45th anniversary of June ‘76 protests in Poland

45 years ago, on June 25, 1976, in 112 workplaces in 24 provinces of Poland, over 80,000 people started strikes and street demonstrations. The immediate cause of the protests was the announcement of an increase in food prices, but a deeper reason was the collapse of hopes associated with the rule of Edward Gierek, the then First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). The First Secretary was the actual leader of not only the party, but also of the communist state.

During the first four years of Sec. Gierek’s decade, economic growth and living standards grew rapidly. Wages increased by nearly 40 percent and national income by 60 percent. The availability of various types of consumer products has increased significantly, including cars that were almost unavailable during Władysław Gomułka’s rule, Mr Gierek’s predecessor in the position of First Secretary.

Sec. Gierek’s “economic miracle” was largely implemented thanks to loans granted by Western countries and financial institutions. Economic development was also highly uneven. Almost 30 percent of society lived below the subsistence level. Around 1975, the first worrying signs of recession appeared. The state's debt was growing very fast.

However, the public mood was still reasonably good. This was due to, among others, freezing the prices of all basic products from 1971. However, as early as late 1975, the authorities had to announce that price increases for some products were inevitable. At the same time, the press wrote about the high prices and social unrest raging in the west.

The announcement of the raise was preceded by the preparations of the security apparatus. In May, the operation “Lato ‘76” (Summer ‘76) was launched at the Ministry of the Interior. The readiness of MO (Citizen’s Militia, the communist police force) units was checked, investigative groups were created to catch the ringleaders of possible incidents. ZOMO were elite units created to fight dangerous criminals, provide security during mass events etc. however, they became known instead for their brutal and sometimes lethal actions of riot control during protests. However, the authorities were determined not to repeat the compromising scenario of December 1970. The Motorised Reserves of the MO (ZOMO) units, suppressing possible riots, were banned from using firearms. Only the head of the Ministry of the Interior could personally decide to use it. In preparation for the raise, the appointment of potential speech leaders as reservists for military exercises was also started.

In the evening of June 24, Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz announced a raise at a session of the Sejm, the parliament. He formally announced that the draft of price increases would be submitted to public consultations. In fact, the authorities have already printed the new price lists. The increase in food prices was supposed to be particularly drastic. Meat and fish were to become more expensive by 69 percent, dairy products - 64 percent, rice - 150 percent, sugar - 90 percent. It was supposed to be softened by compensation to wages, which, however, turned out to be unfair.

The next day, occupation strikes and demonstrations broke out in many cities. There were marches and demonstrations in Radom, central Poland, Ursus in Warsaw and Płock, central Poland, ending with clashes with the MO, and in the case of Radom with dramatic street fights.

The wave of strikes was comparable to the strikes of December 1970 and January-February 1971, and “work breaks”' were not confined to one region of the country and threatened with rapid expansion. The authorities, fearing a repeat of the scenario from December 1970, decided to suspend the raise on June 25, 1976, but retaliated against the protesters, especially in Radom and Ursus ending in two deaths: Jan Brożyna and Fr. Roman Kotlarz. A total 353 applications were submitted to the Colleges for Misdemeanors, including 214 in Radom, 131 in Warsaw and 8 in Płock. There were 314 prison sentences, including 250 for three and 50 for two months. A total of 272 people were judged for their participation in the protest.

The failure of the price increase shook the authority of Edward Gierek’s administration. On June 26, 1976, during a teleconference with the first provincial secretaries of the communist party, he issued an order to convene thousands of rallies and launch a propaganda campaign. It was intended to demonstrate the party’s unity and strength, support its leaders, condemn the demonstrators from Radom and Ursus branded as “bullies”, and pacify social discontent. On this wave and apply at least a limited price increase, which was ultimately not achieved due to Moscow’s firm opposition.

The resignation from the increase resulted in the build-up of a permanent market imbalance, which was one of the first symptoms of the crisis in which the economy of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) plunged in the second half of Edward Gierek’s rule. The severe repressions against the participants of the June protests contrasted with the previous, relatively liberal, image of the team.

In September, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was established - the first opposition organisation openly operating in a communist country, which fought for several months to free all those convicted of participating in the protests in Radom and Ursus. They were finally released in July 1977.