Many know Gdansk as the place that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s where bold strikes by Polish shipyard workers, led by Lech Walesa in the 1980s, created the Solidarity movement resulting in them successfully unionizing under the threatening watch of Poland’s Communist government. As a journalism student back then, I remember watching developments on television news programs night after night and wondering whether army tanks would roll in and crack down on the strikers.
Opened in 2014, the European Solidarity Center highlights those events with archive video, interactive exhibits and actual shipyard artifacts including an overhead crane, helmets, lockers and even a shipyard vehicle similar to ones that Lech Walesa would stand on to announce new developments to the anxious workers cramming the shipyard grounds. “In 1980, the shipyard was the company that had 17,000 employees. It was a city within the city,” says spokeswoman Magdalena Charkin-Jaszcza.
There are also the original plywood panels on which the workers scribbled their 21 demands including the right to form free trade unions, the right to strike and guaranteeing strikers’ safety, freedom of speech and print, and to release political prisoners who were fired during earlier strikes. I particularly liked archival video of Lech Walesa and his fellow strikers – in smoky rooms for long hours – negotiating with government representatives to form a trade union.
Another exhibit room represents how important it was that people joined the strikers in support of Solidarity. “What we are trying show here is the only way Solidarity could be created was that 10 million stood together to join the movement,” explains Magdalena. “What really created Solidarity was those people coming together and changing the world around them.”
Other rooms include exhibits on when the Communist government imposed martial law and outlawed the unions, Polish-born Pope John Paul II’s influence on the movement, and exhibits on those killed when the government cracked down on protesting workers in 1970. Outside the center is the 130-foot-high Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers.