Poland’s Solidarity Leader Who Fought for Workers’ Rights
Who Was Lech Walesa?
Lech Walesa, a Polish labor leader and social activist, became the first democratically elected president of Poland, serving from 1990 to 1995. Prior to his presidency, Walesa, an electrician at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, helped to form Solidarity, Poland’s first independent trade union.
Under the leadership of the charismatic Walesa, Solidarity successfully used civil resistance and strike tactics to secure rights for workers living under the communist Soviet regime. Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1989.
Dates: September 29, 1943 —
Famous Quote: “He who puts out his hand to stop the wheel of history will have his fingers crushed.”
Born in Occupied Poland
Lech Walesa was born in the small farming village of Popowo in north-central Poland on September 29, 1943 during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War. He was the fourth child born to carpenter Boleslaw Walesa and his wife Felicja.
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Boleslaw Walesa had been taken into custody by the Nazis prior to his son’s birth. He was placed in a concentration camp and later relocated to a labor camp at Mlyniec in western Poland. The hard labor, freezing temperatures, and frequent beatings would eventually take their toll upon Lech’s father.
Returning to Popowo in 1945 after the war, Boleslaw was unable to regain his strength. He died at the age of 33, only two months after coming home. Lech was not yet two years old when his father died.
Felicja later married Boleslaw’s brother, Stanislaw, and they had three sons together. The family moved to Kujawy, a village in central Poland.
Learning a Trade and Serving in the Military
The family of nine lived in a small cottage in the countryside. Lech began his education at the small local schoolhouse when he was seven years old. Enrolled in a boarding trade school at the age of 15, he studied agricultural mechanics. Walesa, who enjoyed working with his hands, learned to repair and operate farm equipment.
Walesa was known more for his unruly behavior at school than for his academic success. He earned less than mediocre grades and got himself in trouble more than once for smoking in his dormitory room. Yet he was also known for his ability to defuse difficult situations with a humorous comment.
In 1961, at the age of 18, Walesa graduated from trade school and found a job as a garage mechanic in Lochocin in north-central Poland.
Two years later, Walesa joined an artillery unit in Koszalin as fulfillment of his mandatory two-year military service. As his leadership qualities became apparent, he was soon promoted to corporal and placed in charge of a squad of men.
Walesa was popular with his soldiers, using humor rather than strict discipline to gain their loyalty. During his military service, Walesa grew his trademark bushy mustache.
Although he was recommended for officer’s training school, Walesa declined and returned to his old job in Lochocin after completing his military service in 1965.
Move to Gdansk and Marriage
Before long, Walesa grew restless with his job at the garage. Anxious for new opportunities, 24-year-old Lech Walesa set out by train for the northern coastal city of Gdynia in 1967. During a stop in Gdansk, Walesa went to have a beer; when he returned to the platform, his train had already left. He decided that he might as well start his new life in Gdansk.
Walesa quickly found a job as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Good-natured and energetic, he was well-liked by his co-workers.
In November 1969, 26-year-old Walesa married 20-year-old Miroslawa Danuta Golos, a woman he had met at a flower shop in Gdansk. They moved into a small apartment, and became parents the following year when their son Bogdan was born. The Walesas eventually welcomed three more sons and four daughters into their family.
Poland’s Struggle for Sovereignty
The Poland that the Walesa children were born into was under the control of the Soviet Union. Poland had already endured centuries of interference by neighboring countries (Russia to the east, Germany to the west, and Austria-Hungary to the south), resulting in an all-too-frequent shifting of Polish borders.
At various times in Poland’s history, its people had been forbidden to speak their own language or to own property; some Poles had even been imprisoned or exiled for failing to cooperate.
Following World War I, Poland had been granted independence under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, finally achieving the status of an independent nation. After rebuilding from the damages of war, the country enjoyed a relatively peaceful time. It would not last long.
In early September 1939, Poland was invaded by the Nazis. During the German occupation, millions of Poles (both Jews and Catholics) died in the many concentration camps built throughout Poland by the Nazis. After the war, Poland again lost its independence when the nation fell under Soviet control in accordance with provisions of the 1945 Yalta Conference.
Over decades, growing dissatisfaction of the Poles living under communist rule set the stage for the turmoil and rebellion that were to come.
Rebellion in Gdansk
On December 12, 1970, the Soviet-run Polish government announced that prices would be sharply increased on food and other consumer goods, sparking outrage among Polish citizens. More than 1,000 shipyard workers in Gdansk gathered to protest the price hikes outside the shipyard offices on Monday, December 14, 1970. Five representatives of the workers entered the building, carrying a written protest of the price increases. The men were arrested and taken into police custody.
In protest, frustrated workers marched in the streets, looting shops and clashing with police officers. Even greater numbers of shipyard workers—joined by longshoremen—assembled the next morning. Among the nearly 10,000 protestors was 27-year-old Lech Walesa, one of the strike leaders.
