Surviving the Underground

How American Unions Helped Solidarity Win

Twenty-five years ago, a group of shipyard workers launched a strike that united Poland and, eventually, toppled the Communist government. The Polish people had lived under Soviet rule since the end of World War II; by 1980, they had endured decades of corrupt officials and economic decline—they were ready for drastic action. Solidarity, the independent trade union that was born during the strike, grew into an irrepressible national movement. During the years of harsh government repression following the imposition of martial law in December 1981, the Solidarity movement survived—thanks, in part, to support from the American labor movement. The AFL-CIO, under then-President Lane Kirkland, was one of the few institutions in America (or anywhere) that believed Solidarity could win and that communism could be defeated. After seven years of underground activity that included bold protests and strikes by Solidarity members, the Polish government finally agreed to partially-free elections. Solidarity won in a landslide, inspiring people across Eastern Europe to bring down their own Communist regimes. We celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Gdansk strike with a photo essay documenting Solidarity's birth, survival, and victory and with this excerpt from the biography of Lane Kirkland, who was president of the AFL-CIO throughout this extraordinary period and oversaw American labor's extraordinary contribution to this cause.


It all began on August 14, 1980, when workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, a Baltic port city, launched a strike against the management of the state-owned enterprise. On one level, the strike was a response to the Communist regime's announcement of major increases in the price of basic foods and the dismissal of several popular workers. But in a broader sense, the strike's target was Communism itself: Communism's elaborate system of control; its endemic corruption and favoritism; its identification with Poland's historic enemy, Russia; its atheism; the lies of its press; and, ultimately, its denial of basic worker rights, a denial that the authorities justified in the name of the working class.

Lane Kirkland, president of America's labor federation, the AFL-CIO, was among the first to grasp the significance of the burgeoning strike movement in August 1980. As the strike spread from Gdansk to other Baltic port cities and then to steel mills, tractor factories, and textile enterprises, he noted the high degree of organization, the shrewd tactical instincts, and the self-discipline of the workers. Where in the past Polish workers had given vent to their anger through indiscriminate protests and riots, they now acted like veteran trade unionists in a developed capitalist society, occupying factories, mobilizing the support of the broader community, selecting leaders and negotiating committees through democratic processes, and putting forward demands that ranged from issues of workplace safety to broader questions of civil rights for the entire Polish population. This was the beginning of Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union that would—after a nine-year struggle—topple Poland's Communist regime, and put into motion the dynamic that toppled communism virtually everywhere.

Kirkland was intrigued with descriptions of Lech Walesa. An electrician who had been fired for his labor activism at the Lenin yard, Walesa seemed the epitome of the charismatic working-class hero, a man with little formal education and lacking in strong ideological passions, outside of a devotion to the Catholic Church and an instinctive love of freedom. Under his leadership, Solidarity advanced a series of 21 demands in talks with the regime, ranging from such fundamental workplace issues as the right to join independent unions and an increase in the minimum wage to broader issues like an end to censorship, the broadcasts of Sunday masses on state television, and union representation on the self-governing committees of state-owned enterprises. A number of the demands were related to the rights of religious belief. From the outset, the Solidarity leadership regarded the Polish-born pope, John Paul II, as a kind of spiritual father to their cause. The pope's pilgrimage to Poland in June of 1979 is widely recognized as the spark that led to Solidarity as a massive, but nonviolent, movement to speak the truth in the face of the Communist government's lies. The pope's steadfast support, even in the darkest moments, remained an inspiration throughout the periods of conflict and crisis during the 1980s.

Finally, Kirkland took especially careful note during the Gdansk strike of the Communist regime's seeming impotence in the face of what was fast becoming a movement for worker rights, free expression, and civil liberties that embraced practically the entire Polish nation. The authorities carefully refrained from violence, there were few arrests, and when it became clear that the strike leadership intended to ignore the regime's pleadings and bluster, the government did the unthinkable: Eight days after the strike began, the Polish government sat down and bargained with its workers and, in the end, agreed to most of the strikers' demands.

