August Agreement

The Gdańsk Agreement (or Gdańsk Social Accords or August Agreement, Polish: Porozumienia sierpniowe) was an accord reached as a direct result of the strikes that took place in Gdańsk, Poland. Workers along the Baltic coast joined the revolution in Solidarity during the month of August, 1980.

Background

The labor strikes did not just occur because of problems that emerged shortly before the unrest, but due to the difficulties of the government and the economy for over ten years. Under the rule of Władysław Gomułka in the late 1960s, Poland’s economy was in disarray. To counter this, the government increased food prices just before Christmas in 1970 which irritated the entire populace of the nation. On December 14, 1970 workers from the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk began a strike against party headquarters within the city insisting on the formation of independent trade unions. In this disturbance 75 people were killed after Gomułka ordered that the revolt be put down with force. As R. J. Crampton wrote: “The Kremlin did not agree and intervened to urge the need for a political solution. For the nationalist communist Gomułka, Soviet dictation of internal Polish policies was too much.”[1] Edward Gierek, who appeared to be more open to workers' needs and have strong political ties to the working class soon replaced Gomułka. This was the first occasion in Europe since World War II that labor strikes were able to remove a ruler from power.

Gierek was able to stress economic reforms during the first half of his tenure of office. According to R. J. Crampton: “The stated objective of the reforms was to increase living standards; a less publicly attested motivation was the knowledge that, with prices fixed and with demand increasing, goods had to be put into circulation to avoid rampant inflation.”[2] In years prior to the Gdańsk strikes of 1980 the reforms of Gierek did succeed as planned, but the economy of Poland became more and more unstable. This was due to Poland’s reliance on western markets and the loans that the nation could not repay.

Fueled by large infusions of Western credit, Poland's economic growth rate was one of the world's highest during the first half of the 1970s, but much of the borrowed capital was misspent and the centrally planned economy was unable to use the new resources effectively. The growing debt burden became insupportable in the late 1970s and economic growth had become negative by 1979.[3]

Strikes of 1980

As the economy became unbearable, the Communist government authorized the increase in food prices for the summer of 1980. Once again a revival of labor disturbances erupted throughout the nation. Workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk ultimately went on strike in mid-August, sparked by the firing of Anna Walentynowicz.[4] Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, the workers took control of the shipyard and demanded labor reform and greater civil rights including the freedom of expression and religion, and the release of political prisoners. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote: “With his electrifying personality, quick wit and gift of the gab, he was soon leading it. He moved his fellow workers away from mere wage claims and toward a central, daringly political demand: free trade unions.”[5]

Agreement

Due to the popular support of the citizens and other striking groups, the Gdańsk workers held out until the government gave in to their demands. The successful strikers formed the Gdańsk Agreement on August 31, 1980 as an authentic social contract with the government.[6] This allowed citizens to bring democratic changes within the communist political structure. The main concern of the workers was the establishment of a trade union independent of communist party control and the legal right to strike. In creating these new groups, there would be a clear representation of the workers’ needs.

“These new unions are intended to defend the social and material interests of the workers, and not to play the role of a political party, they will be established on the basis of socialization of the means of production and of the socialist system that exists in Poland today.”[7] Other major concerns were to control commercial prices, the use of foreign money in all internal economic dealings, ensuring the proper supply of resources within the nation and only export the excess. This would ensure that there would be a better chance for prosperity within the nation for all working citizens.

Impact

The Gdańsk Agreement is very important to the politics of Poland because the strikes exposed the corruption and negligence within the state’s leadership. In recognizing individual rights, such as the freedom of expression, the government is opened for the creation of civil societies. This allows citizens to come together where all people can agree on human rights regardless of party beliefs. The problems caused by the labor movements and the ensuing Gdańsk Agreement led to the removal of Edward Gierek and the installation of Stanisław Kania in September 1980.

Solidarność (Solidarity), the independent trade union that emerged from the Lenin Shipyard strike, was unlike anything in the history of Poland. Even though it was mainly a labor movement representing workers led by chairman Wałęsa, it attracted an assorted membership of different citizens which quickly rose to unpararelled proportion of a quarter of the country's population: 10 million people nationwide. Due to its enormous size and newly found power, the union assumed the role of a national reform lobby able to change politics in Poland forever.

On the second anniversary of the agreement, August 31, 1982, a massive wave of anti-government demonstrations took place across Poland. The regime answered with police force; according to Solidarity, at least seven people were killed throughout Poland.

References

Further reading

  1. Stokes, Gale. From Stalinism to Pluralism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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