On this day in 1980, Solidarity, a Polish trade union, was founded as the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country. It gave rise to a larger nonviolent and anti-authoritarian social movement that claimed over nine million members and ultimately contributed to the fall of regimes across the Soviet bloc.
Though Poland’s government attempted to destroy Solidarity instituting martial law in 1981, followed by several years of political repression, it was forced into negotiation by the sheer weight of union’s influence and popularity. The subsequent talks resulted in semi-free elections in 1989—the closest Poland came to democracy since the 1930s.
By the end of August 1989, a Solidarity-led coalition government had been formed, and the following year, one of its founders, Lech Wałęsa was elected president. (I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at my undergraduate alma mater, Florida International University, some years ago.) Now lacking any popular support or legitimacy, Poland’s oppressive regime melted away, and Walesa’s administration helped transition the country into a modern democratic state.
Solidarity’s success was unprecedented not only for the People’s Republic of Poland—a satellite of the USSR ruled by a one-party regime—but for the whole of the Eastern bloc. It ushered in movements throughout the region, weakening communist governments and resulting in the Revolutions of 1989.
With its greatest political achievement behind it, Solidarity’s influence on Poland’s political scene has since waned, though it remains the largest trade union in Poland—no doubt helped by its earth-shattering legacy.