I. Kirkland and the AFL-CIO vs. the Establishment

One week into the strike, Kirkland made clear the American labor federation's intention to provide assistance to the Polish workers—a position that put him at odds with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including high officials in then-President Carter's administration. In U.S. diplomatic circles, a consensus view prevailed that the Soviets were determined to thwart all challenges to their domination of Eastern Europe and that anti-Communist movements like Solidarity were doomed to fail. In Europe, diplomats seemed to resent the Polish workers for complicating relations with the Kremlin.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment also believed that the West should refrain from giving assistance to forces that posed a threat to the East European status quo, on the grounds that Western "intervention" would provide Moscow with a pretext for military response. Kirkland, however, flatly rejected the proposition that aid from Western trade unions would provoke official repression or a Soviet invasion. His credo in such matters was summarized in his answer to the press:

I believe that the Soviet Union and its vassal Polish government will take such actions as it deems in its interests. I believe that the main deterrent to such action would be (a) the hope they might have that the strike would simply collapse and the workers revert to a condition of servitude and exploitation; (b) that such action would not be cost-free.

Every spokesman for freedom in Iron Curtain countries with whom we have had contact ... has strongly asserted the proposition that their survival and inspiration depend very heavily on support and attention and publicity from the Free World. I have never heard one of them ... suggest that the strongest possible expressions of support, publicity, and attention did them harm.... I'm unable to convince myself that better deeds are going to be done in the dark than will be done in the broad daylight of attention and vocal and public support.1

Earlier, Teddy Gleason, president of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), announced that his union, which represented 110,000 dockworkers at ports on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, would launch a boycott of Polish shipments. Kirkland, meanwhile, dispatched letters to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Transport Workers' Federation, requesting support for the ILA action.2

On August 31, 1980, Kirkland told Meet the Press that the international labor movement would impose a massive transportation blockade on Polish goods if matters were not soon resolved. He also announced that the AFL-CIO would be providing Solidarity with cash and other assistance. But Kirkland already saw the Polish developments as having the potential to set off a long and arduous struggle to liberate East Europeans from the Soviet maw. "For the first time a pluralistic institution has been accepted within a Communist regime," he noted, "with consequences that could be quite far-reaching."3 Few others could claim to share Kirkland's prescience.

From the very outset, then, Kirkland regarded the Polish workers' movement—soon to be formally constituted as a union and given the name Solidarnosc, or Solidarity—as a phenomenon altogether different in character and potential from the samizdat (underground) manifestoes and dissident protests that had emerged throughout the Soviet bloc during the 1970s. Intellectual dissidents wrote brilliant polemics and displayed remarkable personal courage in the face of Communist brutality. But until Solidarity, the authorities had shown themselves fully capable of smothering what had always been small, atomized, and factionalized attempts at opposition. When Soviet dissidents, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky were deemed dangerous to the regime, they could be packed off to prison camp or forced into exile. Poland's Communists, however, did not have the option of exiling or jailing an entire working class.

Kirkland's embrace of Solidarity brought him into immediate conflict with the Carter administration. Despite the administration's avowed commitment to human rights, Edmund Muskie, secretary of state, decided that quiet diplomacy was the most prudent course to follow in the Polish crisis. He summoned Kirkland to his office for lunch on September 3, 1980, during which he gave a "negative assessment" of the Polish aid fund that the AFL-CIO had just launched and declared that the federation's open support for Solidarity could be "deliberately misinterpreted" by the Kremlin in order to justify military intervention. Muskie was not alone in deploring labor's Polish initiative. In a New York Times column, Flora Lewis called the Workers Aid Fund "most unfortunate."4

*  *  *

Solidarity did not share the State Department's apprehensions about American labor's involvement in Polish developments. On September 12, Walesa said that outside assistance was welcomed, given the union's lack of resources inside Poland. He pointedly added, "Help can never be politically embarrassing. That of the AFL-CIO, for example. We are grateful to them. It was a very good thing that they helped us. Whenever we can, we will help them, too."5

Although Kirkland and Walesa were not to meet until 1989, there was, from the beginning, a strong bond between the two leaders that transcended their inability to speak to one another directly. Both were committed trade unionists; both believed that international labor solidarity was a powerful force against dictatorship and that Communism, despite its brutal and totalitarian character, was vulnerable to opposition movements that enjoyed mass popular support. Kirkland admired Walesa's audacity—his willingness to ignore the threats of Polish Communists, the rantings of Soviet leaders, and for that matter, the polite advice that emerged from the American embassy in Warsaw. Although Kirkland was unaware at the time, Communist officials had gone to Walesa and urged that Solidarity avoid ties to the AFL-CIO on the grounds that the federation was an instrument of the CIA. "I simply ignored them," Walesa said years later.6 Kirkland's resolve was reinforced by Walesa's expressions of gratitude. Kirkland told U.S. News and World Report that labor would help the Poles "in any way we can, including financially." He again dismissed the proposition that the delivery of aid to the Poles would trigger a Soviet invasion. "I don't believe that the cause of trade unionism was ever advanced on little cat feet. We are a movement of free trade unions, and freedom of expression is the only way we know to conduct our affairs." Besides, he added, the Soviet Union "will act on the basis of its own appraisal of its own interests, not on the basis of anything we might say."7

