Domino Effect: The AFL-CIO And The End Of Communism

Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).

Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.

Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.

Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.

Only when looking at the full archival history and its nuances are we able to see, for example, that without the determined posture of the AFL-CIO, Ronald Reagan’s reaction to the introduction of martial law in Poland could have been completely different, and indeed was inclined to be much more forgiving. Only at this level are we able to see that, thanks to the determined posture of trade union leaders such as Albert Shanker, then AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland had support to denounce Wall Street for its acceptance of “normalization” in Poland and to pressure the Reagan administration to implement and sustain economic sanctions.

From the very beginning, the AFL-CIO was a strong supporter of Solidarność, the Polish Solidarity trade union movement -- politically, in the media, and financially. In 1980, at the outset of the Gdansk Shipyard strikes and as they began to spread throughout Poland, the AFL-CIO announced its support for the striking workers, urged the Carter administration to counteract repression against the strikers, and called upon the international trade union movement to declare solidarity with Polish workers. Not waiting for an official position from the Carter administration (which was in no hurry to take one), the AFL-CIO began to organize a boycott of Polish ships and collect international material aid. On August 30, 1980 — just over two weeks after the strikes began — the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted to create the Polish Workers Aid Fund. The next day in Poland, the Polish government was forced to sign an agreement to stop the strikes, which allowed for the creation of free trade unions and recognition of Solidarity. The Carter administration, which had lobbied Kirkland against the creation of the fund, was faced with a fait accompli.

The Carter administration’s passive attitude in response to the strikes and the rise of Solidarity may have contributed to his electoral defeat. Ronald Reagan turned this passivity into an additional point in support of his argument that America was abdicating its role as a superpower. Reagan’s staff located Lech Walesa’s step-father in the U.S. and made him into a standard-bearer of their electoral campaign.

The Reagan administration itself, however, turned out to be indecisive when confronted by events. On December 13, 1981, Wojciech Jaruzelski, head of the Polish communist government, moved to put an end to the Solidarity “carnival” — what Poles call the brief period of relative freedom in 1980-81 created by Solidarity — by instituting martial law in Poland. Lane Kirkland immediately called for a clear position from the White House, urging sanctions be imposed against a regime that was guilty of crushing a legal trade union. The Reagan administration hedged, initially making weak statements. Documents show that an internal struggle was taking place within the administration, between the accommodationist “pragmatists” and those supporting quick action. In addition, it appears that Reagan was also hesitant due to his fear that America‘s NATO allies would not support harsher sanctions.

Only on December 23, in large part due to heavy pressure from the AFL-CIO, did Reagan announce mild economic sanctions against Poland’s communist regime. A month later, again under AFL-CIO pressure, these were strengthened and also included the USSR. But the sanctions proved to be less radical than those for which the AFL-CIO hoped. Kirkland demanded a formal declaration of Poland’s state of bankruptcy. (Poland was indeed bankrupt and such a declaration would have meant the loss of millions of dollars locked up in loans by financiers.) Under pressure from the banks, who wanted their losses to remain undeclared, Reagan refrained from taking such decisive action.

A new battlefront opened for Lane Kirkland and the AFL-CIO, this time around maintaining the economic sanctions that were imposed. As soon as the sanctions were announced, business interests and certain factions in the administration started arguing for them to be lifted. The AFL-CIO had to constantly remind the Reagan administration of the conditions to be met by the Polish and Soviet regimes for the lifting of sanctions, conditions on which the AFL-CIO had insisted. These included, most importantly, the release of political prisoners, but also the re-legalization of Solidarity and the return of its confiscated assets, which were made up mostly of gifts from Western labor federations.  Although sanctions were eased in 1983, 1984, and 1986, and Poland then was accepted into the IMF, the AFL-CIO‘s pressure — along with that of its allies — ensured that the most important sanctions, especially the denial of credits and trade benefits, were kept in place, putting real economic strains on the Polish regime.


Another major contribution, of course, was direct assistance to Solidarity. The AFL-CIO had sought out means of cooperating with Solidarity from its inception in the fall of 1980, understanding that such cooperation would face stark resistance from Moscow. For Polish readers, I describe this history, particularly how, for decades, the AFL and AFL-CIO opposed acknowledging communist (and other government- or business-controlled) trade unions as trade unions per se or allowing their “activists” into the US, while at the same time fighting communist influence in the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where regional organizations of the AFL-CIO functioned, such as AAFLI (the Asian American Free Labor Institute), the AALC (the African-American Labor Center), and AIFLD (the American Institute for Free Labor Development).

The Free Trade Union Institute, originally the Free Trade Union Committee, was active mostly in Europe and was the main financial backer of Solidarity, organizing its own “aid” channels from money raised through the Polish Workers Aid Fund (more than $500,000 total). Starting in 1984, the institute, headed by Eugenia Kemble, distributed resources from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-governmental but publicly financed organization the AFL-CIO helped to create. The AFL-CIO brushed off all external attempts to impose organizational restrictions on such funding, determining whom they would help and how. It supported the activities of individuals whom Lane Kirkland and his assistant Tom Kahn, the director of the Polish Workers Aid Fund, trusted, such as Magdalena Wójcik, deputy chief of the Foreign Section of Solidarity’s National Bureau in 1981, who would eventually emigrate to Norway, and Irena Lasota, one of the leaders of the 1968 youth uprisings in Poland and president of the Committee in Support of Solidarity.

In the early days of Solidarity, all leaders and representatives of the AFL-CIO were barred from entering Poland. In the fall of 1981, before the imposition of martial law, Lane Kirkland’s letter to the First Solidarity Congress had to read aloud by a Catholic priest, Monsignor George Higgins (known in the U.S. as the “Labor Priest“). The first high-ranking AFL-CIO representative to visit Poland was actually Albert Shanker. Shanker, an AFL-CIO vice president, came to Poland in April of 1988 to attend the unveiling of the symbolic graves of Polish interwar Jewish labor activists Henryk Ehrlich and Wiktor Alter, both executed on Stalin’s orders between 1942 and 1943.

Later, after Solidarity’s election victory in 1989, Lane Kirkland and his associates looked coldly upon the neoliberal fiscal policies supported by the George H. W. Bush government. Victims of these policies would be Poland’s impoverished society rather than the communists responsible for the country’s massive debt. Staffed by various neoliberals, the new Leszek Balcerowicz government was viewed suspiciously by Kirkland. The Sachs Plan implemented by Balcerowicz, which was authored by a young, inexperienced Harvard University economist, Jeffrey Sachs, was based upon the concept of shock therapy, or, as it was mockingly referred to by its skeptics, even from within the communist camp, as “shock without therapy.” Its result was massive unemployment, the closure of hundreds of state enterprises, and a new wave of emigration. We are still dealing with the results today.

Lane Kirkland was finally permitted into Poland in the spring of 1990 to attend the Second Solidarity National Convention in Gdansk. Oddly, his visit failed to garner wide publicity. The AFL-CIO’s aid to Solidarity, in fact, was veiled in silence for many years to come. A characteristic symbol of this became the awarding of Poland’s highest decoration, the White Eagle, to Kirkland by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a post-communist former minister in Jaruzelski’s government, who succeeded Lech Walesa as Poland‘s president. The decoration wasn’t given until 1999, and regrettably not from the hands of Kirkland’s union “brother,” President Lech Walesa. The time has come to show Poles and Americans the contributions of the American labor movement for the good of Poland and to commemorate properly those heroes still with us today.