14 August 1980: Gdansk shipyard strike begins

On this day in 1980, dockworkers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk downed tools, leading to the formation of the Solidarity trade union.

People outside the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk © AFP via Getty Images
The Gdansk strike gave birth to the Solidarity union
(Image credit: © AFP via Getty Images)

After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union installed a puppet government in Poland. The government imposed the communist economic system on the country, resulting in living standards falling behind the West. It also meant that independent trade unions were banned.

In 1970, Polish dockworkers tried to strike over higher food prices, only to be forced back to work by the army. Around 40 people were killed by the army and militia during the protests.

Discontent continued to grow and by the late 1970s, the beginning of an underground trade union movement began to emerge. The defining moment came when the government once more decided to raise food prices. On 14 August 1980, the dockworkers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk downed tools again. Electrician and pro-democracy activist Lech Walesa became their de-facto leader.

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Crucially, Walesa persuaded workers at other plants to join them, bringing the country to a halt. Within days, Warsaw backed down, allowing dockworkers to form their own trade union, Solidarity.

As one of the few independent organisations in Poland, Solidarity became the focal point for discontent. By 1981, its popularity was such that the Polish government declared martial law, ostensibly to forestall the Soviet Union taking matters in its own hands.

Despite this repression, Solidarity was too powerful to suppress and it was partially legalised in 1986. With the economy imploding and the Soviet Union unable to send in troops, Solidarity played a key role in the collapse of the Communist system. In August 1990, Walesa was elected president of Poland.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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