Kirkland was also aware that in taking on the role of Solidarity's chief Western backer, the AFL-CIO was assuming a unique set of responsibilities. While Kirkland was rock-like in his support for the Polish union, he was never reckless in his comments or actions. He and his aides scrupulously refrained from issuing commentaries on the evolving political situation in Poland. Kirkland also made it a foundation of AFL-CIO policy that in relations with Solidarity, the Americans would adhere to the wishes of Walesa and his advisers and avoid efforts to impose anything that could be construed as an American agenda. "Our policies will be guided by Solidarity's needs," he declared.8

Among Carter's top officials, the most sympathetic to Kirkland's stance on Poland was National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. In December, Brzezinski told Kirkland that American intelligence believed that a Soviet invasion of Poland was imminent; to forestall a catastrophe, Brzezinski was putting together a list of retaliatory measures the United States would take, with the intention of sending it along to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev as a reminder that intervention would not be without consequences. Kirkland told Brzezinski that should the Soviets intervene, a worldwide boycott of the shipment of Polish and Soviet goods—by air, sea, or rail—could be organized, given Solidarity's popularity with unions around the globe. Brzezinski subsequently added the boycott threat to his list.9

By mid-January 1981, the AFL-CIO had raised $160,000 for Solidarity, the money coming from contributions from individual unions, collections at plant gates, and the sale of T-shirts and other Solidarity paraphernalia organized by a youth organization established specifically to raise money for Solidarity and to mobilize pro-Solidarity events on college campuses. The AFL-CIO was not alone in supporting Solidarity; unions from West Germany, France, Japan, and other countries were helping the Polish union with material contributions; the bulk of the money was used to purchase printing equipment and other instruments of communication.10

By the summer of 1981, Kirkland was recognized as Solidarity's most resolute supporter in the Free World. Poland's Communist authorities gave recognition to Kirkland's role by making him one of the few foreigners barred from attending Solidarity's first convention in September 1981, a fact that did not escape the Solidarity delegates. "We figured that if the Communists prohibited Lane Kirkland from attending our congress, he must be our best friend," noted former biology teacher Wiktor Kulerski, a union leader from Warsaw.11 Kirkland's speech was smuggled in and read by a Solidarity leader. The delegates gave the speech a stormy ovation.

Martial Law Declared

It had always been clear that Polish authorities had tolerated the existence of Solidarity because of their own weakened condition, and not from genuine commitment to change. The new Polish leader, General Jaruzelski (who had put down a worker rebellion in 1970), was under intense pressure from the Soviets, who, although unwilling to launch an invasion of Poland, were privately demanding that the Polish party take measures to restore order and eliminate Solidarity. 1981 was marked by clashes between Solidarity and the regime; as the year drew to a close, American intelligence officials received urgent warnings that a major act of repression was imminent.

On December 13, 1981, the regime gave its answer. That night, members of the ZOMO, a special security unit formed to put down manifestations of political opposition, arrested the bulk of the union leadership, including Walesa, as they left a conference in Gdansk. Jaruzelski imposed a series of martial law measures and banned Solidarity. The ZOMO and other security units scoured the country, breaking into apartments and stopping travelers in a nationwide dragnet for union leaders who had eluded arrest in Gdansk.

