14 August 1980: Gdansk shipyard strike begins

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.

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.

Also on this day

14 August 1893: World’s first driving licences introduced

The ‘Paris Police Ordinance’ took effect on this day in 1893, requiring number plates on cars,and introducing the world’s first driving licences. Read more here.