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.