Skip to main content
Select Source:

Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa (born 1943), charismatic leader of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement in Poland, was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for his valiant struggle to secure workers' rights through negotiation and peaceful means.

Lech Walesa was born on September 29, 1943, in the village of Popowo, located between Warsaw and Gdansk, the son of a private farmer and carpenter. He attended technical school in nearby Lipno and worked briefly as an electromechanic in Lochocin. After completing military service from 1963 to 1965, he moved to Gdansk where he was employed as an electrical technician at the Lenin Shipyard. While there, Walesa was in the vanguard of trade union activists who sought to redress workers' grievances. To gain objectives, he pursued negotiations and nonviolent resistance when dealing with government authorities.

In December 1970, as food shortages and drastic increases in food prices precipitated violent protest strikes in shipyards along the Baltic coast, Walesa was elected chair of the Strike Committee at the Lenin Shipyard. There, on January 15, 1971, he was among those who negotiated workers' demands with First Secretary of the Communist Party Edward Gierek. After an interim of political inactivity, Walesa was elected delegate to the shipyard Works' Council meeting in February 1976, where he spoke out against the authorities for reneging on concessions agreed to in the 1971 negotiations. Dismissed from his job at the shipyard, he found work in May 1976 at a construction machinery enterprise.

Working To Build True Trade Unionism

During the fall of 1976 Walesa made contact with the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR, Polish initials), renamed Committee for Social Self-Defense, which was founded in September 1976 by dissident intellectuals in Warsaw to provide aid to the brutalized workers of Warsaw and Radom. June strikes against increased food prices. Walesa and union activists in Gdansk drew up a Charter of Workers' Rights on April 29, 1978, and formed the unofficial Baltic Committee of Independent Trade Unions to defend the workers' economic, legal, and human rights.

Although involved in the underground trade union movement, Walesa continued to work with the government-controlled, official trade unions. Elected delegate to the official union's elections, he protested against flagrant election manipulation and in December 1978 was fired from his job. Five months later Walesa began work at the engineering enterprise Elektromontaz, where he earned recognition as an outstanding electrician.

Walesa and union activists arranged unofficial memorial services in December 1978 at Gate Number Two of the Lenin Shipyard for the 45 workers who were killed by military and government security forces in the 1970 food

strikes. On the following anniversary, December 16, 1979, Walesa and members of the Baltic Committee organized unauthorized mass demonstrations at the gates. He urged the formation of independent trade unions and social self-defense groups, modeled on KOR, to assist workers. After numerous arrests were made, Walesa defended his coworkers who were to be discharged in January 1980 for taking part in the rally. He, too, lost his job at Elektromontaz. Over a ten-year period, Walesa was held under 48-hour arrest with great regularity.

After the government covertly attempted to increase meat and meat product prices in July 1980, triggering numerous strikes, Walesa, unemployed, scaled the 12-foot-high perimeter fence of the Lenin Shipyard on August 14, 1980, and took charge of the shipyard strike. He demanded his own job reinstatement and that of the recently fired veteran crane operator and union activist Anna Walentynowicz and stipulated that the proceedings be broadcast throughout the yard. At the successful conclusion of three days of negotiations, Walesa abruptly reversed his decision to call off the strike and began a solidarity strike in behalf of sympathy strikers from factories in the Gdansk area who were excluded from the settlement. With 21 demands in hand and his commission of experts, Walesa entered into negotiations with Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski on August 23 and, after a week of hard negotiations, won the government's acceptance of independent autonomous trade unions and the right to strike. On August 31, 1980, he signed the final phase of the Gdansk Agreement and ended the strike.

The Founding of "Solidarity"

Walesa issued the official Charter of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union in Gdansk on September 15, 1980 as Party First Secretary Stanislaw Kania extended the Gdansk Accords to the entire country. On September 17, 1980, Walesa was elected chair of the highest decision-making body of the new national union, the National Coordinating Commission of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union "Solidarity" (NSZZ Solidarność). Leading a large delegation, Walesa presented Solidarity's statutes to the Warsaw District Court on September 24 for registration as required by law. From September to November 1980 Walesa utilized the "strike" mechanism effectively to counter a series of confrontations designed by the authorities to weaken and destroy Solidarity.

On December 16, 1980, Walesa dedicated the long-promised monument to the martyred workers of December 1970 at the gates of the Lenin Shipyard. With only 27 names of the dead conceded by the government, Walesa commemorated the tenth anniversary together with representatives of Solidarity, the Catholic Church, and the Communist Party in a public display of unity. In mid-January 1981 Walesa led a delegation to Rome where he was received by Pope John Paul II and met with Italian trade union leaders.

