Collection of over sixty items published by or related to Solidarność [Solidarity], Poland’s and the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union and the seat of Polish opposition in the 1980s.

Poland: 1981–1988. Various sizes and formats. Very good or better. Item #6179

Fascinating collection of handbills, stickers, leaflets, informational brochures and smaller ephemera (including one secret elections ballot for June 1981) issued by Solidarność in 1981–1988, the years of the union’s greatest activity. The material makes palpable the presence of the Polish opposition in the social and political life of the 1980s. Led by Lech Walesa and Anna Walentynowicz, the workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk founded Solidarność in 1980, and the anchor on their printed materials refers to this shipyard. Independent worker’s unions were not legal in Poland and the rest of the Eastern bloc, however, as Timothy Gordon Ash writes: “Even in the worst years of Stalinism, Polish communism was distinguished by half-measures, partially executed” (The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, p.10). Illegal non-government unions (such as WZZ or Free Trade Unions of the Coast) started to form in the 1970s, but Solidarność was the first non-government union to be recognized by the Polish government and thus marks a turning point for the Polish opposition. In August 1980, Solidarność reached an agreement with the government known as the Gdansk Agreement that included the legalization of independent trade unions, the right to strike, and freedom of access to information. At its height in 1980, the union counted almost 10 million members.

Many of these gains of the Gdansk Agreement were negated during the Polish martial law (1981-1983), however Solidarność continued its work as can be gleaned from the items in this collection such as a flier endorsing Lech Wałęsa for an October 1982 union election, as well as a satirical poem titled “Raven’s Nest” (dated 1982), which points to Warsaw as the seat of the enemy. Ten small flyers (most marked 1983) endorse Solidarność as fighting for democracy and peace, and against totalitarianism and nuclear weapons. Larger placards urge the release of political prisoners. A case study in Solidarność visual strategies, the fliers communicate with laconic yet direct imagery and a color palette of pink, blue, orange, purple and green, clearly distinguishing itself from the primary colors of most if the Soviet bloc propaganda. The materials are also printed and copied using rudimentary printing methods, clearly prioritizing quantity. Some of the handbills were passed out during strikes and demonstrations, others were inserted into Solidarność periodical publications such as Tygodnyk Solidarność and Marzowe Weekly. A wide publishing network was key to the work of the union, and Solidarność collaborated with independent publishing houses such as Rytm and NOWa. Describing the phenomenon, Siobhan Doucette writes: “The independent press provided the opposition to the Polish communist regime wth a flexible national network, which by 1989 embraced a civil society that overthrew communist rule. […] As a primary focus for opposition activism and the principal forum for independent debates, the independent press from 1976 to 1989 reveals the ways in which one of the most effective trumphant civil resistance movements of the twentieth century achieved ts ends” (Books are Weapons: The Polish Oppositional Press, and the Overthrow of Communism, p. 245). In fact, Lech Wałęsa, one of the leaders of Solidarność, was to become Poland’s first freely elected president in 1990. This collection of Solidarność ephemera provides a glimpse into the semi-clandestine development of the powerful social movement.