1981 warning strike in Poland

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In the early spring of 1981, the quickly growing Solidarity movement faced one of the biggest challenges in its short history, when during the Bydgoszcz events, several members of Solidarity, including Jan Rulewski, Mariusz Łabentowicz and Roman Bartoszcze, were brutally beaten up by the security services, such as Milicja Obywatelska and ZOMO. The Bydgoszcz events soon became widely known across Poland, and on March 24, 1981, Solidarity decided to go on a nationwide strike in protest against the violence. The strike was planned for Tuesday, March 31, 1981. On March 25, Lech Wałęsa met Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski of the Polish United Workers' Party, but their talks were fruitless. Two days later, a four-hour national warning strike took place. It was the biggest strike in the history of the Soviet Bloc,[1][2] it has also been called the largest strike in the history of Poland.[3] According to several sources, between 12 million [4][5] and 14 million Poles took part in it.[6]


After the Bydgoszcz events, millions of Poles reacted angrily to the brutal beatings of the members of Solidarity. The atmosphere in the country got even more tense, when the government of the People's Republic of Poland denied any wrongdoings, stating that the security services were simply doing their duty to restore order and the information on the beatings was described as "claims by Solidarity sources".[1] The mass-media informed that Jan Rulewski, one of the beaten activists, had been hurt in a car accident, not as a result of the intervention of the police.[7] Furthermore, in early spring of 1981, the Soviet Army was carrying out huge military exercises named Soyuz 81, which were taking place in Poland. The maneouvers were regarded by many Poles as the preparation of a Soviet invasion of their country and Marshall Viktor Kulikov, Commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact, told Polish general staff that despite political situation, the exercises would continue indefinitely.[8] In Washington, the situation in Poland was described as "political tension at its highest level since last November".[1] Soviet military exercises continued until April 7.

Meanwhile, leaders of Solidarity, gathered in the meeting of National Coordinating Commission (Krajowa Komisja Porozumiewawcza), ordered all regional offices of the organization to stay alert and be prepared for a national strike. In Bydgoszcz, a two-hour warning strike took place (March 21), and in a special communique, Solidarity announced that the Bydgoszcz events was a provocation, aimed at the government of Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski.[7] The government responded by sending to Bydgoszcz a special commission, headed by General Jozef Zyto, Deputy Prosecutor-General,[9] whose task was to clear up the situation and find out who was guilty of the beating of the Solidarity activists. However, its members were not interested in fulfilling their task and their inactivity was criticized by Solidarity. Opposition activists were personally insulted by the Bydgoszcz events, thinking that if the beatings could happen to Jan Rulewski, they could happen to any of them. A statement of the Polish United Workers' Party did not improve the situation, as it characterized the Bydgoszcz events as a "flagrant violation of law, which created new tensions".[1]

Most members of Solidarity's National Coordinating Commission (NCC) were in favor of an all-national, general strike, which would completely paralyze the country until all details of the Bydgoszcz events had been explained and those guilty punished. Only few were against such action, among others, Bronisław Geremek, who said that the decision for an unlimited general strike would be a decision for a national insurrection. Finally, during the March 23, 1981 meeting in Bydgoszcz, majority of members of the National Coordinating Commission voted in favor of the moderate proposal, suggested by Lech Wałęsa. According to this project, a four-hour national warning strike would take place on Friday, March 27, 1981, between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. Wałęsa's proposal was accepted only after a heated all-night session, during which the Solidarity leader threatened to walk out. On March 22, during the service transmitted by the Polish Radio, Bishop Stefan Wyszyński appealed both to the government and Solidarity to "work out mutual rights and duties", he also mentioned several times the danger of a 'foreign factor'.[10] On March 26, Wyszyński personally talked with General Jaruzelski, two days later, he met Wałęsa and other Solidarity activists.

The demands of the opposition were:

  1. The immediate punishment or suspension of officials considered responsible for the Bydgoszcz incident;
  2. Permission for the peasants to form their own union: Rural Solidarity;
  3. Security for union members and activists in their activities and the unions' right of reply to any criticism of their work (this right is to be exercised through the media);
  4. Annulment of a government directive giving only half pay to strikers;
  5. The closure of all pending cases against people arrested for political opposition to government policies between 1976 and 1980, "even if in the light of existing laws their activities constituted offenses."

