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Solidarity - Gdańsk

The word ‘Solidarity,’ or Solidarność as it is in Polish, is synonymous with the city of Gdańsk. Although Poland’s first free labour union was born out of the 1980 Lenin Shipyard strikes in Gdańsk, Solidarność would bloom into a nationwide social movement. Truth be told there are other cities in Poland which feel that Gdańsk has unfairly become symbolic of a movement that was bravely coordinated by Poles across the country. Nonetheless, for most foreign visitors, Solidarity is strongly associated with Gdańsk, its shipyards and the leader of the protests - Lech Wałęsa.

The story of Solidarity is a more complicated one than most foreign visitors realise. Although the movement and the trade union were officially christened in 1980, their roots can be traced back some ten years earlier. Protesting against plunging living standards, workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk and other yards in Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin took to the streets, with the army promptly called in to intervene. Bloody clashes led to the deaths of 44 people, and ultimately forced communist leader Władysław Gomułka out of power. Replaced by Edward Gierek, his half-mad economic policies served to create an illusion of prosperity, as well as generating a flush of jobs in Gdańsk’s Nowy Port area. But the memory of 1970 did not fade and Gdańsk remained a ticking timebomb for the authorities. As the ‘70s drew to a close, tensions started to rise again, with living standards falling and the economy in huge debt built on massive foreign loans. On August 7, 1980 the dismissal of female crane operator, Anna Walentynowicz at Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyards provided the spark for workers who were already prepared to go on strike due to disillusionment with price increases and the falling value of their salaries.

Fired from the shipyard in 1976 for anti-government activities, labour activist Lech Wałęsa saw that momentum for a strike was growing quickly, and decided to famously scale the wall of the Lenin Shipyard to take control. A strike was called and the workers’ demands were met on August 16. With many strikers subsequently leaving the yard, Walentynowicz and another woman, Alina Pienkowska, are credited with convincing many - including Wałęsa - to stay on and turn the strike into more than just a demand for better working conditions. The leaders then steered their colleagues away from mere wage demands towards the idea of creating a trade union movement to represent the workers and fight injustice.

Having learned from the mistakes of 1970, the workers did not confront the authorities, but instead locked themselves inside the shipyards. Three days later leaders representing workers from over 150 industrial plants, as well as members from across the social spectrum in Poland, met in the shipyards to hammer out 21 demands, including the legalisation of independent trade unions. Days of tension followed, with tanks and armed units stationed menacingly outside the gates of the shipyards. On August 31 the government backed down, agreeing to meet the 21 demands - which became known as the August Accords - thereby marking the first peaceful victory over communism. The agreement was famously signed in the shipyards by Lech Wałęsa using a large souvenir Pope John Paul II pen.

A month later, on September 22, delegates from 36 regional unions met in Gdańsk forming a coalition under the name of Solidarity. Lech Wałęsa, the unlikely hero of August, was elected as chairman. The next few months marked a golden period for the nation; some ten million people joined the Solidarity movement, and Poland enjoyed a freedom unknown for decades.

Riding the crest of a wave Solidarity continued to lobby for further reforms and free elections, infuriating the Kremlin. With Soviet invasion a looming threat the Polish Minister of National Defence, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared a state of Martial Law on December 13, 1981, and tanks once again rolled through the streets. Though Solidarity was officially dissolved, and its leaders imprisoned, it continued to operate underground. When in 1984, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, Solidarity’s chaplain, was abducted and murdered by the secret police over a million people attended his funeral.

Renewed labour strikes and a faltering economy forced Jaruzelski into initiating talks with opposition figures in 1988, and the following year Solidarity was once again granted legal status. Participating in Poland’s first postcommunist election the party swept to victory, with Wałęsa leading from the front. Lech Wałęsa became the first freely elected president of Poland in December 1990 and served until 1995 when he lost the following election to Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist.

In spite of overseeing Poland’s transition to a market economy, the members of Solidarity started to splinter into new political groupings and the party gradually found its power being eroded by the emergence of fresher political parties. In the 2000 elections,  the party which changed history failed to even make the minimum vote required to qualify for representation in Parliament.