During 1981 Walesa was frequently called upon to defuse wildcat strikes. To halt rampant strike activity, Walesa acquiesced to Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski's request of February 10 for a 90-day strike moratorium and promise of dialogue on the reform of labor laws.

The unprovoked, violent police action against representatives of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz on March 19, 1981, required the hospitalization of three Solidarity members. Walesa demanded the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. He began a nationwide four-hour warning strike and prepared for a massive, general strike scheduled for March 31, 1981. When the Warsaw Agreement was reached, Walesa drew severe criticism from Solidarity members for his undemocratic actions and for arbitrarily suspending the planned general strike. He was also castigated by members of Rural Solidarity, who were dissatisfied with the outcome. As a result of Walesa's negotiations, however, the weekly journal "Solidarity" (Solidarność) was published a few days later and Rural Solidarity was registered as an independent union on May 12, 1981.

By August 1981 talks between Walesa and government negotiator Mieczyslaw Rakowski collapsed as Solidarity, with ten million members, prepared for its first national congress. Walesa and Solidarity came under fire from fierce propaganda attacks while Soviet military and naval maneuvers increased fears of an invasion. Opening the first session of the national congress in September 1981 in Gdansk, Walesa defended his undemocratic negotiating methods and called for free elections on local and parliamentary levels. Between sessions he pushed through a workers' self-management compromise on worker participation in economic reform at the factory level, which the Sejm (parliament) hastily passed. Walesa was reelected chairman of Solidarity on October 1, 1981.

"Solidarity" Declared Illegal

With strikes and protests continuing unabated, Walesa declared a three-month strike moratorium on November 4, 1981, and met at an unprecedented summit with Archbishop Jozef Glemp and Party First Secretary General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who offered plans for a Council for National Agreement. Recognizing that Solidarity and the Church would play mere consultative and symbolic roles, Walesa rejected the plans. On November 19, due to a severe national economic downturn, he appealed to the West for food aid for a period of five months.

Despite Walesa's conciliatory gestures, riot police forcibly evicted strikers at the Warsaw Fire Service Academy's sit-in on December 2, 1981. Walesa called the presidium and regional chairmen into closed session in Radom, where he issued a statement on the government's refusal to conclude a genuine national agreement. On December 7, 1981, a secretly obtained, edited tape of the meeting was broadcast by Warsaw Radio, implicating Walesa in confrontation with the authorities and the Solidarity militants in the overthrow of the government.

In a massive, predawn, secretive military crackdown, Walesa and nearly all of Solidarity's leadership were arrested and interned on December 13, 1981, and martial law was imposed. Flown to Warsaw for talks with General Wojciech Jaruzelski, he refused to negotiate or televise an appeal for calm and, while in custody in Warsaw, smuggled messages to Solidarity advocating peaceful resistance. Transferred to the Arlamow hunting reserve in southeast Poland, Walesa continued in his refusal to cooperate with the authorities. Solidarity was delegalized in October 1982 by the Party-dominated and controlled Sejm. Walesa was released on November 11, 1982, after 11 months of internment.

Wins Nobel Prize for Peace

In June 1983 during Pope John Paul II's second journey to Poland Walesa was granted leave for a private audience with the pope at a remote retreat in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland. As a result of the meeting Walesa lessened his overt political activity to ease the internal situation in Poland. After receiving permission to return to the Lenin Shipyard in April 1983, he resumed work at his own request in August 1983, ten days after martial law was lifted.

For his determined and nonviolent fight for human rights, Walesa won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Peace. But, fearing that Polish authorities would block his return to Poland, he designated his wife, Danuta, mother of his seven children, to accept the award in his name in Oslo in December 1983. In his acceptance speech, delivered by his wife, Walesa declared, "We crave for justice, and that is why we are so persistent in the struggle for our rights." He called for dialogue with the authorities, as well as East-West dialogue, and appealed for aid to Poland.

Walesa dedicated the Nobel Prize to the ten million members of the outlawed Solidarity movement and pledged the prize money to a Church-sponsored agricultural foundation for private farmers. He called for the resumption of dialogue with the authorities, with the Church as intermediary, and continued to seek talks during the succeeding years while maintaining a low profile.

On August 30, 1985, the fifth anniversary of the Independent Autonomous Trade Union in Gdansk, Walesa appealed once again to the authorities to resume talks and to seek an agreement. He offered positive proposals in a document, "Poland Five Years after the August," compiled by Solidarity activists, which would serve as a basis for dialogue and which would bring about the hoped-for peaceful solution to workers' problems in Poland.

