At 8 AM on this day in 1981, 12 million Poles laid down their tools and walked away from their jobs. Armbands in Polish colours were distributed and flags were flown in defiance of the Communist regime all across the country. Soviet authorities in the Kremlin were shocked to learn of the near-total immobilization of the Polish economy, an industrial powerhouse within the USSR. At noon, sirens blared throughout the country and the Poles returned to work as if nothing had happened. The message was clear: Polish workers were a united force and they would use their labour as a weapon against the oppressive government regime if necessary.
Several days prior, a number of high-ranking Solidarity members had been beaten up by ZOMO, a government-sponsored communist civilian militia. Concurrently, a massive Warsaw Pact military exercise codenamed Soyuz 81 was beginning on Polish territory. Outraged by the attacks – and the perceived violation of their sovereignty – Solidarity’s leadership organized the aforementioned Warning Strike to demand justice from the Polish puppet government. Solidarity’s most important figure, Lech Wałęsa, warned that in the event of continued governmental bad behaviour, Solidarity would shut the country down entirely. Although the possibility of armed Soviet intervention was very real, the Poles were prepared to fight.
The Kremlin, stunned by this act of defiance, ordered Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to respond. The government responded swiftly and promised justice for the ZOMO attackers. Martial law followed, however, in order to “make a Soviet invasion unnecessary.” Despite Jaruzelski’s crackdown, Solidarity continued to grow and challenge the Communist Party’s dominance of Polish culture. Aided by the American intelligence community and support from the Vatican, Solidarity emerged as a legitimate threat to Soviet dominance of Poland. By the late 1980s, Solidarity’s prestige had grown to the point where they could force the Polish government to meet at the negotiating table. Soon after – towards the end of the Cold War – a general election was held and Lech Wałęsa was elected the first president of free Poland.