Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa was born in Poland in 1943. He worked as a car mechanic, served in the army for two years, and was employed in the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician. In 1970, during the clash between the workers and the government, Walesa was one of the leaders of the shipyard workers.

In 1978, along with other activists, Walesa began to organize free non-communist trade unions and took part in many actions on the seacoast. He was kept under surveillance by the state security service and frequently detained. Then, in August 1980, troubled by the poor treatment of his fellow workers, he led the Gdansk shipyard strike that gave rise to a wave of strikes over much of the country. In the fight for workers’ rights, Walesa was seen as the leader. The authorities were forced to capitulate—they negotiated the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organize their own independent union.

In the years 1980-81, Walesa traveled to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France, and Switzerland as a guest of the International Labor Organization. And in September 1981, he was elected Solidarity Chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk. Shortly after, Poland’s brief period of relative freedom ended when General Jaruzelski imposed martial law, suspended Solidarity, arrested many of its leaders, and confined Walesa in a remote area. In November 1982, Walesa was released and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards. Although kept under surveillance, he managed to maintain contact with Solidarity leaders in the underground. The leading underground weekly paper featured his motto, “Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed.”

Martial law was lifted in July 1983, but many of the restrictions continued. Soon after, the announcement of Walesa’s Nobel Peace Prize—for contributions to human rights and for playing a vital role in shaping Solidarity in his country—empowered the underground movement. As economic conditions worsened, Jaruzelski’s regime was forced to negotiate with Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues. This led to parliamentary elections and the establishment of a non-communist government.

Walesa began a series of meetings with world leaders, and in April 1990, at Solidarity’s second national congress, he was elected chairman. Six months later, he was elected president of the Republic of Poland in a general ballot. Although his presidency lasted only one term, his administration oversaw the transformation of Poland to a free-market economy. In fact, after Walesa left office, the Polish economy was among the healthiest in central and eastern Europe.

To this day, Lech Walesa remains a symbol of hope, inspiring many to pursue similar aspirations of rights and freedoms throughout the world.