Time and place for Solidarność

It is difficult not to notice that in many cases NSZZ Solidarność (Solidarity), the Polish trade union that in the 1980s played a crucial role in the tearing down of the political and economic system of the time, is now rather mentioned in the context of ‘then’ than of ‘now’. Even its website (www.solidarnosc.org.pl), despite up-to-date content, shows signs of a longing for a former greatness and days bygone. In the website’s ‘history’ section, the amount of entries for each year of the organisation’s existence chronologically decreases, and no new entry was made after 1999, suggesting that Solidarity has written little history in the new century. To an extent, this slow retreat into history, into encyclopaedias, museums, and school textbooks might be inevitable, but we should not forget what Solidarity still is (and ultimately always was), namely a trade union in a large European country.

To attract 10 million members – at any point without coercion – is quite remarkable for an organisation. Losing the overwhelming majority within 20-something years is equally, if not more, remarkable, but that has been the story of Solidarity.

There is definitely more that can be added to the already huge collection of resources outlining the union’s history, explaining its incredible growth that shook the foundations of the Polish, and probably European, political order of the time, as well as its subsequent decline of the 1990s and 2000s. However, from the perspective of a Pole born around the time of the organisation’s most turbulent years in the 1980s, the interesting questions surrounding Solidarity are not just ‘who?’, ‘how?’, or ‘why?’, but also ‘what now?’. At the time where the union’s logo is increasingly more likely to be found in history books and commemorative albums than elsewhere, it is worthwhile to think about what it should really mean to today’s Polish society.

There, then, and now

The issue that probably arises in just about any discussion on Solidarity is that of pinning down what sort of organisation it is or was. Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy (National Independent Self-Governing Trade Union) ‘Solidarność’ has walked the fine line between a trade union, a mass political movement, underground resistance, a political entity, and other incarnations, often taking more than one shape at a time.

There is no doubt that Solidarity, as well as its one-time leader, Lech Wałęsa, have enjoyed publicity that few in this part of the world ever could have hoped for. I am sure that I am not the only person who heard Wałęsa’s name mentioned by foreigners before they found out that they are talking to a Pole, although I might be the only one who found himself in that situation with a Haitian taxi driver in Montreal. Other, more tangible, examples of the mark Solidarity left on the global consciousness of the time includes Wałęsa’s Nobel peace prize won in 1983 and a 1981 Cannes golden palm for Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron, a film that tells the story of the 1980 events in Gdańsk. Unsurprisingly, even today its early days reverberate through Polish politics, with the current president and prime minister both underlining their links to the movement.

Transformations and affiliations

There are two ways of thinking what role Solidarity should play in modern Poland. On one hand, we have an organisation with a complex historical legacy trying to find a way to define itself and communicate this definition to the public. On the other hand, however, we have the broader issue of the need and the function of workers’ representation in Polish political economy. To add to the complexity, the context here is the post-1989 Polish political system, where a notion of a simple left-right political spectrum can be very misleading.

Solidarity, although initially demanding not much more than a fair treatment of workers, has gained most recognition as an opposition movement in 1980s Poland. In the third republic (post-1989 Poland) it has entered Polish politics more directly, by running its own parliamentary platform, which in 1997 formed a government together with a number of parties of Christian, patriotic, and generally rather conservative nature. In the recent years, the organisation has largely strayed further away from the political arena and focused more on its purely trade unionist activities.

The organisation’s patriotic and religious values that were a point of common reference in the 1980s, are becoming less relevant to a younger generation coming of age in the 1990s and 2000s. Many others are uncomfortable with the organisation’s engagements in and affiliations to various conservative elements of the political arena. Reconciling Solidarity’s more recent political history with its maverick early years is not an easy task, and we must not forget that it also has its key role to play, namely that of a trade union. In many European countries being a trade union with a history of forming right-of-centre coalitions is difficult to imagine, but even in a more flexible political spectrum, defining and re-defining Solidarity as an organisation given its complex history is not easy.

Facing modern Poland

There is a certain irony in Solidarity’s fate, namely that of an organisation playing a key part in a political and economic transformation that resulted in its own weakening and increasing irrelevance. Poland’s transition, not painless but in relative terms a smooth one, looked up to an Anglo-Saxon model rather than a more continental one. Like many countries of the region, Poland has found itself in a somewhat awkward position halfway between the brand of liberal capitalism that many of the transition engineers admired, and the institutional remains of the former order. The desirability, consistency, and durability of the particular institutional environment of Polish capitalism is a matter of academic debate, but most figures suggest that trade unions find it increasingly difficult to find their place in it. Trade union membership, as a percentage of the adult population, has fallen in Poland from 19% in 1991 to 6% in 2002, which is often attributed to structural change, but also employers’ anti-union strategies and falling appeal of unions for workers as an article on European Industrial Relations Observatory on-line (EIRO) suggests.

Solidarity thus struggles not only with defining itself with respect to its more and less recent past, but also with what should probably be its key task: effectively representing workers at the time when this is becoming more and more difficult. It has primarily to decide what it is and what it is not. It needs to reap benefits from the experiences of its early days, but not over-rely on them, fight the suspicions and bitterness that some might feel towards its former government-forming incarnation, and try not to alienate those who might feel uncomfortable with its more catholic or patriotic leanings. At the same time, it is well advised trying to provide a valuable service to a Polish worker in a time where there is a falling demand for it. 

For Poles, who like me were born around Solidarity’s 1980s heyday, but with recollection of more recent politics, Solidarity will, for better or worse, mean more than it would to a foreign observer familiar with its earlier history. If it is to however remain an organisation of relevance, it will need to, on one hand, step up its activities and on the other re-define its image in a way that emphasises the ‘now’, as much, or much more than the ‘then’.

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