In 1989, when it was announced that Poland would be able to freely choose its government, Walesa began promoting a new presidential election, and when it was apparent that he had public support, he announced his intention for candidacy. In 1990 he was elected president of Poland. Although the country suffered a deadlocked government and high unemployment rate during Walesa's term, he accomplished much. Walesa pushed hard for reforms, and devoted a great deal of energy to ensuring Poland's entry to the European Union. He was responsible for ending Polish ties to Russia and even received a declaration from Russian president Boris Yeltsin that stated Russia's lack of objection to Poland's entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Under Walesa, the Polish economy became sixty percent privatized, with a growth rate of six percent. He is, however, not credited with this achievement, because of both his apparent lack of interest in the plight of workers mired in the transition economy and the Polish people's rather unrealistic desire for immediate change. Many of his critics say that Walesa failed to prepare Poland for the shock of the economy's transformation from Communism to democracy. The Poles' dissatisfaction with the pace of change helped ensure Communist opponent Aleksander Kwasniewski's presidential victory in the elections of 1995.

While he lost the presidency to a former Communist in Poland's 1995 elections, Walesa can nevertheless be credited with helping to unfurl the banner of democracy across Communist Europe. Indeed, the key role he played in liberalizing Eastern Europe has earned him a long list of honors, not least of which was the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Walesa is also the author of several books, including A Way of Hope (1987) and The Struggle and the Triumph (1991). In 1995, he became the vice president of the Lech Walesa Institute Foundation.

Further Reading

The Book of Lech Walesa (1982), a collective portrait by Solidarity members and friends, provides valuable insights, as does Robert Eringer, Strike for Freedom: The Story of Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity (1982). Michael Dobbs presents Lech Walesa as the "Symbol of Polish August" in Poland, Solidarity and Walesa (1981). For a personal glimpse, read Walter Brolewicz, My Brother, Lech Walesa (1983). Neal Ascherson, The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution (1981) and Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (1983, 1985) are indispensable, definitive historical accounts of Solidarity and Lech Walesa's role in the movement. Other important works include A. Kemp-Welch, The Birth of Solidarity: The Gdansk Negotiations, 1980 (1983) and Alain Touraine, Solidarity, the Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-81 (1983). A brief chapter on "Solidarity, 1980-1981" is included in Volume II of Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, 2 vols. (1982). In 1987 Walesa published his reminiscences in A Way of Hope.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lech Walesa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lech Walesa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lech-walesa

"Lech Walesa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lech-walesa

Wałęsa, Lech

Lech Wałęsa (lĕkh väwĕn´zə), 1943–, Polish labor and political leader. He worked as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk but was dismissed in 1976 for his antigovernment protests. In 1980 striking workers at the shipyard won his reinstatement, and he assumed leadership of the independent trade union Solidarity. A moderate, he gained numerous concessions from the authorities before his arrest and internment in the military crackdown of 1981. He was released in Nov., 1982, and in 1983 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1987, he helped block Jaruzelski's reform initiatives by organizing a boycott of the government referendum, and in 1988 he led a series of nationwide strikes. In 1989 he negotiated an agreement with the government under which Solidarity was legalized and allowed to campaign as a political party in the upcoming elections. By the end of Aug., 1989, a Solidarity-led coalition government was in power, but Wałęsa became increasingly critical of Premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki. In Dec., 1990, Wałęsa was elected president of Poland, defeating Mazowiecki, and resigned his Solidarity post. Wałęsa failed to win reelection in 1995, losing to Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former Communist who was the Democratic Left Alliance candidate. He ran again in 2000 but received only 1% of the vote.

See his autobiography, The Struggle and the Triumph (1992).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wałęsa, Lech." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wałęsa, Lech." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walesa-lech

"Wałęsa, Lech." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walesa-lech

Wałesa, Lech

Wałesa, Lech (1943– ) Polish labour leader and president (1990–95). In August 1980, he organized Solidarity, an independent self-governing trade union. Wałesa became a symbol of the Polish workers' determination to have a greater voice in government affairs. In 1981, the government outlawed Solidarity; Wałesa was interned until late 1982 as part of the government's effort to silence opposition. In 1983, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Following reforms in the Soviet Union, Solidarity was legalized and won free elections in 1989. In 1990, the Communist Party was disbanded and Wałesa became president. He was defeated in 1995 elections.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wałesa, Lech." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wałesa, Lech." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walesa-lech

"Wałesa, Lech." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walesa-lech