Neal Ascherson: Solidarity ... The strike that shook the Kremlin

Roundup: Talking About History

[Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer.]

Thirty years ago, ordinary people challenged an armed dictatorship, and won.

On 31 August 1980, the strikers in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk forced the Communist authorities in Poland to sign an agreement. It promised them – among many other lesser things – a free and independent trade union, the liberation of political prisoners, plural and uncensored media and the right to strike.

Within days, other strike committees all over Poland were winning the same sort of terms from their Party bosses. Soon all the local agreements ran together into a single movement covering the whole nation, which recruited 9 million members by the end of the year. Its leader was a fast- talking, pious, slightly rascally electrician called Lech Walesa. The name of the movement was "the Independent Self-Managing Trade Union Solidarity".

Everyone who was in that shipyard during the strike came out changed: wiser and perhaps with more faith in humanity. This was an occupation strike, asking strikers to forsake their homes and families for the sake of the common cause. The yard gates, almost hidden behind well- wishers' flowers and pictures of the Pope, were locked, and the workers forbade themselves to come out until they had won.

Inside, thousands of men in grey denim overalls lay on the grass listening to the Tannoy, as it broadcast the interminable negotiations in the Health and Safety hall. Outside the gate, women and children waited through long, hot August days. Sometimes they threw bread, salami and apples over the fence to their husbands, fathers and sons. There was paper and duplicator ink for smudgy bulletins in the yard, but not much to eat. Vodka was banned. In one of Europe's most cigarette-addicted nations, they banned indoor smoking too.

The stakes were very high. The workers inside and the families outside thought about the ZOMO riot police, itching to batter them with clubs. The foreign journalists in the yard thought more about the Soviet armoured divisions that had moved up to the Polish frontier. If they invaded, we assumed that the Poles would fight and there would be what the regime's euphemism called "a national tragedy". But that was a possibility the strikers refused to discuss. It was an extra fear they did not need.

The strikes spread and the government, riven by panicky arguments, finally gave way. On 31 August, Lech Walesa – enjoying every moment of it – took a silly monster pen, a souvenir from the Pope's visit the year before, and signed the Gdansk Accord. Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski, equally clearly hating every moment, signed too.

That was not the end of the story...

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