Chaos ensued as the protestors marched to the police station to demand the release of their five comrades. Walesa appealed to the crowd several times, asking them to peacefully disperse, and begged the police commander to avoid using guns. After heated discussions between Walesa and protestors, the large crowd turned away, only to regroup at the district Party headquarters nearby.
The protest quickly turned into a riot, as participants lobbed Molotov cocktails at the building, setting it afire. As the fire spread, so, too, did the rioting. By day’s end, six people had been killed and hundreds injured. Soldiers and armored vehicles were ordered into Gdansk to protect government buildings.
Inside the shipyard, tempers flared. As large groups of protesters exited through the gates, soldiers, unprovoked, fired upon them, killing four men. Horrified, strikers lifted their comrades’ bodies and marched through the streets with them. Outrage spread throughout the city as news of the killings became known.
That evening, government officials declared martial law and warned the strikers that they would storm the shipyards with the full force of soldiers and tanks. Faced with the threat of further bloodshed, the strikers gave up. In neighboring Gdynia, however, protests raged on and dozens more were killed.
Walesa’s Involvement Deepens
Walesa agonized over the deaths of the workers, feeling partially responsible as one of the leaders of the strike. He, along with other strike leaders, came under the scrutiny of the secret police, who followed him and often called him in for interrogation. Walesa was invited to become an informant for the police, but angrily refused.
Most of the leaders of the 1970 strike were eventually fired, but Walesa was defended by the trade union and allowed to keep his job. He was ordered by the management to keep quiet if he wanted to stay employed. But Walesa’s open criticism of the communist leadership soon led to his firing and banishment from the shipyards.
After months of looking for a job, he was finally hired as a mechanic for a construction equipment supplier. Walesa became active in the underground Free Trade Unions movement, which had been organized in April 1978 in Gdansk. He also became involved in an underground dissident publication, Robotnik Wybrzeza (Coastal Worker).
Walesa was fired from his job again in late 1978 for having lashed out at government economic policies. Walesa and his family struggled to stay afloat financially. They were forced to sell the family car. After five difficult months, Walesa found a job at an electrical firm.
Paying the Price
As a prominent figure in the protest movement, Walesa was chosen to speak at a memorial rally on December 16, 1979 at the Gdansk Shipyard gates in honor of those who had lost their lives in the 1970 uprising.
Walesa gave a stirring and inspiring speech, but he paid a high price for doing so. Only days later, he learned that he had been dismissed from yet another job because he had taken part in the rally. Virtually blacklisted by employers, he was forced to go from one temporary job to the next.
The secret police continued to pursue Walesa, harassing him at every opportunity. He gave them ample opportunities, as he frequently distributed and posted anti-government leaflets out in the open. Walesa was taken in by the police and arrested on a number of occasions; each time he was kept for the standard detention period of 48 hours.
In August 1980, events would conspire to place Walesa at the forefront of the protest movement. Lech Walesa’s name was about to become a household word.
Dissatisfaction and unrest intensified across Poland as the government announced another hike in food prices on July 2, 1980. Strikes erupted in several cities, as workers refused to do their jobs unless they were given higher wages to offset steep food prices.
Tensions escalated at the Lenin Shipyard between workers and management on Thursday, August 14, 1980, when the underground newspaper Robotnik reported that 51-year-old shipyard crane operator Anna Walentynowicz had been fired.
Walentynowicz, a co-founder of the Free Trade Unions movement and later known as the “grandmother of Solidarity,” had been fired while she was out due to illness—only five months prior to her planned retirement. Fellow workers were outraged that an employee of 30 years could be treated this way.
Shipyard workers demanded the rehiring of Walentynowicz, as well as a raise in wages across the board. Armed with protest banners, nearly 2,000 workers marched to the offices of management. The group of workers quickly grew to over 6,000—among them, Lech Walesa. The director came out and agreed that he would discuss their demands, but pleaded with them to get back to work for the time being.
At just that moment, 36-year-old Lech Walesa, who had climbed over the shipyard wall, came up to the director and asked, “Do you remember me?” Walesa admitted that he no longer worked at the shipyard, but still felt as though he belonged there. He turned to the crowd and shouted “I declare a strike!” The crowd roared its approval.
Negotiations soon began, but the workers could not convince the management to grant all of their demands, which included wage increases and a family bonus, as well as reinstating Lech Walesa and Anna Walentynowicz. The strikers stood firm. They were joined by bus and tram drivers. Shipyard workers in nearby Gdynia also went on strike.
The Movement Gains Momentum
Lech Walesa was elected chairman of the Gdansk shipyard strike committee and kept workers informed of details of the negotiations.
On Saturday, August 16, 1980, two days after the strike had begun, officials for the shipyard agreed to most of the strikers’ demands. They would reinstate Walesa and Walentynowicz and provide a monthly wage increase. Yet the struggle was not over.