If no agreement between the government and Solidarity had been reached, the general strike was planned for Tuesday, March 31.[11] In between, a meeting between representatives of the NCC, headed by Wałęsa, and members of the Council of Ministers' Committee for Trade Unions, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski took place in Warsaw, but it ended without agreement.[9] During this meeting, a Solidarity activist from Szczecin, yelled at Rakowski: "What if your wife cheats on you once, twice, three times? Will you trust her? And we do not trust you any longer".[4]

The strike

Timothy Garton Ash, who was in Poland at that time, wrote that Solidarity's mobilisation of its members was swift and effective, making it "the most impressive democratic mass mobilization of any modern European society in peacetime, against its rulers' wishes".[11] In his opinion, Poland looked like a country going to war, with national red and white flags everywhere, and the women making red and white armbands for men who were to guard the occupied factories. The National Strike Committee was established in Gdańsk, in the cradle of Solidarity — the Lenin Shipyard. Its members were Lech Wałęsa, Andrzej Gwiazda, Zbigniew Bujak, Andrzej Cierniewski, Lech Dymarski, Krzysztof Gotowski, Marian Jurczyk, Ryszard Kalinowski, Antoni Kopczewski, Bogdan Lis and Andrzej Słowik.[12]

Soon came three Solidarity's instructions to the workers:

  1. In case of a General Strike. It specified a countrywide occupation-strike, where worker guards would be on a 24-hour watch, forbidding possession or consumption of any alcoholic beverages;
  2. In case of a State of Emergency. It specified steps to be taken in case of militarization of factories, urging the formations of shadow strike committees;
  3. In case of a Foreign Intervention. It suggested possible means of passive resistance to foreign troops in case of an invasion.

Apart from the National Strike Committee, several Interfactory Founding Committees (MKZ) were created in major cities. For security reasons, these offices were moved to large factories for the time of the strike, no matter how long it was planned to be. Therefore:

The preparations of strike reflected an unprecedented level of planning, and in effect, Poland became dotted with worker fortresses, patrolled by round-the-clock guards[1] and the strike itself is until today regarded as the biggest organizational success of Solidarity, with virtually all working people of Poland participating in it.[13] Historians from the Institute of National Remembrance claim that in late March 1981, Solidarity was at the "peak of its popularity",[14] and this fact was reflected on Friday, March 27, 1981. The strike itself took place "in an atmosphere of calm, order, and dignity.".[9]

Even though virtually all Polish workers took part in it, basic services and crucial industrial plants, such as steelworks and armament factories, were operating without breaks. Nevertheless, Solidarity announced that these plants would go on strike as well, in case of armed intervention. Almost all schools, universities and colleges joined the strike, as well as public TV (back then, there were no private TV stations in Poland). Television screens in Poland showed during the four hours of protest the words "Solidarity-Strike"[2] and the whole country was brought to a halt. Those who had to keep working, like employees of hospitals, put on white-red armbands, to express their solidarity.


After four hours, at midday, the sirens across the country sounded and Poland went back to work. The magnitude of the strike shocked the leadership of the Polish United Workers' Party, especially when it turned out that members of the party had universally participated in it (at that time, Solidarity had some 9 million members, but 12-14 million people took part in the strike). Meanwhile, Lech Wałęsa's advisors, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Bronisław Geremek told the leader of Solidarity that the general strike, planned for March 30, would mean civil war and the risk was too high. Diplomats from Western countries were also aware of the tense situation in Poland; therefore, military attaches from the United Kingdom, the United States and West Germany were ordered not to leave Poland. In case of a Soviet invasion of Poland, the Americans were planning a military blockade of Cuba.[15]

On March 30, 1981 the government of Poland reached agreement with Solidarity. The government of Poland conceded to demands regarding police brutality but the agreement to legalize Rural Solidarity was postponed, as well as further steps on the issue of political prisoners. The government acknowledged its mishandling of the Bydgoszcz events,[3] and in return, Lech Wałęsa agreed to postpone the general strike.


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