On this date in 1981, 12 million Polish adults were at home rather than at their workplace at 8 AM. They stayed at home until the noon, when they returned to work. The 12 million represented nearly the entire Polish workforce outside of the military or the state party apparatus. It was, in essence, every adult in the country who was not directly part of the ruling clique.

English-language historians call this the Warning Strike – a short blast across the bow – while in Poland it's better known as the Bydgoszcz strike. It came in response to what was euphemistically called the "Bydgoszcz events" in which numerous prominent Solidarity labor union leaders were detained and brutally beaten by secret police. The state, as was customary in the Eastern Bloc, clumsily tried to explain away the incidents by claiming that the labor leaders had been in car accidents, had fallen down stairs, or had beaten one another up while drunk.

The state-sanctioned Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) agreed to meet with Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa in response to public unrest after the "events," and apparently the government concluded that Walesa and his informal union talked a good game but lacked the will or the ability to carry out any sort of large-scale labor action. Within two days – 48 hours – of that meeting, Walesa's group organized and carried out the nationwide four-hour stoppage.

Think about that. Imagine organizing something across the entirety of Poland – not a small piece of land – in 1981 with no mass communication at your disposal. No twitter. No radio stations. Unreliable East German phone service. More remarkable, imagine getting 12 million people to go on strike together. A British journalist in Poland called it, "the most impressive democratic mass mobilization of any modern European society in peacetime, against its rulers' wishes."

Imagine having that kind of solidarity. Imagine the state brutally beating a handful of your fellow citizens and, with hardly any prompting, every adult in the country sending a message by walking out of work together. Think about what they accomplished compared to the situation the U.S. (and Poland, for that matter) finds itself in today.

Instead of telling the government, "Enough, we're not gonna sit back and accept this," half of us cheer them on. We make excuses, blame the victims, and let the police know how eager we are to see more of our neighbors beaten for speaking out. The other half of us may be more sympathetic but we're too terrified of being fired, or even just missing a couple hours of wages, to dream of doing anything as daring as…taking a morning off.

It's really sad to think of how effective it is, and has been, for a population to be united and speak with one voice given how impossible it seems to do that today. We know it's effective; we can see how well it has worked in the past. We just can't do it. Imagine all the problems in this society we could address, if only.

18 thoughts on “SOLIDARITY”

  • Instead of telling the government, "Enough, we're not gonna sit back and accept this," half of us cheer them on. We make excuses, blame the victims, and let the police know how eager we are to see more of our neighbors (especially if they are "brown" and illegal) beaten for speaking out.

    A small correction.

  • At the risk of oversimplifying:
    In 1997 at UPS, in 2005 at NYC Transit, unionized workers went on strike when management proposed selling out new workers with part-time or lower-paying jobs. Some fraction of the faculty union at my beloved CUNY lacks the intelligence or the courage of blue-collar workers.

  • There is something to be said about cowardice leading to a lack of solidarity. The US severely undervalues nurses in this country. In union states, they strike somewhat regularly (I wanna say there's a nurses' strike in California right now). The hospitals will often put out huge money contracts during strikes (scabs!) As a fellow healthcare professional, I've thought how glorious it would be walk out in solidarity. Alas, I fear what the professional consequences might be, especially in a "right to work" (read: get canned) state like NC. If I had any damn courage, I would encourage our nurses to strike for better wages and patient-to-nurse ratios, and organize my colleagues (as well as MDs, PAs, etc) to strike in solidarity.

    None of that is going to happen, because I am a coward.

  • Being brave is hard and the costs for some, especially those with a family, are higher than for others. That's why so many activists and protestors are young. College students are literally the most insulated from the consequences of activism which is why they provide so much of the energy we need to make change. Recognizing your limits isn't cowardice. If we can't be on the line chanting, we can at least support those that are. There are some great programs that train activists and organizers that need our money. We can be vocal in our support on social media. We can send a couple pizzas to hungry protesters. Most importantly, we can get involved in campaigns for candidates that are able to take the hard work of civil society groups and produce policy and stay on them afterwards to make sure they do.

  • Great article. A peripheral issue that I need to address: I was 24 in 1981, when the strike occurred, and a big-city newspaper subscriber, but I do not remember reading about the strike at that time. Was it covered in the non-specialist press at the time? It’s hard to believe that such a huge, powerful event was ignored in the news here; thanks to anyone who can shed some light.

  • @ NonnyinMA:

    Sorry, in 1981, the poles, like the chinese, irish, italian and jew immigrants were not yet white enough to merit our concern.

    The poles we already had, most of them were white if not very smart but the ones still in Old Europe? meh!

  • Edit:

    Sorry, in 1981, the poles, like the chinese, irish, italian and jew immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries, were not yet white enough to merit our concern.

  • I was in high school, and recall it was reported on the tube and in the papers. It was the height of the (second) Cold War and anything to get a dig in at the Commies. I even remember that evil General Jaruzelski (sp?) who was the Polish President at the time was the villain of the piece and the brave Solidarnosc (Solidarity)'s… Lech Walensa (took me a second to recall his name) the hero.

    Walensa of course went on to become President of Poland himself, and had kind of a rough go of it. This was not covered in nearly the same detail by the US press.


  • @ geoff:

    I have a friend whose 2nd wife is polish (he's moved on) and used to hear stories about how the brave NEW Poland was payin' back the commie jews who had been running their country under he commies. I have no idea if there was any genuine truth to the jews being in charge but the anit-semitism was as real and virulent as ever from 1945, forward.

  • ProfessorPlum says:

    Walesa did have a hard time as the Polish president, but it was in large part due to the IMF deciding that once an actual labor movement/progressive party takes control of a country, it's then time to pay back all of the debts that the previous totalitarians had been racking up. You can read all about it in the Shock Doctrine, where this story plays out time and time again, in Poland, in South Africa, basically in every country where hope seems to get a small win. The bankers come along and crush it.

  • @democommie:

    At the time of Poland's 1981 Solidarity movement strikes, it was remarkable seeing and hearing the virulent anti-Semitism promoted by Poland's (Soviet-appointed) Prime Minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Jaruzelski explained that Poland's troubles were the work of Jews.

    Ignoring the not-so-minor matter of The Holocaust in Poland destroying an entire population, appeals to Poland's continued anti-Semitism made a great deal of tactical sense, especially after Lucy Dawidowicz's 1975 book "The War Against the Jews" described the continued murders of Jews *after* the 1945 armistice. Well into 1947, Poles could murder, with impunity, those Jews foolish enough to return to Poland to reclaim property or restart lives.

    In 1981 the American comedian Robert Klein wisecracked that Poland's entire surviving Jewish population was three elderly men sitting around a card table, drinking tea and asking which one of them caused Poland's troubles.

  • The French also go on strikes and they work. But then, they have protections and aren't likely to lose their jobs. The recent gilet jaune protests aren't working out quite as well–partially because they are all over the place in their demands and also they seem to be attracting some people who just want to do violence for violence sake.

    But yeah, we Americans are cowed. Which is why, any time someone says they think there will be another civil war, I say oh hell no. Bubba gonna get off the recliner? Nope.

  • @Professor Plum, I see your "Shock Doctrine" (great book!) and raise you "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" (John Perkins). But yeah, it's depressing, and of course still ongoing, most obviously in Venezuela. (And here, natch.)

  • @ anotherbozo:

    No kidalooz, no kollege for me, at this point. Still, I think I know what it says, "Students and MOST of the people in academia are either wage slave worker ants or the aphids they groom for their exudate.". I have a small hole in my schedule should someone need a "treatment" or (PLEASE!!) a screenplay.

    You're welcome!

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