When martial law was declared, Kirkland pronounced that "[Solidarity's] battle is ours, and we shall not let them down." He also called on Western governments and the ICFTU to immediately plan measures to punish the regime.12

On December 15, Kirkland was summoned to the White House to discuss the Polish crisis with then-President Reagan. Kirkland told Reagan that the administration's response to martial law was inadequate. Asked how he would have the government respond, Kirkland went directly to what he saw as the heart of the matter: the billions in outstanding loans from Western governments and banks that had been extended to Poland over the years in support of unsound development schemes. Kirkland urged, "You should declare them formally in default." Such action, Kirkland added, should be taken with the goal of destroying Poland's credit and making it impossible for the regime to receive further loans. Kirkland also told Reagan that the AFL-CIO intended to get material into the hands of Solidarity's surviving structures through the networks it had developed over the previous year. "We have the contacts ... to do it, and we'll use whatever resources we can, but whatever resources could be provided would be [helpful]." Reagan said he would take Kirkland's views into consideration, and the meeting ended.13

For the duration of the Polish crisis, Kirkland remained critical of the Reagan administration for what he regarded as a consistently inadequate policy toward the Jaruzelski regime. Kirkland believed that the administration's Poland policy was dictated in large means by the Republican party's ties to the world of finance, which vigorously opposed calling in the debt and forcing the Polish government into default.

To be sure, the Reagan administration did adopt sanctions against the Polish regime. But these measures were largely symbolic: the cancellation of landing rights for Lot, the Polish national airline; the denial of commercial fishing permits in American waters; the cancellation of Export-Import Bank insurance for deals with Poland. Reagan took no steps against the Soviets and refused to call in the debt and declare Poland in bankruptcy.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of consistency in its Polish policies, Reagan was not committed to a status quo that forever ceded domination over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Reagan, in fact, actually believed that Communism was destined to collapse, and his policies were designed to move that process along. Within the State Department, however, expectations of change were decidedly less ambitious. Kirkland believed that neither the administration nor the State Department cared whether Solidarity reemerged as a legal trade union. He claimed that the undersecretary of state asked him to recognize the government-created and government-controlled trade union that had been set up to supplant Solidarity. Kirkland replied: "No democracy without Solidarity."14

About one year into martial law, General Jaruzelski announced that all restrictions on Polish society would be lifted—except for the ban on Solidarity, which would remain. Further, when martial law was lifted, about 2,000 political prisoners remained behind bars and the authorities were about to place 11 activists on trial for treason. Within four months, the Reagan administration, despite the continued Solidarity ban, the imprisonments, and the trials, formally eased some of its sanctions.15 Then, in early 1987, the Reagan administration lifted the remaining sanctions. Solidarity was left to struggle forward on its own underground.

II. How the AFL-CIO Smuggled Aid to Solidarity

Immediately upon the declaration of martial law in December 1981, Kirkland began putting in place the structure of a secret distribution network linking American unions to the Solidarity underground. The most important channel ran through a Solidarity office in Brussels, Belgium, that had been established, at Walesa's direction, to represent the union's interest during martial law. Jerzy Milewski, a Solidarity activist who had left Poland for a visit to the West two days before martial law was imposed, was selected to direct the office. Another veteran of the democratic opposition, Miroslaw Chojecki, took on the responsibility of developing routes into Poland by which money, printing presses, computers, and other materials could be shipped to underground sources.

To administer the federation's Poland project, Kirkland relied on a small cadre of dedicated assistants who shared his passion for the Solidarity cause. Tom Kahn, an assistant to Kirkland and former aide to civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, coordinated the undertaking. Joining Kahn in the mid-1980s was Adrian Karatnycky, an American of Ukrainian descent who was fluent in Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian and who had been involved in various anti-Soviet protest campaigns. For reliable information from inside martial-law Poland, Kirkland relied heavily on the Committee in Support of Solidarity, whose principal figures—Irena Lasota, a Polish émigré who came to the United States after meeting with persecution for antiregime involvement as a university student, and Eric Chenoweth, a young political activist formerly on the staff of the AFL-CIO—had developed a wide range of contacts within the Solidarity structure.

Solidarity's principal needs were threefold: money to support the families of imprisoned activists and sustain the underground structure, printing presses and other equipment for an underground press, and financial aid to enable the union to conduct strikes and other nonviolent actions meant to weaken the regime's grip.

Getting money through the border control to Solidarity presented few problems since it was relatively simple to conceal cash in clothing or luggage or to squirrel it away in automobiles. But getting shipments of printing equipment into the country posed a number of tricky problems. To begin with, there was always the risk that ultra-diligent officials in Western Europe might complicate matters, since the methods of shipment often violated the laws of the country of origin, as well as those of Poland. A more serious challenge was getting the shipments past Polish border control. To outwit the authorities, Chojecki developed transport networks originating from a number of European countries—principally, Sweden and France.16 But while most shipments reached their intended destination, there were some notable failures as well. The Brussels office was sometimes criticized for sending large shipments into Poland on big, over-the-road trucks with false cargo documents. On one occasion, three trucks were stopped in Gdansk; authorities confiscated 14 duplicating machines, 5 copying machines, 9,500 duplicating machine matrices, 17 sets of light-sensitive matrices, a radiotelephone, and printed material. The equipment was unloaded, laid out in a sports stadium, and then shown on television news as evidence of the subversive maneuverings of the enemies of Polish socialism. While these failures were dismaying at the time, the seizure of some of the material was inevitable.17

