The strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard started on 14 August 1980. One of the demands was for the reinstatement of Anna Walentynowicz a worker of many years, who had been fired for her opposition activities a few months before she was due to retire. Unlike previous protests from July and early August, the strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard had been planned in advance, and the dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz served as a pretext to start acting. Members of the Free Trade Unions of the Coast were aware that the strike wave would reach Gdańsk. Therefore, Bogdan Borusewiczan activist of the Unions had planned how to start and carry out the strike. Leaflets had been prepared and distributed on 14 August at the shipyard and on the Fast Urban Railway (SKM) trains before the start of the first shift. The beginning of the strike went according to plan.
By noon, 14 August, the entire plant stopped working. The strike committee was chosen quickly. It was headed by Lech Wałęsaa former shipyard worker who was fired in 1976. The sit-in strike was announced. All workers wishing to take part in the protest stayed on the premises of the shipyard. The gates were closed, strike guards were appointed to guard the doors to the plant and maintain order inside it, and alcohol was prohibited. The strike committee started negotiating with the shipyard’ management.
On 16 August, the strike committee of the Gdańsk Shipyard, led by Lech Wałęsa, reached an agreement with the management of the shipyard. The workers were to get higher wages, Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa were to be reinstated, and a monument to the shipyard workers who fell in December 1970 was to be erected. As agreed Lech Wałęsa announced the end of the strike. Delegations of other striking plants who had come to the shipyard felt cheated. Their strikes were bound to fail without the striking Gdańsk Shipyard. Anna Walentynowicz, Ewa Ossowska and Alina Pienkowska exhorted the workers leaving the shipyard from the plant’s gates to stay inside and go on a solidarity strike. However, many strikers left the shipyard. Only a few hundred remained. A solidarity strike was announced in cooperation with the representatives of the other striking plants from Pomerania. The Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS) was established and work on a set of demands started.
Demands from the striking plants began reaching the headquarters of the MKS. The protesters were demanding higher wages, better work conditions, improved provisions, abolition of the privileges of the MO (Citizens' Militia) and SB (Ministry of Public Security), and the revival of trade unions. There were also demands concerning the working of certain plants, e.g. ensuring a dump truck for diggers to improve their efficiency— as demanded by the Baza Sprzętu i Transportu Gdańskiego Przedsiębiorstwa Robót Montażowych i Elewacyjnych plant. Eventually, a list of 21 demands was prepared. The bold demand of consent to establish trade unions independent of the party and the employers took top spot. Other demands concerned the right to strike, respecting freedom of speech, and freeing political prisoners.
Postulates from work establishments delivered to the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee in the Gdańsk Shipyard. The demands included pay rises, social benefits, market supply improvement, as well as consenting to the establishment of trade unions independent of the authorities.
More and more delegations from striking plants were arriving at the shipyard. It wasn’t always easy to enter the plant, because MO and SB officers were trying to prevent such people from gaining access. In order to avoid raising suspicion on the part of the officers, people were resorting to various tricks, e.g. they were pretending to be going fishing. Information about the situation in Pomerania was spreading. A delegation from Lower Silesia came to the shipyard on 20 August to see what was going on in Pomerania and “bring the entire truth to Silesia”.
On 23 August, representatives of the Szczecin MKS came to exchange information about the course of the strike and negotiations with the authorities, but first and foremost to assure each other that the demand to establish independent and self-governing trade unions was the most important issue. By 30 August 1980, 734 plants filed for membership in the MKS in Gdańsk.
Despite the information blockade, the shipyard was receiving messages of support for the protest on the coast from all over Poland.
One of the first decisions made by the authorities concerned the introduction of a Tri-City information blockade. Telephones were cut off, while the TV, radio and official press provided only scant news about the situation on the coast. Information about the establishment of the inter-enterprise strike structure and 21 demands wasn’t revealed for a long time. Demanders were trying to put their own printing houses into action as quickly as possible to break the authorities’ information monopoly. Strikers from the Gdynia and Gdańsk shipyards got the plant printers and radio centres under control. They started printing leaflets and broadcasting negotiations. Two large boards made of plywood displaying demands were hung on gate no. 2 of the Gdańsk Shipyard. No one visiting this place could have had any doubts about what the strikers were demanding.
Government leaflets called for the cessation of protests. Some of these leaflets were scattered around the shipyard from a helicopter.
How can you distinguish what is the truth? There were numerous instances in the past where the authorities manipulated and published misleading information. The same thing also happened this time. Leaflets were scattered on the orders of the authorities from a helicopter flying over the Gdańsk Shipyard. The strikers were distributing their own leaflets they were putting them on the Fast Urban Railway (SKM) trains, scattering them through the shipyard’s gate, handing them through the fence. “Strike Information Bulletin Solidarity” was being published as of 23 August. The Free Printing House of the Gdynia Shipyard printed the first leaflets on 15 August. A total of about 2 million leaflets were printed there during the entire strike.
The inscription known on every continent was created at the Gdańsk Shipyard. Krzysztof Wyszkowski used the word “Solidarity” in the title of the information bulletin, while Jerzy Janiszewski, a young artist, designed the symbol which would soon become the logo of the protest. The author managed to capture accurately the essence of what was going on at the shipyard at that time interpersonal solidarity and mutual support. The symbol of the strike became an element of the name of the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”.
Extraordinary things were happening at the Gdansk shipyard. For the first time in the post-war history, the world received a clear message that the workers had openly opposed what was theoretically their representation the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR). The International Song Festival was being held at the same time in Sopot and foreign journalists and TV crews were accredited there. Thanks to this happy coincidence, the shipyard filled up with foreign reporters and it was hard to hide what was going on there from the world. The shipyard workers were receiving words of support and financial aid from trade unions from almost all Western European countries and the USA. American dockers from the American East Coast were boycotting the unloading of Polish ships.
Telegrams from all over the world supporting the strikers
The strike lasted a long time. Husbands, fathers, and sons remained in the plant. The gates and fences of the shipyard became the place of meetings and exchanging information. People were gathering the entire time at gate no. 2 of the Gdańsk Shipyard. Family members, inhabitants of the Tri-City, and tourists searching for as much information about the protest as possible to take to their places of residence and work all came to the gate. On 23 August 1980, the Provincial Headquarters of the Citizens' Militia in Bielsko-Biała instituted a case of operational verification code-named “Distributor” because of three leaflets brought by a teacher from Sucha Beskidzka, who had been on holidays in Sopot. Leaflets from Gdańsk were found in a WSS butcher's shop in Żywiec.
What can you tell a child, when they are asking where their dad is? When will he come back home? Mothers of children whose fathers were striking must have heard such questions many times. No one knew the answer. So they were coming to the gates and fences of the plants hoping to spend even a short time together. Longing and fear, but also happiness caused by the meetings, were visible on the faces of children, wives and mothers.
Communism, which had ruled Poland for many years, could not defeat Polish Catholicism. Although the freedom to exercise religious practices was limited, and God had been ousted from the public space, strikers had faith and hope for victory in Mary, mother of Jesus and her Son. Saying masses and prayers made it easier for the protesters. It was a way of calming down the emotions and filling the empty hours of idleness.
The Holy Father was observing the unfolding events in Poland with concern and prayer. Strikers saw support in John Paul II. They were putting his pictures on the gates and fences, and next to temporary altars. The Holy Father first visited Poland in 1979 and his words “Let your Spirit descend! Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!” gave Poles hope for change and strength to fight.
The authorities were putting off the start of negotiations with the MKS, trying to avoid talks about the 21 demands. Talks were initiated with PZPR plant committees, so-called workers’ self-governments. On 19 August, a commission was sent to Gdańsk headed by Deputy PM Tadeusz Pyka with the task to talk to the strike committees of various plants, behind MKS’ back. And although several enterprises agreed initially to end the strikes, eventually crews protested against these decisions stating that MKS with its HQ in the Gdańsk Shipyard was the only representative appointed to talk to the authorities. Warsaw had no choice but to finally enter into proper negotiations. On 21 August, a Government Committee came to Gdańsk headed by Deputy PM Mieczysław Jagielski and difficult talks started after two days of preparations. During the negotiations, MKS was supported by an Expert’s Commission headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
One of the 21 demands concerned building a monument in honour of the shipyard’s workers who fell in December 1970. Thanks to the experiences of December 1970, the strikers were not provoked and did not take the protests to the streets. The authorities were not provided with a pretext to use violence. Many of the August strikers had participated in the December events 10 years earlier. Remembering the horror of those days, they weren’t entirely sure that the authorities would not opt for a similar solution in August 1980. From the beginning of the strike, money was being collected for the monument, which was supposed to be built where the first victims had been killed near the Gdańsk Shipyard. A wooden cross was erected and a model of the future monument was placed on the executive table in the BHP Hall.
The strike lasted 18 days, 18 long days. Some of the protesters got passes from the MKS and could go home to take a bath or sleep well. Young, strong, healthy people did not leave the shipyard even for one minute. A few thousand people stayed there the entire time. They all had to eat and sleep somewhere. Food was brought by families, local farmers and gardeners were bringing their own products, and bakers were delivering bread. Strikers collected money for food. Each day, the shipyard kitchen was serving between 700 and 900 three course meals.
Money transferred by other work establishments to the Gdańsk Shipyard to purchase food for the strikers.
The first week of the protest was warm. Sadly, the following one wasn’t so. The rains came and the temperature during the nights dropped to a mere dozen or so degrees. However, this was insignificant for the strikers and their visitors. The strike went on.
On 31 August 1980, an agreement was signed after 4 p.m. at the Gdańsk Shipyard between the Government Committee led by Deputy PM Mieczysław Jagielski and the Inter Enterprise Strike Committee. Lech Wałęsa announced at gate no.2: “We have independent, self governing trade unions!”. It was the second social agreement signed by the government of the PRL and strikers approving the establishment of trade unions independent of the party. The first one was signed in Szczecin one day earlier. These agreements caused a breach in the communist system and started an avalanche, which brought about the fall of Communism in Poland and other Central and Eastern European states.
Man is Born and Lives Free
The strikes in Poland in 1980
the establishment of Solidarity
Materials provided by: PPA, KARTA Centre, Institute of National Remembrance, "Remembrance and Future" Centre in Wrocław, Pomeranian Library, Silesian Digital Library, Historical Archive of the National Commission of NSZZ “Solidarność”, Pomeranian Historical Initiative Foundation.
Photographs taken by: Maciej Billewicz, Erazm Ciołek, Witold Górka, Jakub Grelowski, Stefan Kraszewski, Bogdan Łopieński, Stanisław Markowski, Wojciech Milewski, Małgorzata Niezabitowska i Tomasz Tomaszewski, Stanisław Składanowski, Zbigniew Trybek, Janusz Uklejewski, Ryszard Wesołowski.
The Institute of Solidarity Heritage made every effort to contact the authors of the materials used. If you see your photographs among those which are unauthorised, please contact us.
Task name: Virtual exhibitions for the 40th anniversary of Solidarność en. “Man is Born and Lives Free”.