Fellow strikers from the Gdynia shipyards, railway employees, and bus drivers could not stand up to authorities without the might of the massive Gdansk shipyard labor force. These smaller groups begged for the backing of Lenin Shipyard unions—and, at the urging of Walesa, they received it. The solidarity movement had begun with a “sympathy” strike.
Lech Walesa was elected chairman of the newly-formed Independent Solidarity Union (Solidarnosc). The movement—whose membership would eventually reach ten million—gained momentum as delegations arrived from neighboring cities to join the protest.
Solidarity also enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church. A local priest came to say mass for the workers at the shipyard and Polish-born Pope John Paul II also spoke out in support of his countrymen.
Gdansk Agreement Is Signed
Led by Walesa, representatives from dozens of factories and facilities worked together to come up with a comprehensive list of demands. The large group, called the Inter-enterprise Strike Committee (ISC) was also chaired by Walesa.
The final list contained 21 demands, including a raise in wages, improved working conditions, a guarantee that workers would have the right to organize and strike, and the building of a monument to workers killed in 1970. The strikers also demanded a rehiring of those fired during previous protests.
After weeks of a generalized work stoppage, government officials found themselves with little bargaining power in the face of so massive a strike. On August 31, 1980, the government capitulated to the ISC.
Walesa, who by then had become familiar to all Poles, spoke to his people on live television. He declared the strike over. The historic Gdansk Agreement was signed by Walesa and Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski. The first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc had been created.
Over the next few months, the government procrastinated over putting in place some of the agreed-upon reforms. New leaders had been installed in the Polish Communist Party who were not sympathetic to the workers’ cause. Walesa again made use of the strike mechanism to counteract the government’s failure to honor the agreement, but such protests were not tolerated. The government sent police in to break up any attempt to demonstrate or strike.
In January 1981, Walesa, a devout Catholic, was allowed to journey to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland. The pope reiterated his support of the Polish protest movement.
Martial Law and Imprisonment
Communist Party leaders remained determined to stem the tide of pro-democratic reforms in Poland.
In December 1981, Party leader and armed forces commander General Wojciech Jarulzelski imposed martial law upon Poland. The Solidarity Trade Union was disbanded and declared illegal, and its leaders jailed. Strikes and street protests were forbidden. Many of Solidarity’s members, however, continued their protest work clandestinely.
Lech Walesa was held in solitary confinement for eleven months. During his imprisonment, he refused to cooperate with authorities. Walesa was able to smuggle messages out to Solidarity members advising non-violent protest only. He was released on November 11, 1982.
Martial law was eventually lifted in July 1983, but many political prisoners remained imprisoned until 1986, and restrictions against free speech and free association also remained in place.
Nobel Peace Prize
Walesa returned to his job in the shipyard in April 1983. By now, he had become internationally known as the leader in Poland’s quest for human rights.
Lech Walesa was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Fearing that he would not be allowed to return to Poland, Walesa sent his wife Danuta to accept the award on his behalf. He dedicated the prize to the ten million members of the disbanded Solidarity Union, and donated the money to a church-run agricultural foundation.
Despite Walesa’s international reputation, Polish authorities continued their harassment of him. Nonetheless, he remained committed to the goal of achieving human rights for the Polish people.
In the summer of 1988, civil unrest broke out again across Poland. Walesa and his cohorts demanded that the authorities reinstate Solidarity and begin negotiations to bring about political and economic reforms. Fearing widespread rebellion and economic disaster, government authorities agreed to negotiations.
President of Poland
By June 1989, reformers had achieved a long-cherished goal—free elections in Poland. Several Solidarity Party candidates were elected to the Sjem (the lower house of the Polish Parliament) in 1989. In December 1990, Lech Walesa won the presidential election in the second round of voting, becoming the first popularly-elected president of Poland.
As president, Walesa oversaw a difficult period of transition from communism to democracy. Many faulted him for not preparing the Polish economy for that transition, citing the high rate of unemployment during his term.
Walesa did, however, achieve several important objectives. He continued to push for reforms and worked to assure Poland’s acceptance into the European Union. Walesa also made it a priority to sever ties with Russia, securing a statement from Russian president Boris Yeltsin that Russia would not interfere with Poland’s entry into the North American Treaty Organization (NATO).
But for many Poles, the improvements that they had long hoped for did not happen quickly enough. When Walesa ran again in 1995, he was beaten by a former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski.
After his presidency, Walesa became the vice president of the Lech Walesa Institute Foundation, an organization that promotes democracy and ethics in politics. He is the author of two autobiographies: A Way of Hope and The Struggle and the Triumph. Walesa was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1989 for his role in bringing about peaceful reforms in Poland.
Walesa has been awarded many honorary degrees from various universities, including Harvard University and the University of Paris, among dozens of others. He has travelled extensively to give speeches and lectures. Walesa and his wife Danuta continue to live in Gdansk.
Walesa often weighs in during interviews with his opinion on world events and has become an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Each year, Poland celebrates the day of Solidarity and Freedom on August 31, the anniversary of the signing of the Gdansk Agreement.