Polish workers strike, stop price increases, 1976

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Timing
Time Period:  
June 25
1976
to
June 25
1976
Location and Goals
Country: 
Poland
Location City/State/Province: 
Cities included Warsaw, Radom, Gdynia, Gdansk, Plock, Grudziądz, Gryfino, Szczecin, Lodz, Elbląg, Poznań, Radomsko, Starachowice, and Wrocław
Goals: 
To prevent Parliament from passing the proposed price increases
 

Following World War II, the Soviet Union set up a government, the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party), in Poland that did not permit workers at state-owned factories and businesses to represent their interests in labor unions independently from Party commands. After a series of strikes in 1970, workers abandoned their hopes of forming independent labor unions in exchange for prospects of economic growth promised by First Party Secretary Gierek.

A short lived economic boom ended as food shortages spread in 1975. The state was no longer able to afford 12% GDP spent on food subsidies. Prime Minister Jaroszewicz oversaw a committee that drafted proposals for price reform. Though many ministers and officials believed the price increases were too steep, the Politburo (the Party’s executive committee) unanimously approved the reform package.

On 24 June 1976, the Prime Minister presented the legislation to the Sejm (Parliament) and announced it on national television. Food increases were staggering, raising the prices of meat by 50-70%, sausage by 90%, and sugar by 100%. The reforms adjusted wages to assist low-paid workers, though these increases were at most 23%, ranging from 240-600 zloty (US$7-$18) per month. The state promised to consult with factory representatives, who represented state-owned factory interests and not worker interests. In preparation for anticipated strikes, the state had military and security units patrolled the streets and conscripted people into the military, including “unofficial workers’ leaders”, “the negatively politically active”, “criminals”, previous strike leaders, and certain intellectuals.

Workers across the country began to strike on the morning of 25 June. At 6:00 a.m., workers in Plock at Mazowiecki Refinery and Petrochemical Works went on strike. Workers from area factories marched to the Regional Party Committee building around midday, singing “We from razed villages, we from starving cities”, the Internationale, and patriotic songs.

In Ursus, a suburb of Warsaw, workers in the Tractor Factory gathered early in the morning and demanded to speak with PZPR representatives and authorities. The manager and the factory party secretary could not calm the workers, who left and occupied the Kutno-Warsaw and Warsaw-Skierniewice rail lines. They stopped a train and demanded that price increases be dropped before releasing it. The workers took food from the trains and passed it out to the strikers and passersby.

Meanwhile, workers in Radom from the Walter Metal Factory stopped work early in the morning and gathered in the courtyard. Factory management failed to calm the workers, who left at 8:30 a.m. to connect with workers at other factories, including Radoskor (a leather factory), Blaszanka (a tin can factory), and ZSG (a heating equipment factory). Together they marched to the building of the PZPR Regional Committee, joined by more workers from the Telephone Factory, the Tobacco Factories, and the Rolling Stock Repair Shop, along with students, housewives and passersby. About 6,000 workers marched with red flags and sang the Polish national anthem and the Internationale.

Deputy PZPR Regional Secretary Adamczyk appeared in Radom to try to calm the workers. A woman told the official that she was a widowed mother who could not afford food for her children at the new prices. He replied that she should not have taken her children to the march if she cared for them. In response, the woman hit him with her shoe.

When a man protested he could not afford enough work clothes for his job, strikers stripped Adamczyk of his clothing and threw stones at the official. As workers from other factories arrived, they made barricades and ignited one of the streets with gasoline. They burned their party cards and forwarded petitions calling for an end to the price rises and improved working conditions.

As workers in Plock, Ursus, and Radom mobilized in the morning, so did workers along the Baltic coast. Workers in Gdynia organized a sit-in strike at the shipyards and workers in Gdansk blocked the entrance of the Lenin Shipyard. At 9:00 a.m. they went to the administration building and demanded to speak with PZPR authorities. Officials tried to calm the demonstrators, but workers expressed their anger when one Party official addressed them as “comrades”, a term they said referred to PZPR people not citizens of Poland. Workers told the shipyard director that they made very little wages and had to work overtime, spending 300 hours each month at the shipyard, just to feed their families.

There were several strikes and work-stoppages in Grudziadz, including one of the Pomeranian Casting and Enameling Factories (POiE). The POiE in Mniszek also held a strike but management persuaded the strikers to return to work.

