Political and Social Movements


What is Solidarity?

It was a worker-led movement for political reform in Poland during the 1980s and it led to the downfall of communism. The movement was inspired by Pope John Paul II’s June 1979 visit to his native Poland, where, in Warsaw, he delivered a speech to millions, calling for a free Poland and a new kind of “solidarity.” (As scholar and author Timothy Garton Ash noted, “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism.”)

Shipyard electrician Lech Walesa (1943-) became the leader of Solidarity, formed in 1980 when 50 labor unions banded together to protest Poland’s Communist government. The unions staged strikes and demonstrations. By 1981 Solidarity had gained so many followers that it threatened Poland’s government, which responded (with the support of the Soviet Union) by instituting martial law in December of that year. The military cracked down on the activities of the unions, abolishing Solidarity in 1982 and arresting its leaders, including the charismatic Walesa. But the powerful people’s movement, which had also swept up farmers (who formed the Rural Solidarity), could not be suppressed. Martial law was lifted in mid-1983 but the government continued to exert control over the people’s freedom. That year Walesa received the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to gain workers’ rights and prevent violence. Solidarity continued its work for reform. In 1989 the collapse of communism on the horizon (people’s movements in Eastern Europe had combined with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost to herald the system’s demise), the Polish government reopened negotiations with Solidarity’s leadership. Free elections were held that year, with the labor party candidates gaining numerous seats in Parliament. In 1990 Walesa was elected president, at which time he resigned as chairman of Solidarity. Poland’s Communist Party was dissolved that year.

Pro-Solidarity rally in Czestochowa, Poland, 1988. Solidarity was a worker-led movement for political reform in Communist Poland; by 1990 the country’s Communist government was dissolved.

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