Irving Brown, the AFL-CIO's director of international affairs based in Paris, came to believe that additional lines in and out of Poland were needed. He reasoned that given the decentralized nature of the underground, the more channels of distribution, the better. To run a second distribution route, Brown chose Miroslaw Dominczyk, a Solidarity activist from Kielce who had been forced into exile after a year of martial law internment. After his arrival in the United States, Dominczyk was asked to take responsibility for a smuggling operation and was given the code name "Coleslaw."18

Dominczyk's principal mission was to get into the hands of the underground printing equipment similar to that which had been seized during the first weeks of martial law. He soon moved his operation to London, England, because of the availability of used and therefore inexpensive printing equipment that was compatible with the technology available to Poles. His initial success came when he persuaded a Polish bus driver to smuggle in printing equipment during his monthly trips to Warsaw (the passengers were elderly Poles returning to the homeland for a visit). The driver did not deliver the equipment to its destination; instead, he left his keys at a prearranged spot. The shipment would then be off-loaded by members of the underground, and the keys returned to the driver's room. Dominczyk arranged alternative routes as well, using trucks and automobiles. He even concealed printing equipment in a shipment of refrigerators.

Dominczyk then hit on an idea that greatly simplified his work. He arranged for members of the underground who were responsible for printing operations to visit London as tourists. There, he taught them how to take apart and reassemble a printing press. Afterward, he began shipping the equipment part by part, a much less risky smuggling method than trying to get an entire press past the border. He also persuaded yachtsmen from Denmark and Sweden to take equipment on trips around the Baltic coast; the equipment would be transferred to boats manned by Solidarity members, who would then bring it to shore.

There were failures as well. Dominczyk once cried in frustration after a shipment of offset machines was returned; apparently, underground activists feared that the authorities were watching the shipment and decided against claiming it. His worst calamity occurred in 1987, when a large shipment, encompassing seven offset machines, plates, ink, and spare parts, was confiscated in East Germany.

Although the AFL-CIO was by far Solidarity's largest supplier of material aid, it was not the only source of assistance. Trade union federations from all over Europe were sending equipment to the underground. The most generous of the European unions according to Solidarity veterans were the French, including the Communist-led Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT, or General Confederation of Labor). Likewise, both Communist and non-Communist unions from Italy made contributions.

The Indispensable Underground Press

For Solidarity, contributions from abroad meant, above all else, the ability to maintain an underground press. In the vivid description of Wiktor Kulerski, a Solidarity union activist, "The printing presses we got from the West during martial law might be compared to machine guns or tanks during a war."19 The publications ranged from mimeo­graphed factory newsletters to intellectual journals to newspapers with a wide popular audience. Western assistance financed the entire publications structure, from the printing presses to the people who operated the presses, to the journalists who wrote articles, and on down to those who distributed the publications.

The importance of the press cannot be overemphasized. With Solidarity declared illegal, its activists could not perform their functions as union officials or as members of the democratic opposition, except through periodic strikes and protests, the impact of which diminished considerably as Polish society sank into a state of exhaustion. The press thus was the sole means of communication with Polish society, really the only way Solidarity could keep hope for the future alive and remind the authorities that no peace was possible as long as Solidarity was illegal.

To a certain extent, the press functioned as a surrogate trade union, taking on the responsibilities that Solidarity would have shouldered had it been legal. The press reported instances of workplace injuries and management corruption and told of families who had suffered through tragedy or official repression and were thus in need of help. The impact of its reports was magnified when selections were read over international broadcast services sponsored by Western governments, particularly Radio Free Europe.