Though its political marginalisation has been a result of the democratic process it had helped to reinstate, Solidarity is still politically active, remains PL’s largest trade union, and is internationally recognised as the catalyst that pushed the first domino in a chain of events that helped other countries in the USSR regain their independence, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. While a number of individuals lost their lives for the cause, the movement promoted nonviolence and Polish independence was achieved peacefully. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the August Accords in 2010, US President Barack Obama stated that

“Through the Solidarity movement, the people of Poland reminded us of the power each of us has to write our own destiny. In the face of tyranny and oppression, they chose freedom and democracy and, in doing so, changed their country and the course of history”.

In 2019 Poland, celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence and democracy. In the national marketing campaign, the instantly-recognisable Solidarność type-set has been used everywhere, symbolic of how much of an effect the movement has had on Poland and the world.

View of the Shipyard from the ECS; BHP Building in the foreground, Directorate behind it.



This huge 5-storey facility just outside the entrance to the Gdańsk Shipyards was opened  on August 30, 2014 -  the 34th anniversary of the signing of the August Accords  - winning several design and culture awards. Its existence and success provided the impetus for the associated BHP Hall, Gate No. 2, Plac Solidarności and the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970  to receive the European Heritage Label, which identifies sites which ‘have played an important role in European history and culture, and relate to the idea of uniting, as well as democratic and humanistic values of timeless significance.’ As the new focal point of these sites, the stated aim of the European Solidarity Centre (Europejskie Centrum Solidarność, or ECS for short)  is to ‘become the world’s centre for the ideas of freedom, democracy and solidarity to be fostered.’ The ECS is free to enter and in addition to its primary function as a museum (not free), also includes the lovely ground-floor atrium filled with trees and greenery, several conference halls, library archives and reading rooms, a gift shop, cafe, restaurant,  roof-top terrace with great views of the surrounding shipyards, and  the amazing  Play Department (p.76),  which allows you to leave your children in a massive supervised playground that features ball pits, climbing nets and obstacle courses. The  permanent exhibition of the ECS occupies seven different halls over two storeys and a total floorspace of  3,000m 2 . Combining  traditional display methods with some truly impressive state-of-the-art technology, the interactive displays offer a wealth of authentic documents and artefacts, 3D projections, photographs and film footage. The narrative it weaves is a long one, beginning with the story of Anna Walentynowicz, the widespread striking in August  1980  following over a decade of tension, and the birth of the Solidarity movement.  Lech Wałęsa’s emergance as Solidarity’s unlikely leader is well-covered, as is the Polish-born Pope John Paul II’s visit to his homeland, reigniting the movement, an effect leading not only PL, but all the occupied countries of the Communist Bloc down a road to freedom. In the final two sections, the triumph of democratic elections in Poland leads to the emergence of many independent European nations, as they break away from the crumbling Soviet Union. With so much to take in (including the rooftop terrace), allow yourself 2 to 3 hours to view the exhibition comfortably. Excellent audio guides are available in Polish, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish  and the local Kashubian language. There are also audio descriptions for the visually impaired and sign language and loops for the hearing impaired; the entire space is designed to be accessible to all. One of the Tricity’s most important cultural centre’s, don’t skip this one. Q B‑1, Plac Solidarności 1, Gdańsk, tel. (+48) 58 772 41 12, www.ecs.gda.pl. Open 10:00-19:00; Sat, Sun 10:00-20:00. From October open 10:00-17:00; Sat, Sun 10:00-18:00; closed Tue. Admission to the permanent exhibition 20/15zł, family ticket 55zł. Play department 9zł per child per hour. TU

European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk 


Gate #2

The #2 gate of the Gdańsk Shipyard is where Lech Wałęsa stood to announce to the waiting crowds the deal that had been struck with the Communist government in 1980. Listed as a historical monument, the image of the gate decked in flowers and photos of Pope John Paul II is one of the most enduring of that era, and even today you’ll still see them placed here regularly.Q B‑1, ul. Doki 1, Gdańsk.


