If Polish law supposes that a huge social movement can be voted out of existence, then, as Mr. Bumble put it, "the law is a ass, a idiot." No sooner had the Polish Parliament passed its new trade union law, designed primarily to ban Solidarity, than the underground leaders of the movement called for a nationwide strike on November 10.
As it happened, the strike was less than a success, in large part because an underground movement is unable to paralyze a country controlled by soldiers. But it did, in a roundabout way, achieve the release of Lech Walesa after eleven months of internment, and that is important in itself. It was on the eve of the nationwide strike that the Catholic Church, perhaps fearful of bloodshed, came to an agreement with martial law authorities, in effect bargaining for the liberation of Walesa by attempting to sell out Solidarity.
The deal did not quite go as planned. After his release, it took Walesa a couple of days to get to his home in Gdansk. A taped television interview with him was made and publicized but never released by the Polish authorities. In the public statements he did make, he did not sound like a corporal addressing his general but an independent and reasonable labor leader speaking on behalf of the Polish working class.
Given the present political stalemate, this man, armed with just his voice, still matters. The military may control, but it does not have any success in wooing the workers, as shown by the dearth of volunteers for the government’s pro- posed new unions. Walesa does, and hence his significance, now and in the foreseeable future.
Solidarity, under whatever name, is thus very far from finished. All that the ban accomplished was to make it easier to get rid of some of the fashionable distortions surrounding its struggle and to perceive that struggle with a new clarity. Fundamentally it is a conflict between rulers who, to preserve their absolute power, must not only break the labor movement but in some Orwellian fashion deprive it of its collective memory and a working class which, in trying to defend its conquests, is really defending the paramount interests of the society at large.
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The new trade union law is hardly significant in itself, though if the labor movement had not previously made such tremendous strides some of its provisions might have aroused interest. After all, it does provide that new unions will be theoretically independent of the party and the government and will have the right to strike. But that right, like most others, is so circumscribed by provisions for advance warnings and compulsory arbitration and jurisdictional restrictions that it remains rather empty. The law even goes so far as to forbid any industrywide organizing until 1984 and any Solidarity-like association among unions until 1985.
The enactment of the law was important for other reasons. It was an ostentatious signal of the authorities’ refusal to compromise and an open display of their political power. In the handpicked Sejm, or Parliament, only 12 out of 460 deputies dared vote against it, and 9 abstained. Among the dissenters, the most notable was Jan Szczepanski, a prominent sociologist who has hovered for some time on the liberal fringes of the Polish establishment. As late as last December, as a member of the Council of State, he contributed his signature to the document that provided a legal cloak for the military coup. Like a surprising number of Western liberals, he was still giving General Jaruzelski the benefit of the doubt. Through his vote he has now admitted he was utterly, wrong.