Among the publications issued by the underground press were books long banned by the Communists, such as George Orwell's antitotalitarian classic Animal Farm and treatises by philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers. There were also journals that targeted those involved in the apparatus of repression. Czeslaw Bielecki, director of an underground publishing consortium, published a journal entitled Dignity, which criticized the police and included militia members among its writers. Another of Bielecki's publications, Redoubt, was meant for members of the military; most of the writing was done by three lieutenant colonels.20

As is often the case with opposition movements that challenge the authorities in totalitarian settings, Solidarity was awash in rumors of spies, double agents, and infiltrations by internal security. But years later when Bogdan Borusewicz, one of the early Solidarity leaders from Gdansk, served on a parliamentary commission that investigated the tactics employed by the state security against Solidarity, he concluded that while the regime had recorded some success in infiltrating the underground structures, the authorities had not succeeded in preventing the delivery of money and equipment from Western sources. Borusewicz believes that virtually all of the money sent to the underground got through the border control.21

*  *  *

By 1988, the struggle between Solidarity and the regime had reached a stalemate. On one level, the regime had clearly gained the upper hand in the political realm. Jaruzelski felt sufficiently confident of his power to lift martial law, release political prisoners, and ease restrictions on foreign travel. These measures had burnished his international stature; increasingly, he was regarded as a patriotic Pole who had reluctantly adopted a course of repression in order to prevent a Soviet invasion. (This charitable view of Jaruzelski has proved unwarranted; documents uncovered during the 1990s showed that Jaruzelski was actively seeking Soviet intervention and not, as was widely believed, arguing against invasion with Moscow.) But though Jaruzelski could claim to have gained dominance over Solidarity, he continued to preside over a critically ill economy, a condition that was not likely to improve until the government enjoyed the support of the people.

Solidarity then called a series of strikes in a determined effort to revive its fortunes and convince the regime that social peace required a settlement that included Solidarity. Foreign assistance, particularly from the AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy, was critical; without a strike fund, miners and other workers would not have agreed to make the financial sacrifices demanded by a work stoppage. Although the strikes did not succeed in crippling the government, they served an important purpose by convincing the regime to open talks with the opposition toward some sort of national accord. The result was an agreement to hold national elections in which the opposition, though unable to run as a Solidarity party, could put forward candidates for Parliament and the regime would accept the election results.

This was a settlement of historic proportions. Nonetheless, many observers reckoned that it was the regime and not Solidarity that had gotten the better part of the bargain. Some doubted that Communists would ever permit a fair election, while others predicted that Poles would opt for the strong leadership of Jaruzelski rather than gamble on the undisciplined forces of Solidarity. Kirkland, however, was confident that unless the regime falsified the returns, Solidarity would easily triumph. He reasoned that given the option of voting for oppression or freedom, Poles—indeed, any people—would choose freedom.

Years later, he explained his faith in Solidarity's eventual victory:

I still believe and I believed then that history moves when civil society reaches a critical point. It is not decided in the foreign ministries or the palaces of power but in the streets and the work places. And when critical mass is reached, there is nothing you can do unless you are willing to kill and slaughter and put the whole country in chains.22

Whatever his crimes, Jaruzelski was not inclined to kill thousands of his own countrymen to retain power. But like any autocrat, he enjoyed immense advantages over his adversaries, which he exploited to the hilt. The official press trumpeted the achievements of Communist candidates and studiously ignored the opposition. The party made liberal use of its patronage power. The police hovered over Solidarity rallies, checking identification papers and recording the names of those on hand. American government officials expressed pessimism about Solidarity's pros­pects, while Communists were certain they would win.

To help ensure a more level playing field, the AFL-CIO and the Polish-American community gave Bronislaw Geremek (an adviser to Walesa who later became Poland's foreign minister), who was traveling in the United States, $100,000 for Solidarity's election campaign. The money was in cash, and when Poland's future foreign minister went through customs in Warsaw, he was searched, and the money was taken, laid out, and photographed. The result that the media were full of accounts of the attempts by foreign interests to influence the Polish elections. But Geremek was allowed to keep the money, a sign, Geremek believes, that the authorities were confident of victory.23

Election Victory

The regime's confidence could not have been more misplaced. When the elections were held in June, Solidarity's candidates scored an overwhelming victory, winning all of the contested seats in the lower house of Parliament and 99 out of 100 in the upper house. While the accord with Jaruzelski had called for a power-sharing arrangement with the Communists, even in the event of a Solidarity electoral triumph, the results meant the effective end of Communist rule in Poland. By the end of the year, Communist dictatorships had been routed in every Soviet bloc country of Eastern Europe.