Lying right outside Gate no. 2, this monument was unveiled in 1980 to commemorate the events of 1970 when 45 people died during street riots protesting the communist regime. Along with wage demands and the right to form free trade unions, the right to erect this memorial was one of Solidarity’s main demands during the 1980 lock-in. The 42-metre, 139-tonne steel sculpture stands on the spot where the first three victims of the 1970 riots were killed - a cross for each victim, each with an anchor at the top, while at the bottom their struggling comrades are depicted. A poignant inscription by Czesław Miłosz reads, ‘You who have harmed simple man, mocking him with your laughter, you kill him, someone else will be born, and your deeds and words will be written down.’ Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa had his own poetic moment with the monument, referring to it as “a harpoon driven through the body of a whale. No matter how hard the whale struggles, it can never get rid of it.”Q B‑1, Pl. Solidarności, Gdańsk.


Just metres from the ECS, the historic BHP Hall is where the meetings during the August 1980 strikes took place, and where the landmark August Accords were actually signed. The hall houses a small exhibition entitled ‘Shipyard Solidarity’ which shows images from the period when the movement was at the height of its power, as well as Communist era signs and Solidarity flags and banners. There is also a recreation of the long table where Government representatives and Solidarity leaders led by Lech Wałęsa signed the historic agreement. Today the hall is again used for discussions and conferences set against this historic backdrop.Q C‑1, ul. ks. Jerzego Popiełuszki 6, Gdańsk, tel. (+48) 58 308 42 24, www.salabhp.pl. Open 10:00-18:00. Admission free.


Just across the road from the BHP Building, you might recognise this large red-brick building in the background of Stanisław Składanowski’s famous photo of Wałęsa being carried shoulder-high by burly colleagues after successfully negotiating the August Accords. Housing the shipyard directors’ offices in both the pre- and post-war periods, today it’s home to the temporary offices of the European Solidarity Centre as well as those of BPTO, the developer of Young City Gdańsk. Although difficult to make out now, the area in front of the building was the shipyard parade ground where public meetings were held and crowds here have been addressed by figures as diverse as Lech Wałęsa and Nazi leader Albert Forster.Q ul. Doki 1, Gdańsk.

Lech Wałęsa

Lech Walesa is hoisted through the Lenin Shipyard following the signing of the August Accords, August 31, 1980. 
Stanisław Składanowski / ECS Collection

Credited as the driving force behind the Solidarity movement, as well as the man who revived a postcommunist Poland, Lech Wałęsa remains, for many, the public face of Poland, as well as Gdańsk’s most famous resident.

Born on September 29, 1943 Wałęsa’s early life was largely anonymous. Working in his early days as a mechanic it was only in 1967 when he began work at Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyards that he began his rise to prominence. A keen trade unionist he frequently found himself in trouble with the authorities, and his political activities led to a stint in prison that ultimately cost him his job.

In 1980, with the Shipyards on strike, an unemployed Wałęsa scaled a wall, gave an impromptu speech and found himself thrust into the spotlight as the accidental hero of the protests. Having successfully led negotiations for workers’ rights it was he who signed the August Accords of 1980. Marked by the government as an undesirable influence, he was immediately placed under arrest when martial law was announced in 1981. Released a year later, Wałesa’s actions and those he represented were recognised in 1983 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

As the figurehead of the Solidarity movement, and with the communist state crumbling, Wałęsa led roundtable talks with the government to formulate a power-sharing scheme. Partly free elections in 1989 led to blanket wins for Solidarity, signalling the last days of communism.

In 1990 he became Poland’s first democratically elected, post-communist president, a position he held until 1995. Although respected and admired as an opposition leader, Walesa saw his popularity wane while in power. Many Poles began to consider his blunt, unsophisticated manner of speaking, and lack of English language skills as unbefitting a head of state. In the 1995 elections Wałęsa was beaten by Aleksander Kwasniewski, who, despite being a former Communist, was seen as a better representative abroad. Many accused Wałęsa of having failed to deliver on many of his promises, having stolen the glory of the people’s revolution for himself and even of having worked for the secret services under communism. In recent years, however, Mr. Wałęsa’s popularity has grown again, particularly among the younger generations.

Since his political retirement he spends his days often lecturing abroad speaking on subjects close to his heart: democracy, civil liberty and the free market.