased operations. Steelworkers in Warsaw and workers at "Polmos" in Tczew, tractor factory "Ursus" factories in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Śrem, and Piaseczno went on strike. At first, the strikes were spontaneous and not coordinated.

Lublin July—Lubelski Lipiec

July 9, 1980: In an attempt to prevent the spread of further unrest across the country, the communist government announced a partial reduction of food prices.

July 11, 1980: The first-ever written agreement was signed between the communist government in Poland and the protesting workers at State Aviation Works (PLZ) in Świdnik near Lublin. Between July 11 and July 31, 1980, workers at many other factories continued strikes. Lublin's rail workers' strike caused a severe break in the country's supply chain and chaos.

The worsening quality of life drove all the strikes in July 1980. The workers' demands were economic, including wage increases, cancellation of price hikes, and general improvement of living conditions. An estimated 80,000 workers went on strike. Their protest ended in partial success, resulting in a slight decrease in food prices and a slight increase in workers’ salaries. What was important was that the communist regime used no violence to resolve the conflict. It was distinctively different from what happened in the past—in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. Previous anti-communist protests in Poland ended in bloody clashes with the police and the army.

The communist government seemed convinced that bribing workers would be enough. Although the Lublin strikers did not have any political demands, "Lublin July” encouraged workers to fight for their rights. The workers prepared and organized more than ever. They printed and distributed illegal newspapers and leaflets, organized strike committees, and disseminated information across Poland.

August 1980—The Political Demands

August 10, 1980: Bogdan Borusewicz (b. 1949), one of the co-founders of the illegal Free Trade Union, decided to start a strike in Gdansk Shipyard. The strike's date was set up during a meeting with Jerzy Borowczak, Bogdan Felski, and Lech Wałęsa.

August 14, 1980: Around 5 a.m., several conspirators spread thousands of illegally printed leaflets among workers heading to their workplaces. Shortly afterward, a few shipyard employees started their protest. By 10 a.m., about 1,000 workers had already participated in the rally. The conspirators had distributed handwritten posters demanding a salary increase by 2,000 zloty, the cost associated with the living adjustment and reemployment of crane operator Anna Walentynowicz (1929-2010). She was a highly regarded worker who had been fired for her political activities a few days before. As a result of the protest, a strike committee was established with electrician Lech Wałęsa as its leader. Wałęsa lost his job at the Gdańsk Shipyard for his political activities and an illegal trade union in 1976.

The Turning Point

August 16, 1980: The Gdańsk Shipyard management agreed that Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa could return to their previous positions. The workers also secured a 1,500 złoty per month salary increase. The majority of the striking committee agreed and voted to finish the strike. Only a small group of leaders, including Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa, wanted to continue the walkout.

About 2 p.m. that day, the shipyard speakers announced the end of the strike. The workers started to leave the plant and head to their homes after three days of the occupational strike. It seemed that buying off the strikers worked. There was resistance against the decision of the Gdansk Shipyard Striking Committee to stop the walkout. Ewa Ossowska, Anita Pienkowska, and Anna Walentynowicz closed the shipyard gates and spoke to the workers. They argued that the shipyard strikers could not leave striking workers from other factories alone. They said, “How will we now look into the eyes of everyone who supported us in the city!?! We should be in solidarity with them now!” The powerful, neighborly Repair Shipyard workers decided to go ahead with their walkout a day before. Andrzej Gwiazda and Bogdan Lis set up MKS (Inter-Factory Striking Committee) and sent representatives to Gdańsk striking factories with the message: “We go ahead with the strike. Together.” Simultaneously, the representatives of other striking factories present in the Gdansk Shipyard pressured Walesa and other leaders to continue the strike. Because of this, only hours after the Gdansk Shipyard strike was declared over, the solidarity strike began. Twenty-eight factories in the Gdańsk area joined. The Gdansk Shipyard management canceled the agreement made previously with the workers. Lech Wałęsa was elected the Chair of the MKS. Its task was to coordinate strike activity throughout the Tri-City area—Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot.

Gdańsk Shipyard and the crowds outside Gate Number 2; August 1980. Photo:

On the night of August 16, 1980, the list of Twenty-One Demands (Postulaty) was created. Among them: legalizing the Free Trade Union, which would be independent from the communist government, limiting the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) members’ economic privileges, releasing political prisoners, and abolishing censorship. Hung on the Gdańsk Shipyard gates, the Twenty-One Demands became one of the symbols of the new wave of protests.

August 17, 1980: About 100 state-run factories joined the strike and MKS. The general strike began in the Gdańsk area; only a few critical public services were still running. The communist government cut off the phone lines between Gdańsk and the rest of the country. The official mass media did not inform about the unrest. Radio Free Europe, a United States government-funded organization, played a crucial role in spreading information about the strikes. Its Polish broadcast from Munich was heard across the country, despite the communists’ continuous efforts to jam the signal.

August 18, 1980: A shipyard located in Szczecin (western Poland) began to strike. Szczecin shipyard workers organized their strike committee and supported MKS's demands in Gdańsk under the leadership of Lech Walesa. The communist government refused to negotiate with the workers in Gdansk and Szczecin at first. As the strikes spread to other regions like wildfire, the position of the communist rulers changed.