In the end, the AFL-CIO was responsible for channeling over $4 million to Solidarity. Prior to martial law and during martial law's initial period, some $500,000 was raised for the AFL-CIO Polish Workers Aid Fund. But with the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1984, the amount of money available to the AFL-CIO for Poland purposes rose dramatically. In all, $1.7 million was given to Solidarity by the Free Trade Union Institute (which was created by the AFL-CIO in 1977) using NED grants. Money for Poland rose yet again when Congress approved special $1 million allocations to the AFL-CIO for use on behalf of Solidarity in 1988 and 1989.

The Solidarity leadership respected Kirkland as their most loyal friend and as a man of power in Washington, D.C. As Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Solidarity's principal spokesman, put it: "We understood Kirkland's position in American politics. We knew that presidents come and go, but Kirkland would still be there."24

For Andrzej Celinski, a key Solidarity official, Kirkland's significance derived from his grasp of European politics, his belief in the possibility of radical change in Communist Europe, and the power he wielded as leader of American labor. Celinski actually met Kirkland prior to martial law, during a visit in which he sought to convince influential Americans "that there was a chance to achieve democratic change in Central Europe." Celinski added:

We believed that this would require the active participation of the United States, since political leaders in Europe were comfortable with the division of Europe that had been reached in the agreements at Yalta and Potsdam [at the end of World War II]. But I also had to convince Americans that policy towards Central Europe need not be viewed through the prism of relations with Moscow.

In April 1990, Kirkland, his wife, and a delegation from the AFL-CIO traveled to Warsaw and Gdansk to attend the second Solidarity congress—a triumphal gathering of those who had forged the democratic revolution from inside Poland and those who had sustained the revolution from abroad. During the visit, the Kirklands stopped at the grave of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest murdered by the secret police for his uncompromising support for Solidarity. They placed flowers at the gravestone; as they turned to leave, a church caretaker approached. "You should know something," he said. "At each mass during martial law, Father Popieluszko included the name of Lane Kirkland in his prayers."

"I could not reply," Kirkland wrote later. "On Judgment Day, I would be willing to settle for that account in my book of life."26

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House. He is author of Failed Utopias, a study of the techniques of Communist control, and Freedom's Voice: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. This article is adapted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor by Arch Puddington. Copyright © 2005 by Arch Puddington. This book is available at bookstores, online booksellers, and from the Wiley Web site at, or call 1-800-225-5945.


1. "Press Questions Kirkland on AFL-CIO Support for Polish Workers," Free Trade Union News, September 1980.

2. William Serrin, "AFL-CIO Names a Woman to Its Executive Board," New York Times, August 22, 1980.

3. Fred Barbash, "Unions in West Helped Poles, UAW President says," Washington Post, September 1, 1980; "Union Sent Money to Striking Polish Workers," Associated Press, September 1, 1980.

4. Flora Lewis, "Let the Poles Do It," New York Times, September 5, 1980.

5. "Polish Strike Leader Thanks U.S. Labor," Associated Press, September 12, 1980.

6. Author interview with Lech Walesa.

7. "There's a Good Fighting Chance They Can Make It Work," U.S. News and World Report, September 15, 1980.

8. Daniel Southerland, "AFL-CIO Sending Aid to Polish Unionists," Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 1980; author interviews with Adrian Karatnycky and Lech Walesa.

9. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982, p. 467.

10. Charles J. Hanley, "U.S., Other Unions Pour Aid into Poland," Associated Press, January 14, 1981.

11. Author interview with Wiktor Kulerski.

12. AFL-CIO press release, December 15, 1981; United Press International, December 14, 1981.

13. Shea and Kienzle, "An Interview with Lane Kirkland."

14. Jonathan Kwitney, Man of the Century, New York: Holt, 1997, p. 472.

15. Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Intends to Ease Polish Curbs; AFL-CIO Vows Opposition," New York Times, November 1, 1983.

16. Author interview with Joanna Pilarska.

17. Author interview with Bronislaw Geremek.

18. Richard Wilson, "In Solidarity: The AFL-CIO and Solidarnosc, 1980-1990," unpublished manuscript.

19. Author interview with Wiktor Kulerski.

20. Author interview with Czeslaw Bielecki.

21. Author interview with Bogdan Borusewicz.

22. Shea and Kienzle, "An Interview with Lane Kirkland."

23. Author interview with Bronislaw Geremek.

24. Author interview with Janusz Onyszkiewicz.

25. Author interview with Andrzej Celinski.

26. Lane Kirkland memoirs.

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