Remembering Gda?sk Shipyard: The Birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity Union


The end of 2007 saw sad developments for Gda?sk’s historic shipyard in Poland, the Cold War birthplace of the Left, non-communist, self-governing trade union “Solidarity.” The yard saw tumultuous labor struggles from the 70s through the 80s corresponding with broader working class alliances ultimately removing the Communist Party of Poland from power, with a Solidarity led coalition government, in August of 1989. In recent times however the shipyard, once Gda?sk’s largest employer, has been under pressure to pay back millions in states subsidies, but, according to the International Herald Tribune, has been privatized—sold to a Ukrainian company. The sale is apparently part of a larger trend in Gda?sk’s where  “[c]omputer services, tourism and amber jewelry now underpin the city’s economy, diminishing the importance of the shipyard” (See also NYT, Historic Polish Shipyard Struggles in a New Age). Capital’s counter-revolution continues in Eastern Europe.


I recently watched the 2006 film “Strike,” which tells the story of a single mother who works as shipyard welder and crane operator in Gda?sk—a “tale of an ordinary woman who helps spark a revolution in Poland.” (Netflixs) The character’s name is “Agnieszka Walczak,” but is actually based on the real-life character of Anna Walentynowicz who, because of her labor organizing activities, was fired in August 1980. Her firing sparked the shipyard strike leading to the formation of Solidarity.


This quote is from a pamphlet handed out to shipyard workers on 14 August 1980:


To the workers of the Gda?sk Shipyard


We turn to YOU colleagues of Anna Walentynowicz. She has worked at the shipyard since 1950. Sixteen years as a welder, later as crane operator in W-2 section, awarded bronze, silver and in 1979 Gold Cross of Merit (Krzyz zaslugi). She had always been a model worker, what is more one who reacted to every wrong an injustice.


This has resulted in her activism in independent of management trade union movement. Walentynowicz received a disciplinary notice of firing on August 7 for "major infraction of worker’s responsibilities." We would like to remind you that Anna Walentynowicz has only five months to retirement. This matter demonstrates that the administration of the shipyard does not care about public opinion or legal procedure, which it violates forcing people to bend with its whims. Anna Walentynowicz has been a thorn in their side, because she is a model activist devoted to others. She is a thorn in their side because she defends others and is capable of organizing her colleagues… We appeal to you, defend the crane operator Walentynowicz. If you don’t, many of you may find themselves in the same miserable situation.


Signed Founding Committee of Independent Trade Unions and the editorial board of THE COASTAL WORKER: Bogdan Borusewicz, Joanna Duda-Gwiazda, Andrzej Gwiazda, Jan Karandziej, Maryla Plonska, Alina Pienkowska, Lech Walesa



This last signatory, Lech Walesa (another key Solidarity founder and later presidential figure), is the focus of another film Man of Iron (1981) by Andrzej Wajda (actually the second part of a trilogy). Utilizing original documentary and news reel footage of the strikes, Man of Iron displays dramatic images of the shipyard labor struggle, chronicling the drama of Solidarity’s formation.


Despite Solidarity’s political direction today, or paths taken by some of its former leaders, watching the original struggles taking place remains a timeless inspiration. The above movies can give a taste of that inspiration. Also, I found this very high-quality flash slide show, The Solidarity Phenomenon, covering the struggle from August 1980 through December 1981. 

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