The trademark of communism. How Solidarity took over the Labour Day

After the demonstration, already during the curfew hours, an independent photographer wanted to get a lift and turned to... the militia. When he got in, the officers noticed that their passenger had a camera. They searched his bag and found photographs from an “illegal gathering”.

1 May became the Labour Day in 1890, when it was proclaimed by the Second Socialist International. That is how the socialist movement commemorated the demonstration that took place a year before in Chicago during which the police fired on protesters leading to deaths. The first Labour Day demonstrations were organized to fight for workers’ rights, especially for the eight-hour working day.

In communist Poland, the Labour Day parades were not organized to fight for anything but to express people’s gratitude to the authorities for fulfilling all the demands of the working class as well as the hope for more. Representatives of all professions and social groups paraded in front of the authority officials standing on the gallery. The celebrations mixed the atmosphere of a procession and a pageant, and their Byzantine ambience was imported directly from the Soviet Union. 1 May, along with 22 July, were the most important festivities in the country setting its milestones on the way towards socialism. 1 May was the system’s “name day” while 22 July was its “birthday”. Participation in the demonstration was a proof of loyalty and a kind of feudal tribute. If you march, you support the system and declare your obedience to it.

In Warsaw, during the Edward Gierek’s decade, crowds walked head-to-head along Marszałkowska Street starting from Królewska Street to today's Dmowski Roundabout. From 10 am to 2 pm. A river of flags, predominantly red, banners praising the achievements of the regime and - in a smaller number - portraits of Lenin, Marx and Engels.

In the times of Bolesław Bierut, it was a river of portraits including, Stalin and the clearly smaller in size pictures of Bierut. Athletic youth build human pyramids in front of the officials’ gallery or on truck platforms. Models of machine tools and other machines were also presented on car platforms. Working people expressed their pride in their professions by parading in freshly washed work clothes. Steel workers wore protective glasses, construction workers marched with pickaxes, shovels and hammers carried in a military-like fashion on their shoulders. There were cardboard models of products from various factories, such as gigantic chocolate bars.

The secular sacralization of physical labour competed with political vigilance towards “the rotten West” ruled by capitalists still thriving on workers’ blood. The unforgettable - whoever saw it, even in a film, will never forget it - "Trumanillo" circus presented caricatured Papier-mâché figures of the capitalist world leaders and famous American generals, whose military uniforms were stylized as Nazi ones. Just after the "Trumanillo" circus it was time to present a truck with “children rescued from Korea”.

Contrary to the opinion of the classic, the class struggle did not escalate with the progress of socialism and parades from the times of Edward Gierek became less pompous and militant in character. Communists wanted to portray the “spontaneous” bond between the party and the nation and share a convivial mood. What is left to our times, is the memory of the unparalleled hypocrisy of those festivities.
Employees of Zespoły Filmowe (Polish state-owned Film Production Company "Film Groups") march in the official May Day demonstration in 1983. Film directors Czesław Petelski (left) and Jerzy Hoffman in the foreground. Photo PAP-CAF D. Kwiatkowski
In the 1980s, after the suppression of Solidarity by the introduction of martial law, the times of sham demonstrations came to an end. The official Warsaw parade became smaller, and it changed its route in order to be less noticeable. On 1 May during the time of the martial law, the underground authorities of “Solidarity” had been just formed, hence the takeover of the Labour Day (one could say of the Workers Day, but this term had been discredited by decades of real socialism) by the opposition movement was done spontaneously and as a result of a grassroots initiative.

The activists of the Solidarity’s National Commission did not issue clear directives to members of the suspended union, but in many cities, demonstrations that were organized independently of the official ones usually started after mass services. For majority of people, two things were obvious: you do not attend a government-led demonstration, you disrupt it, or organize your own.

In Warsaw, after the mass service in St. John’s Archcathedral, a growing crowd of people headed down Senatorska Street to Miodowa. Separated by cordons of militia from Piłsudski Square (Victory Square at that time) through Krasiński Square, it proceeded to Wisłostrada and disbanded there. According to historians, 4 thousand people, according to the participants - 8 or even up to12 thousand took part in it.

Those unfolding national flags and banners at the cathedral had a feeling that the demonstration would not be dispersed by the militia. The participants cried to the passers-by and the militia cordons: "Come with us. Today, they won’t beat!". And indeed, they didn't. It seemed not proper for the people’s government to react with violence to the May Day demonstration, it would have had fatal propaganda impact. General Czesław Kiszczak, Minister of the Interior, issued a directive that the celebrations were to be held in a “dignified atmosphere”.

In Gdańsk, things went similarly to those in Warsaw and in many other cities. What distinguishes Gdańsk though is the scale of the event. After the mass service in the cathedral – 1 May is the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker - the faithful did not go home but, holding national flags, which they had already begun to unfold in the church, went to the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers at the main gate of the Gdańsk Shipyard. Many passers-by joined the demonstration, and the ever-growing crowd went to Lech Wałęsa's house in the Zaspa district. Participants say that there were already 100,000 of them in Wrzeszcz. More cautious historians quote 60,000 of participants.

