1980 – Polish workers’ strike and the Orange Alternative

In post-war Poland, workers could not organize or represent themselves. During the 1970s, frustration with the one-party system grew and by the end of the decade, countrywide strikes had led to the formation of unofficial unions and eventually the political party Solidarity, which paved the way for democracy nine years later. Amidst a flourishing of protest, students in a movement called the Orange Alternative used absurdity to mock the Communist government.

On June 30, 1980, a 60% price increase in meat triggered strikes in factories throughout Poland. Workers occupied shipyards and factories. By treating these strikes individually, the government hoped to keep the workers divided. However, this encouraged the formation of discussion groups and associations for collective decision-making, and these newly formed networks established unofficial unions.

At first the government had faith in its strategy of partial concessions, but as the strikes drew on, it started arresting strikers most committed to the idea of 'free trade unions’. Soon after, the cities of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia joined the general strike. The Gdansk-based Inter-factory Strike Committee (MKS) elected Lech Walesa, a shipyard electrician, as its head, and expanded its demands, calling for free unions, access to the media, repeal of all repressive measures and an end to certain ruling class privileges.

The government ignored the MKS, and soon a general strike had spread throughout Poland. By late August, the MKS – which represented nearly 400,000 workers, and had received support from foreign trade unions and media – presented its 21 demands to the regime, which agreed to free unions, wage increases, and limits on censorship.

Work resumed in both Gdansk and Szczecin on September 1 and the two MKS committees were converted into branches of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the free national trade union. By the end of September, nearly 90% of all workers were represented by Solidarity.

The flourishing of dissent also led to other lesser-known forms of resistance. One, the Orange Alternative, used street happenings and absurdist provocations to ridicule the Communist regime and promote independent thinking. Their actions included graffiti, distributing toilet paper (a consumer product in short supply at the time), and singing Stalinist hymns while holding hands around the orangutan cage at the Warsaw Zoo. Most memorably, they organized a march of 10,000 people in orange dwarf hats. “How can you treat a police officer seriously,” notes founder Waldemar Fydrych, “when he is asking you the question: ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?’”

Solidarity meanwhile continued to grow considerably, using strikes to exercise power against the single party regime. What began as a labour organization supported by workers soon became more of a national reform lobby with membership reaching 10 million. Soviet suspension of the organization in 1981 meant it would take a new wave of strikes and underground resistance by Solidarity to rebuild the Polish nation on a multi-party democratic model, but by then, change was inevitable.