50 Years of Polish Protests: from workers’ strikes to women’s strikes10 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Civil Society
Mass protests in Poland are making headlines once again, this time due to further restrictions on abortion rights. It is nothing new, though. Arguably, one of the things Poland is most known for internationally are the workers’ strikes organised back in 1980, giving birth to the famous Solidarność [Solidarity] movement.

Despite fundamental changes in the political system and quality of life over the past 50 years, Poles continue to fight for what they believe to be their inherent rights. How have Polish protests evolved over the past decades, in terms of their goals, organisation and strategies employed? How in turn has the response of the authorities changed? Get ready for a quick dive into five decades of Polish dissent.

United in disapproval

I allowed myself to select four protest movements which can be used to observe changes in the aspects highlighted above. Two of them, including the above mentioned 1980 protests, took place during the times of the Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (PRL) [Polish People’s Republic] i.e. before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The other two concern the most recent Polish history, following the rise to power of the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) [Law and Justice] party. Let us have a word of introduction on each of the examples. 

The December 1970 protests erupted after the authorities announced an increase in the prices of a variety of products, mainly food. These were to be introduced in mid-December, right before Christmas – a hard hit for Polish working families. Mass workers’ strikes started in the major, state-owned Gdańsk shipyard, quickly spreading to other cities. Almost immediately, these turned violent and were brutally quashed by police and army troops.

The August 1980 protests also resulted from an increase in prices, this time of meat and ham. However, the protesters eventually developed a set of quite bold (at that time) political and social demands, the most important of which was the creation of independent workers’ unions. Once again the Gdańsk shipyard took the lead, with strikes spreading across around 700 state-owned factories, involving 750,000 Polish workers. This time the authorities decided to negotiate. In the end, many of the protesters’ demands were met and the Solidarity Trade Union was created, soon uniting 10 million workers. 

November 2015 marked the start of what we could label as “rule of law protests”, which have continued until today, albeit failing to achieve their goals. Their different peaks have corresponded to subsequent changes in the Polish judicial system, introduced by the PiS party following their presidential and parliamentary wins in 2015. The modifications related notably to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary. They have been widely considered, including by the European Union and the Council of Europe, to constitute serious breaches of the rule of law, as they aimed at allowing the government to control the judiciary.

Finally, the most recent protests are also part of a longer resistance movement, dedicated to women’s rights and particularly the right to abortion. They originated from the so-called “Black Protest” in September–October 2016, when PiS majority attempted to pass a law which would effectively ban abortion and introduce prison sentences for mothers requesting pregnancy termination [see “People are opposing it in a very vivid way”: an interview with a Polish protester and abortion rights activist on Lossi 36]. Mass protests which ensued forced Polish Sejm [lower house of the parliament] to vote down the law. However, four years later the issue is in the spotlight again. On 22 October, the Constitutional Tribunal, in which all but one of the judges were appointed by PiS, declared that abortion in cases of foetal defects was unconstitutional, which once again bans abortion almost entirely. 

What united the protesters in all these cases? Anger unleashed by governmental decisions which they considered unfair. What distinguished them from one another? Simultaneously more and less than you would expect. 

From basic provisions to advanced democratic and liberal rights

When it comes to goals and priorities of the different protests, the contrast couldn’t be more striking. In the Polish People’s Republic times, the most common reason for the public’s outrage were increases in the prices of the most basic products, notably food. Many working-class families already struggled to make ends meet and any such decision would make their situation even more dire. In 1970, the fact that the increase was introduced right before Christmas added to the workers’ anger. 

In 1980, however, in addition to prices-related grievances, the striking workers developed a much more advanced list of 21 political and social demands. In addition to the independent workers’ unions, they demanded, among others, the right to strike, freedom of speech and publication, recruitment of management in workplaces based on merit (instead of party affiliation), increase in the number of places in nurseries and kindergartens and a 3-year paid maternity leave. Naturally, not all of these conditions were met, but a vision of what a free and equal society should look like was very much present. 

Nowadays it is almost unimaginable that hundreds of thousands would strike in Poland because of 10–15% increases in the prices of certain food products. Instead, what brings people into the streets are democratic and liberal rights enjoyed in the most progressive countries in the world. These include not only respect for the rule of law and abortion rights, but also, among others, media freedom, LGBTI+ rights and fight against racism. 

This does not mean that in today’s Poland no one is concerned about the more basic economic provisions. It means that, overall, the quality of life has increased, thus making it possible for a large part of the society to start prioritising more advanced political and social rights. However, support for many of these rights is also preconditioned by a high level of societal awareness and openness, which comes with time and education. This is why we also observe a shift in the principal groups involved in the different protests. The PRL-era strikes were led by the poorer working class, while the current protests engage mostly middle- and upper-middle-class intellectuals, as well as youth (school pupils, students, young professionals). 

Organisation is key

Contrary to protesters’ priorities, where a clearer trend can be observed, organisation patterns have not been consistent over the years. In 1970, despite workers being united by their common workplaces, no leadership emerged which could use the strength of the masses to exert pressure on the government to negotiate. At the same time, the authorities’ go-to strategy was to silence the protesters with force. Although eventually price increases were withdrawn, at least 45 people died and over 1100 were wounded as a result of the chaos and violence that ensued. 

1980 demonstrated the power of efficient organisation. From the start, the striking workers’ chose their leaders. One of them was Lech Wałęsa, future Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Once the strikes spread beyond the Gdańsk shipyard, an Inter-factory Strike Committee (ISC) was formed to provide a broad representation in the negotiations with the authorities. It was the ISC that developed the above mentioned 21 demands. The unity exhibited by the striking factories left no choice to the authorities but to concede on some of the key points. 

The recent protest movements have had a mixed record in terms of organisation. At the start of the rule of law protests, a Facebook group called Komitet Obrony Demokracji (KOD) [Committee for the Defence of Democracy] was created by an activist Mateusz Kijowski, quickly gaining thousands of followers. KOD then turned into an association which led major demonstrations in November 2015–January 2016. However, it failed to build a stable movement with a clear representation and mandate. It also quickly lost its momentum, organising sporadic protests rather than developing a long-term plan of action. The fact that in 2017 Kijowski was charged with illegal appropriation of some of the money collected by the association did not help the cause.

The Black Protest also started as a rather ad hoc event, organised mostly via social media. It then turned into a more organised movement under the name of Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (OSK) [All-Poland Women’s Strike]. After 2016, the OSK maintained a relatively low profile, until its revival this year. Interestingly, the movement seems to have taken a page out of ISC’s book. Much like in 1980, the OSK created a list of wide-ranging demands related to women’s rights, equality, tolerance and rule of law. It also established a “Consultation Council”, composed of activists and experts in the different fields the OSK is focusing on. The Council could also serve as the movement’s representation in potential negotiations with the government. 

What will come out of the OSK’s actions remains to be seen. Nonetheless, what can be noticed is that a protest without proper organisation might be powerful but is also likely to be short-lived and ineffective in exerting sufficient pressure on the authorities. 

How to create the biggest disruption?

Finally, the evolution of protest strategies deserves some attention. The PRL-era protests, as exemplified by the 1970 and 1980 strikes, relied on big numbers and the immense scale of economic disruption caused by state-owned factories being stalled. Poland’s economic and political situation could not allow for a national revolt. In addition, in some cases, e.g. in December 1970, protesters resorted to physical destruction of property and governmental infrastructure to make themselves heard. 

Nowadays, the educated middle/upper-middle class, accounting for a majority of the protesters, works in a variety of businesses, including the private sector. Consequently, mass strikes would hardly cause the same level of economic disruption as those in 1970/1980. Thus, new methods of attracting attention are being developed. During the rule of law protests, some of the most inventive ones were the so-called “chains of light”, created using candles and phone flashlights. Moreover, banners and t-shirts with the word Konstytucja [Constitution] became a big hit, including among Poland’s monuments.

The Black Protest went a step further – its participants decided to shock and break social norms. Thousands of people dressed up in black and many held placards with various anti-PiS and anti-church provocative slogans, as well as drawings of vaginas, blood and hangers — a gore reminder of what a desperate woman might use to conduct an abortion. The current OSK’s protests have gone even further. The key slogans are “F*** off” and “F*** PiS” (using two different verbs because that is how inventive Polish language is). Furthermore, the organisers have called on people to block major roads and roundabouts every Monday. They also encouraged protesters to enter churches with abortion-related banners and leaflets, causing Poland’s de-facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, to call on PiS supporters to “defend churches”. However, both the OSK and KOD have been refraining from inciting any form of physical violence, which, combined with relatively high levels of restraint among the police, has resulted in the protests remaining largely peaceful.

Whether this “shock therapy” will be successful is, once again, unknown. The authorities have offered some conciliatory statements regarding the 22 October ruling on abortion, although they do not seem willing to negotiate with the protesters, let alone step down (which is one of the OSK’s demands). Nonetheless, Polish protest strategies are evolving dynamically, crossing more and more cultural and societal barriers and relying much more on inventive expression of anger than on physical confrontation.

A recipe for a perfect protest

Poland’s example shows that while many things can change in a country, there will always be another thing worth fighting for. The trick is to do it successfully and in a physically non-violent manner. For that one needs not only to unite a very large group of people, but also keep up its motivation and consistently organise its actions in a way that forces the authorities to negotiate. This implies causing targeted disruption, though not too much of it, as things can quickly go in an undesired direction. At the end of the day, effective protesting is a subtle art and we better know how to manage it before we start…

Featured image: 50 years of protests / Amanda Sonesson
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