There were work-stoppages in at least sixteen factories in Lodz, but the strikes did not move from the factories into the streets. At the Transformer and Traction Apparatus Factory in Lodz, workers held a strike and had a mass meeting with management where a representative from the assembly department, Zdzislaw Bednarek, spoke about how workers did not want to repeat the violence of 1970, that they wanted parliamentary democracy and free trade unions, and that the lowest paid groups should receive wage increases.

There were other workers that held strikes in towns such as Szczecin and Gryfino. Many organized sit-in strikes, elected strike committees, and chose leaders who gave speeches, such as Nowak in Dolna Odra Electric Power station.

In total over 80,000 workers mobilized to organize strikes in over 130 factories to stop the price increases. Though workers from different factories joined together in Ursus and Radom, many organized independent of one another in other cities.

The Party called for the use of repressive action against demonstrators with the support of the police, security service (SB), and the paramilitary group called ZOMO. In Radom, thousands of security force officers arrived with crowd control equipment, grenade launchers, water cannons, armored cars, and riot gear.

Upon finding stores of meat in the PZPR building, demonstrators destroyed furniture and set the building on fire. They retreated to other government buildings at 3:00 p.m., where they hurled stones and Molotov cocktails.

As security forces continued repressive action in cities like Radom, Prime Minister Jaroszewicz decided to appear on national television at 8:00 p.m. to call off the price increases. As the media and other workers spread this message through to the demonstrators, many called off their strikes. In Ursus, police attacked workers with tear gas, concussion grenades, and truncheons after workers began to disperse. They attacked until dawn, beat demonstrators unconscious, and even detained a pregnant woman by force.

Following the worker strikes and state repression of 25 June, the Party staged a press campaign, mass meetings, and demonstrations in cities such as Warsaw, Radom, Gdansk and Szczecin starting 27 June to discredit the strikers and create the image of popular support for the regime. In addition to staged rallies, the state staged a campaign of letters of support to Gierek and Jaroszewicz.

Sources estimate that between 10,000 and 20,000 workers were dismissed from work, between 2,500 and 6,000 were arrested, and between 53 (official report) and 5,000 were sentenced by misdemeanor tribunals. Many sentenced to fines, community service, and prison sentences faced false charges, were denied counsel, and had only police officers as witnesses.

In July, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski of the Catholic Church wrote a letter to the government in support of the workers, calling on the state to restore their rights and jobs, compensate their injuries, amnesty their sentences, and open dialogue with society.

A small group of members among the Polish intelligentsia, led by Jacek Kuron and Antoni Macierewicz, organized the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). They grounded their activity on moral and social grounds rather than political ones, they operated overtly, publicly and legally, and they did not bother with statutes, officers or dues. They worked to provide financial, medical, and legal assistance for arrested workers and their families.

In July 1977, KOR succeeded in getting all workers amnestied and reinstated, though often in lower positions. The state thought that KOR would disband after the amnesty decision, but instead the organization grew. They were committed to exerting constant pressure on authorities, publicizing the state’s campaign of repression through open letters, newspapers and manifestos, and organizing with workers to form strike committees and free trade unions. It was extraordinary that under conditions of dictatorship the dissenting group KOR insisted on operating in its overt and public way.

Workers mobilized and took direct and collective action against the PZPR, and Polish intellectuals responded to the repressive violence of the state. This mobilization gained momentum as both workers and intelligentsia participated in the ruch oporu (opposition movement) from 1976-1980. As they learned to organize themselves, articulate their demands, and unite their efforts, they became better prepared for further action. The June 1976 strikes, along with the formation of KOR, became important events in the process of democratization in Poland, the formation of Solidarność (Solidarity), and the end of the communist government. (see cases: “Polish workers general strike for economic rights, 1980” and “Solidarność (Solidarity) brings down the communist government of Poland, 1988-89”)

Research Notes
Sources: 
Bernhard, Michael H. The Origins of Democratization in Poland: Workers, Intellectuals and Oppositional Politics, 1976-1980. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Falk, Barbara J. The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings. New York, Central European University Press, 2003.

Laba, Roman. The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

"Solidarity." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/553374/Solidarity>.

Additional Notes: 
Though not intended as injurious to opponents, strikers in Ursus ripped up rail road tracks and strikers in Radom destroyed furniture and windows in the PZPR building before lighting it on fire. In most other cities, strikes remained within individual factories and workers did not leave to meet up in the streets.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nick Palazzolo, 24/02/2013