Beginning of the fall of communism in Europe and the eventual breakup of former Soviet Union can be traced back to Poland, the Solidarity shipyard workers union and to the trade union’s leader Lech Walesa. On 4 June of this year, Poland marked three decades since the first democratic elections were held following the fall of Communism, and on the occasion paid homage to the man who made it all possible.
Lech Walesa co-founded and led the Solidarity movement, the first independent trade union movement against the communist government in the former Soviet bloc. A charismatic and intrepid leader of the Solidarity movement and an inspiration to millions of workers, both in Poland and around the world, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland (1990–95) following the demise of the communist state and was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1983.
Born in Popowo, Poland on 29 September, 1943, as the son of a local carpenter, Lech Walesa finished his primary education and then graduated from vocational school before joining as a car mechanic at a machine center where he worked from 1961 to 1965. He then served in the army for two years, rose to the rank of corporal, and in 1967 was employed in the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician. In 1969, he married Danuta Golos and they have eight children.
Walesa led agitations that erupted in 1976 against Poland’s communist government and on 14 August, 1980, when protests took place at the shipyard against an increase in food prices, Walesa was at the forefront of the strike. He was elected head of a strike committee and tasked to negotiate with management. