Instead of marching through the streets, where riot police could have attacked them more easily, the workers used the unique tactic of staging sit-in strikes, occupying their own factories. After two weeks, the government gave in, granting them economic concessions. The strikers dispersed.
But a precedent was set. The next month, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in the city of Gdansk staged their own sit-in strike, led by the electrician Lech Walesa.
That was when intellectuals in Warsaw took notice, says Bronislaw Geremek. They saw determined workers and a weak government. But they also saw the potential for danger and a possible Soviet intervention. After discussing the situation with journalists returning from Gdansk, a group of 64 intellectuals wrote a letter to the workers and to the government, offering to mediate.
The date was 18 August 1980, four days after the start of the Gdansk sit-in.
"We decided to go to Gdansk -- Tadeusz Mazowiecki and myself -- on behalf of this group of intellectuals and to give this letter to Lech Walesa," Geremek said. "We came to Gdansk on the evening of the 22nd and the same evening, we met Lech Walesa. Lech Walesa was very much impressed by the letter, by the list of intellectuals who signed it, but he said to us: 'You know, we have here many letters. What we need now is not more letters but more help. Could you help us?'"
Geremek and Mazowiecki said yes, they could help. And together with the striking workers, they created the beginnings of Solidarity.
"We created, I would say, an intellectual infrastructure for the negotiation process. And we did prepare the text of the agreement, together with the strike committee and the workers. So in this sense, one of the very important things which appeared during this strike was the climate of trust, of [great] confidence, between the intelligentsia and workers, and maybe that [happened] for the first time," Geremek said. "And also, [there was trust] between farmers and the urban population, because farmers -- as we were told immediately the first night in the shipyard -- the farmers decided to furnish food for the workers without asking for money, simply in an act of solidarity. And so, Solidarity became later the name of the trade union, the name of the newspaper published in the shipyard. But it was also a very human relationship which appeared from the beginning of this Gdansk strike."
Geremek believes the inspiration for this "new human relationship" in Polish society owes a great deal to the election of the first Polish pope, John Paul, in 1978, and his visit the following year to his native land.
"One should see this phenomenon in the larger context. This context is first of all the lesson of the 1979 visit of John Paul the Second to Poland. Not only the message of John Paul II -- 'Don't be afraid,' which was a very powerful message -- but also the experience of the organization of the pope's visit. The organization was assured, in all cities in which the pope paid a visit, by civilians -- by a special guard formed by workers, people from the intelligentsia -- [who were] able to organize themselves," Geremek said.
Through the end of 1980 and into 1981, Solidarity opened chapters across the country and its membership swelled to a phenomenal 9 million people -- a quarter of Poland's population. The euphoria was soon cut short. On 13 December 1981, Polish Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelksi imposed martial law, dissolving Solidarity and arresting its leaders, including Geremek.
Jaruzelski later justified the move, saying Solidarity's ever-pressing demands could have led to a Soviet invasion. But Geremek disagrees.
"In my view, Solidarity was absolutely responsible until the very last period of this 500 days for the stability of the country. And never from our side, from the side of the trade union, could one observe the usual violence. It was a nonviolent movement not only in theory but also in practice. Of course, sometimes there were different verbal attacks against the government, against Communist ideas. But it was, in the very sense of the word, a self-limited revolution. People knew well that there are some limits which should not be passed," Geremek said.
Geremek cites a specific example to validate his point.
"When I spoke at the last meeting of the national council of Solidarity in Gdansk with Zbigniew Bujak, the leader of the Warsaw organization, he said to me that the [demonstration] proposed for -- if I remember -- for the 16th of December 1981 was still under discussion and that they should be sure that the situation could be under their control," Geremek said. "So, in my view, the responsibility for the introduction of martial law is completely of the political leadership of the Communist Party and personally, of General Jaruzelski. I can say that I see a tremendous and even courageous role of General Jaruzelski in the process of change in 1989, when he didn't use the means of violence. But in 1981, there were no messages and no proof until now -- when we know the Soviet archives a little bit -- that the Soviet Union was ready to intervene."
The following years were bleak ones for Solidarity's leaders. But the Communist regime soon began once again to seek compromise. Geremek explains what kept the movement going and why, ultimately, the Communists were forced to return to the negotiating table.
"During this period of wasted time, these seven wasted years, at the beginning the military government had some successes in the reorganization of the economy, being able to mobilize some superficial means of action and to obtain a small improvement of the situation of the economy. But after two, three years it became more and more evident that they were unable to continue in the same way and they had to accept dialogue. I think also that the determination of the Polish people [was key.] This means that during the seven-eight years of resistance, people ensured the survival of the movement," Geremek said. "And the idea of Solidarity, the idea of the fight for freedom and democracy, was still present. And this determination, from one side, was the proof that Solidarity still was the very representation of society. And in second place, one could see also this feeling of weakness in the economy. The economy was in a crisis situation and the authorities were unable to do something in order to repair this."
In 1989, Geremek was the chief negotiator, representing the political opposition, at landmark roundtable talks with the government that laid the groundwork for Poland's transition to democracy. Some people later criticized Solidarity for failing to press its advantage and being too accommodating with the regime. Geremek rejects the charge.
"I think that the level of accommodation with the Communist regime should be seen through results. We were the first country in the Communist bloc to obtain the possibility of free elections, limited free elections under a deal. But we were the first country that gave the signal that this was possible. In my sense, thinking now on this process of changes in historical terms, one could say that nobody knows how long the Communist regime could have survived in this 'other Europe' if Polish workers in the Gdansk shipyard, the Lenin shipyard, in August 1980 hadn't had the idea and the determination to fight for freedom. And nobody knows how long the Berlin Wall and the division of Europe could have survived if the Polish roundtable in 1989 had not given the example of a peaceful transition to freedom from a totalitarian regime," Geremek said.
Geremek says he never dreamt that he would live to see the day Poland joined NATO and the European Union. In this sense, Solidarity's legacy was phenomenally successful. But he regrets that so many Poles today appear to have forgotten their recent history.
"From the perspective of these years, I have a bitter feeling that Solidarity in the present political game, in the present Polish politics, is rather ignored. On one side, one can see that the workers who started this process and who had this tremendous courage to begin the fight for freedom paid the social costs of the economic transformation. One can see also that in the young generation, the Solidarity phenomenon is forgotten, if not ignored. In one of the last public opinion polls, only one-fourth of respondents were aware of Solidarity in the history of Poland. I hope that the festivities organized on this occasion will give the opportunity to form a new spirit of continuation. I do believe that it concerns Poland but it concerns also other East and Central European countries and it concerns Europe. We need knowledge of the history of the fight for freedom because what Europe is, is the fight for freedom. The fight for bread and freedom was from the beginning of the 19th century the sense of European history," Geremek said.
Although Geremek cautions that each country's circumstances are unique, he believes the history of Solidarity can offer lessons to those still struggling against undemocratic regimes.
"The important lesson for this Polish phenomenon is that first, it's important to not be afraid, to see what can be done. Secondly, it's important to see the political dimension of the resistance to the authoritarian regime. One should not accept that politics is a question regarding only professional politicians. Third, it's very important to accept a nonviolent philosophy. In the Solidarity period, no window was broken during the 500 days of freedom. The violence was only on the side of the authoritarian regime," Geremek said. "And finally, it's important to see the implementation of this idea of the fight for bread and freedom in pragmatic terms, which means to accept that negotiation is the efficient means of action. For starting such a negotiation process, it is important to obtain the minimum of trust from the other side. From one side and the other, it's not easy. But if we want such negotiations, it's extremely important."
(Listen to Geremek. Real Audio. Windows Media.)
Solidarity -- The Trade Union That Changed The World