Saturday, September 6, 2008

Remembering the Polish Strikes that Ended Communism

The end of August saw the 28th anniversary of the accords setting up Solidarity and ending 1980 strikes at the shipyards in Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin.  It also marked the 20th anniversary of the last wave of strikes before the leadership of the Polish United Workers Party moved to initiate roundtable talks with the Solidarity opposition.  The 1988 strikes have always been overshadowed by the events of 1980-81 and the end phase of Communist rule in early 1989.  Yet without those strikes the end of Communism in Eastern Europe might not have had a model for the orderly transfer of power from Communism to democratic opposition, which made the revolutions of 1989 so successful and peaceful.  

Nonetheless, incorporating the 1988 strikes into the official narrative of the transition from Communist rule to democracy in Poland has proven difficult.  According to Gazeta Wyborcza while over 2000 people are known to have participated in the 1988 strikes, only 41 people were recommended for presidential recognition for their efforts.  President Kaczynski, however, only ended up honoring 17 (of which only 3 were on the list of known 1988 strikers). It is unclear why the president was so stingy about recognizing he veterans of the 1988 strikes, although the 1988 strikers did not have the same kind of organizational backing as the 1980 strikers.  In fact the old Solidarity leadership was nearly as surprised by the strikes as the government, and had little direct influence on the 1988 strikers.

Having experienced the events of 1980-81, the 1988 strikers were radicalized, and ready to challenge authority in ways the Solidarity leadership of 1980-81 would not have done.  Realizing that the government began to reach out to the established solidarity leadership rather than risk dealing with more uncompromising 1988 strikers, and the solidarity leadership reciprocated.  That tactical decision has put the 1988 strikers in a state of limbo ever since.  Not only were they were unrepresented at the roundtable talks, they did not have a chance to develop as a cohesive group through the common experience of persecution.

Ironically, given the Kaczynski twins disenchantment with the roundtable compromises, one would think they would be eager to champion the radicalism of the 1988 strikers.  Yet, clearly they do not quite know what to do with a group that made their own decisions rather than deferring to the traditional Solidarity opposition. 

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