The great crisis of 1980, like so many previous upheavals in communist Poland, was triggered by price increases. On 1 July a new pricing system for meat was introduced. Although it was not universally applied it had an immediate impact by provoking a rash of strikes, the first being in the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw. The authorities rushed more meat into the shops, conceded a number of wage increases, and attempted to use censorship to prevent the spread of the unrest. These efforts failed in no small measure because of the influence of KSS/ KOR; in July an eight-day general strike in Lublin paralysed the rail link between the Soviet Union and the Red Army garrisons in the GDR, and by the end of the first week of August there had been over 150 stoppages throughout the country. The focal point was Gdańsk.
The Baltic ports had great experience of recent industrial unrest. On 14 August workers in the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk struck over the dismissal of a crane driver, Anna Walentynowicz. Gdynia and Szczecin were soon strikebound and Gierek flew back from his holidays hoping to contain the unrest, as in 1970, by holding face-to-face negotiations with the strikers. But this time his opponents were of a different ilk: they were far more disciplined; they were not committed to socialism or the party; they were determined not to be bought off with workers’ councils which were open to party subversion; and they were artfully advised, though never dominated, by leading members of the intelligentsia, the most important of whom was Jacek Kuroń who had joined the Gdańsk strikers on 23 August. The strikers were also strengthened by the inter-factory strike committees (IFSCs) which had emerged in August to coordinate action and to maintain discipline and order. It was on the basis of the IFSCs that the strikers wished to build the free trade unions which they were now demanding.
The insistence on the formation of free trade unions was only one of the twenty-one demands put forward by the Gdańsk strikers. Others included: pay increases; a limitation upon censorship; work-free Saturdays; welfare equality with the police; the broadcasting of mass; the election of important factory managers; access to the media; and the erection of a memorial to those who had