August 22, 1980: Communist government negotiators under the Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski (1924-1997) arrived from Warsaw in Gdansk. The officials recognized MKS as their negotiating partner. They also accepted its Board of Experts, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927-2013)—one of the respected Polish dissidents and opposition leaders from Warsaw. The Board of Experts consisted of numerous well-known artists, scientists, and academics. The cooperation between intellectuals and workers proved to be successful—leading to a strong negotiation team.

In time, more MKS committees were organized in Wrocław, Łódź, Nowa Huta, and heavily industrialized Upper Silesia. By the end of August 1980, an estimated 750,000 workers were on strike throughout the whole country. The pressure on communist rulers was higher than ever before. Ryszard Kapusciński (1932-2007), Polish journalist, poet, and author, wrote:

The longer the strike lasted, the stronger the will to endure became. In those days, the shipyards' gates and entrances to other plants were drowning in flowers because the August strike was both a dramatic struggle and a celebration. A struggle for and a celebration of the right to hold yourself straight and to hold your head up high.
The mood of the streets is calm but tense, the atmosphere of seriousness and certainty borne out of righteousness. In the cities where the new morality took hold, no one drank, no one caused trouble, no one woke up crushed by an incredible hangover. Crime fell to zero, aggression against each other disappeared, people became friendly, helpful, and open. Total strangers suddenly felt that they needed each other.

August 30, 1980: The strikers in Gdańsk were met with surprise upon receiving word that the shipyard in Szczecin had just signed an agreement with the government and finished the strike. The Szczecin agreement covered only economic demands; there were no political demands. Simultaneously, Edward Gierek provided authority to governmental negotiators in Gdańsk to sign a contract with its striking workers. It is believed that this decision was made without the Soviet Union’s knowledge.

Sunday, August 31, 1980, 4:40 p.m: Lech Wałęsa, Anita Pienkowska, Anna Walentynowicz, and other MKS members signed an arrangement with the Deputy Prime Minister M. Jagielski in the presence of thousands of workers, journalists, and running TV cameras. Shortly after signing the agreement, Wałęsa noted: "I am pleased to say that we ended our dispute without the use of force, through talks and negotiations. We demonstrated that Poles can always communicate with each other if they want. It is a success for both sides. I declare the strike over!”

Lech Walesa, August 1980. Photo

This arrangement came to be known in world history as the Gdansk Agreement (Porozumienie Gdańskie). It guaranteed striking workers' safety and granted freedom to political prisoners. It also promised changes in communist censorship and social rights. It was a historic achievement as the communist government recognized the right to strike and establish an independent Free Trade Union.

November 10, 1980: The NSZZ or Independent Self-Governing Trade Union, Solidarność (Solidarity), was registered in the Warsaw Court. Soon, it had more than 10 million members and became a massive social movement. Professor Peter Oliver Loew, Director of the German-Polish Institute in Darmstadt, Germany, noted:

What made it special was that workers drove the movement. That gave it its impetus and power…When a couple of intellectuals take to the streets, it doesn't make a revolution. But when there is a strike at a business that a state relies on for part of its revenue, it very much calls into question a communist system that legitimates itself by claiming to represent the proletariat. The success of Solidarnosc was an unprecedented event in the entire Eastern Bloc.

The motivating factor of this movement was human dignity, the drive to create new relations between people, in every place and at all levels, based on the principle of mutual respect, imperative to everyone, without exception,” observed Kapusciński.

Solidarność also broke the Communists' monopoly on information as hundreds of independent newspapers and magazines sprung up. Its influence led to the adoption of anti-communist ways of thinking and the winds of change throughout the Eastern Bloc. Finally, Solidarność triggered a chain reaction across the Soviet Union’s empire and its satellite countries. It led to the opening of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary, accelerated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally contributed to the Soviet Union's dissolution in the early 1990s.

For the first time, we learn from experience, not from mistakes.

Unknown Shipyard worker from Szczecin. Noted by Ryszard Kapusciński.

Gdańsk Shipyard and the crowds outside Gate Number 2; August 1980.


Below we present a very brief description of the fate of some heroes of the Gdańsk strike after 1989:

Bogdan Borusewicz (b. 1949) became a member of the Parliament (Sejm) between 1991 and 2001 and the Deputy of the Minister of Internal Affairs. Borusewicz was the Marshal of the Senate for as many as three terms.

Lech Wałęsa (b. 1943) was one of the Round Table negotiations leaders with the communist government in 1989. In 1990, Walesa became the first president of non-communist Poland. His active role in politics declined after the loss of the next presidential election in 1995.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927-2013) became the first non-Communist Prime Minister in Poland and Eastern Europe in August 1989. He was a three-term member of the Polish parliament (1991-2001). Mazowiecki was appointed the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Human Rights's Situation in the Former Yugoslavia's Territory.

Ewa Ossowska disappeared from public life.

Alina Pienkowska (1952-2002) became a member of the Senate for one term in 1991. Later, she was elected a member of the city council in Gdansk. Pienkowska became an honorary citizen of the City of Gdansk.

Anna Walentynowicz (1929-2010) distanced herself from Lech Walesa and Solidarity. She died in an airplane crash near Smolensk, Russia, together with President Lech Kaczyński and numerous prominent Polish civic and military leaders (April 2010).


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page