As in Warsaw, people chanted: “Come with us. Today they won’t beat!” Gdańsk local patriots from Solidarity maintain that the: “Free Lech, imprison Wojciech” and “Your winter, our spring” were cried only there. If not only, the cries were certainly louder than in other cities considering the masses that joined the events. The largest anti-regime demonstration of the martial law and the 1980s took place in Gdańsk. For similar reasons as in the capital, the militia did not intervene. The demonstration ended in front of the building where Lech Wałęsa, imprisoned at that time, had his flat. Thousands of people acted out months of humiliation after the imposition of the martial law on 13 December, 1981.

The Gdańsk march was perfectly organized, although it was not led by any of the authorities of the underground Solidarity. Activists were hiding and building structures for a long-term struggle with conspiratorially distributed leaflets, keeping up the spirit of resistance. The demonstration was organized and led by a rather unknown gas plant worker, Edward Janus.

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Janus instinctively took a seat close to the altar from where he could see the faithful filling the church. When he saw the flags, he was one of the first to leave the church and form a column of demonstrators. Probably he did not even have to give the order to go to the Shipyard Workers Monument - it was obvious to everyone. Throughout the demonstration, Janus dictated the pace, kept the columns compact and, when necessary, corrected the spacing. During the march he selected some fellow demonstrators who took care of keeping order inside the enormous crowd.

Edward Janus did not manage to hide effectively. At the end of May he was arrested and sentenced to 9 months as the “leading order keeper” of the illegal gathering. Soon after his release, he got a passport and was forced to emigrate to the USA.

Several other participants of the march and of the subsequent demonstration on 3 May, who were photographed as more active demonstrators, were also arrested. The Security Service probably took photos, but a completely different archive was used as evidence.

Soon after the demonstration, already during the curfew hours, an independent photographer wanted to get a lift and turned to... the militia. When he got in, the officers noticed that their passenger had a camera. They searched his bag and found photographs from an “illegal gathering”. The following search in his apartment was even more fruitful as the photographer collected photos taken by others on 1 and 3 May, 1982. Thus, photographs taken with the best intentions were used to identify and sentence several people to prison or, as in the case of Edward Janus, to emigrate.

During the martial law, the more resourceful citizens, once they found themselves in the streets during a curfew, tried, to use ZOMO [paramilitary-police formation Motorized Reserves of the Citizens' Militia] vehicles as cabs, sometimes with good results. As Polish poet and singer Jacek Kaczmarski sang in his “Testimony”:

ZOMO sells itself cheap
Blunt, useful jerks
Just for two kings [banknotes with king Bolesław the Bold], that is, a double
They will take you to the den.

Apparently, they could also take you home, but those met by the photographer obviously put duty before profit.
1 May, 1989, demonstration organized by Solidarity and NZS (Independent Students' Association) in Warsaw a month before the elections of 4 June. Photo PAP/Cezary Słomiński
Anniversaries of the Constitution of 3 May, celebrated in the interwar Second Polish Republic, were forbidden under the communist regime of the People’s Republic. The authorities could not allow patriotic competition for the internationalist, i.e., the communist, 1 May. All Polish flags displayed on 1 May disappeared the next day, or even at night.

In the days of legalized Solidarity, the authorities allowed for the celebrations of, controversial for them, anniversaries of 3 May, or even 11 November, i.e., the Independence Day. After the introduction of the martial law and in the 1980s, everything was back to “normal” according to the communist standard, but people did not forget that, even if for a short time and not a very long time ago, things had been different. When in several cities, including Warsaw and Gdańsk, there were attempts to form demonstrations after mass services on 3 May, the militia reaction was quite different than two days before. The gathered people were brutally dispersed, both in the Gdańsk Old Town and in Warsaw near the Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge, there were many hours of skirmishes with the police. Many were detained, beaten up, and sentenced.

In Gdańsk, the hiding Edward Janus was asked to lead the march on 3 May – the way he had managed the 1 May demonstration must have made a strong impression. Janus refused though. He knew that his face had been recorded in many photos that he would be immediately identified and imprisoned. He did not, however, escape that fate anyway. Edward Janus refreshed his Gdańsk memories when, after many years, he looked at the photos of the 1982 march on the Internet. Later, the Gdańsk branch of the Institute of National Remembrance organized an exhibition of photos - those that did not fall into the hands of the SB through the fault of the careless photographer - on the 35th anniversary of the events. Janus was invited to come from the USA to Poland on the occasion of the anniversary celebrations, aroused media interest and the history of Solidarity regained a forgotten hero.

– Krzysztof Zwoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Ewa Sawicka
Main photo: 1 May, 1982, illegal demonstrations of Solidarity in Warsaw. Photo Janusz Fila / Forum
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