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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

The "Twenty-One Demands": A Call for Workers' Rights and Freedom in a Socialist State
Solidarity Union

The collapse of the Soviet Empire, which began in 1989 and culminated in 1991, caught most scholars and political analysts somewhat by surprise. Many had been predicting its collapse for so long that they failed to notice the rapid unraveling of the system, while others were so ideologically committed to the socialist experiment that they were just as blind to the unraveling. Such an event did not take place overnight, although the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) and his reformist program was certainly the catalyst. There were, however, long-term trends that, in hindsight, had been visibly straining the Soviet system: urbanization; higher levels of education and aspirations among the professional classes; economic strains resulting from the Cold War arms race; and resistance to Soviet rule throughout the Soviet bloc. The imposition of Soviet-style systems in Eastern Europe in the years following World War II had not been greeted with the greatest enthusiasm. In 1948 Yugoslavia broke completely with the Soviet Union. In 1956, during the de-Stalinization period under Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), both Poland and Hungary clamored for more independence. Hungary even rose in armed rebellion only to be crushed by Soviet armed might. In 1968, the year of the student rebellions in the West, a spirit of rebellion was also seen in the East during the so-called Prague Spring, as reformers in the Communist Party introduced reforms designed to "put a human face on socialism." Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and snuffed out the modest reforms. Poland was also a trouble spot for the Soviet Union. The ancient animosity between the two peoples was part of the problem; moreover, the Communist Party was never able to break the independent power of the Catholic Church or to impose fully collectivized farming. Despite these two areas, Poland was run in much the same repressive, bureaucratic, and economically inefficient way as was the Soviet Union. In 1980, an independent labor union, Solidarity, was formed in the Gdansk shipyard, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa (b. 1943), who would one day be the president of an independent Poland. Solidarity was another aspect of Polish society that rejected the Soviet system; the union had wide-spread popular support. Nevertheless, Solidarity did not forcefully challenge the Soviet Union or the Polish Communist Party, but rather persistently strove to make its voice heard. After the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989, Solidarity emerged as one of the leading political parties in Poland, while the nation grappled with the awesome challenges of transformation to a capitalistic democracy. In this document, the "Twenty-One Demands," Solidarity outlines its program.

Questions to Consider
  • What do most of the demands call for? What does this reveal about the Polish economy and the Soviet-style economic system?

  • What would Marx have said about this list of demands? How would a Polish worker respond?


  1. Acceptance of Free Trade Unions independent of both the Party and employers, in accordance with the International Labor Organization's Convention number 87 on the freedom to form unions, which was ratified by the Polish government.

  2. A guarantee of the right to strike and guarantees of security for strikers and their supporters.

  3. Compliance with the freedoms of press and publishing guaranteed in the Polish constitution. A halt to repression of independent publications and access to the mass media for representatives of all faiths.

  4. (a) Reinstatement to their former positions for: people fired for defending workers' rights, in particular those participating in the strikes of 1970 and 1976; students dismissed from school for their convictions. (b) The release of all political prisoners...(c) A halt to repression for one's convictions.

  5. The broadcasting on the mass media of information about the establishment of the Interfactory Strike Committee (MKS) and publication of the list of demands.

  6. The undertaking of real measures to get the country out of its present crisis by: (a) providing comprehensive, public information about the socio-economic situation; (b) making it possible for people from every social class and stratum of society to participate in open discussions concerning the reform program.

  7. Compensation of all workers taking part in the strike for its duration with holiday pay from the Central Council of Trade Unions.

  8. Raise the base pay of every worker 2,000 zlotys per month to compensate for price rises to date.

  9. Guaranteed automatic pay raises indexed to price inflation and to decline in real income.

  10. Meeting the requirements of the domestic market for food products: only surplus goods to be exported.

  11. The rationing of meat and meat products through food coupons (until the market is stabilized).

  12. Abolition of "commercial prices" and hard currency sales in so-called "internal export" shops.

  13. A system of merit selection for management positions on the basis of qualifications rather than Party membership. Abolition of the privileged status of MO [police], SB [Internal Security Police], and the party apparatus through: equalizing all family subsidies; eliminating special stores, etc.

  14. Reduction of retirement age for women to 50 and for men to 55. Anyone who has worked in the PRL [Polish People's Republic] for 30 years, for women, or 35 years for men, without regard to age, should be entitled to retirement benefits.

  15. Bringing pensions and retirement benefits of the "old portfolio" to the level of those paid currently.

  16. Improvement in the working conditions of the Health Service, which would assure full medical care to working people.

  17. Provision for sufficient openings in daycare nurseries and preschools for the children of working people.

  18. Establishment of three-year paid maternity leaves for the raising of children.

  19. Reduce the waiting time for apartments.

  20. Raise per diem [for work-related travel] from 40 zlotys to 100 zlotys and provide cost-of-living increases.

  21. Saturdays to be days off from work. Those who work on round-the-clock jobs or three-shift systems should have the lack of free Saturdays compensated by increased holiday leaves or through other paid holidays off from work.

Source: "The Twenty-One Demands," in Lawrence Weschler, The Passion of Poland (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 206-208.