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The Godmother of Solidarity

The crash of the presidential plane near Smolensk earlier this week claimed the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and many of Poland’s highest ranking political and military officials. Also killed in that tragic accident was Anna Walentynowicz, the so-called “godmother” of the Polish Solidarity movement.
Back in 1980, Poland existed under the crushing weight of the Soviet communist regime. Working conditions were poor and workers’ rights were essentially non-existent. Basic essentials of life, which we take for granted, were scarce and prices were on the rise while workers wages were curbed.
Under the Soviet regime, workers’ attempts at organizing for the purpose of gaining improved conditions were quashed. Trade unions were illegal in Poland and, in 1970, a labour dispute in Gdansk resulted in the deaths (described in some locations as the “brutal murder”) of some 80 workers.
In 1980, the combination of the grim economic situation, a constrictive political climate, and the desperate plight of workers came to a head. An electrician named Lech Walesa, who would become the figurehead of the Polish labour movement, was fired from his job at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk.
Soon thereafter, Anna Walentynowicz - a popular crane-operator and workplace activist at the same shipyards, was also fired from her job. According to numerous published accounts, Walentynowicz had become disillusioned with the Polish communist party, having seen that workers were not allowed to organize and that their concerns were not being addressed.  
She reportedly began her campaign for justice when one of her bosses stole money from the employees.  Editor of the Polish labour newsletter, “Robotnik Wybrzeza” (Coastal Worker), Walentynowicz distributed the illegal newspaper in person at her workplace (the story is that she often handed it directly to her bosses).
Apparently for her participation in illegal trade union activities – and it doesn’t appear that she made any attempt to hide them - Walentynowicz was fired just months before she was due to retire. Combined with the previous firing of Walesa, the dismissal of Walentynowcz has been described as galvanizing the workers into taking action.
This was one of the seeds from which the Polish “Solidarity” movement sprouted. describes Solidarity as an “independent labour union instrumental in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the primary catalyst that would transform Poland from a repressive communist satellite to the EU member democracy it is today.”
The Lenin Shipyards strike sparked a popular revolt and resulted, a few weeks later, in the reinstatement of both Walentynowcz and Walesa to their employment. On the larger stage, the workers’ actions forced the Polish government to accept numerous concessions (referred to as the “Gdansk Agreement”) including the right to strike. Buoyed by their successes, the workers formed the national labour union, Solidarity, in September of 1980.
But these initial successes were short-lived. In late 1981, the communist government’s opposition of the fledgling labour movement was bolstered by the appointment of General Wojciech Jaruzelski. (It never seems to be a good sign when a general is appointed to lead a government). 
Jaruzelki’s government declared martial law and arrested many Solidarity leaders and supporters and, in 1982, Solidarity was outlawed. The international community widely condemned the actions of the Communist government but the persecution of Solidarity’s members continued.
It wasn’t until the emergence of Mikhail Gorbechev and the implementation of his certain political, social, and economic reforms that the tide began to turn. A second Solidarity emerged in late 1986 and, by 1989, a Solidarity-led coalition government had been formed with a Solidarity representative elected to the position of Prime Minister (the first non-communist Prime Minister anywhere in eastern Europe in over 40 years).
The communist regime in Poland had effectively collapsed and events were in motion which would lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. Only months later, the Berlin Wall would fall, eliminating one of the cornerstones of the “iron curtain”.
In all of this, a crane operator named Anna Walentynowicz was a pivotal player. Polish citizens, expatriates, and labour advocates world-wide will be mourning the passing of a woman whose courage and determination truly helped change the world.
Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto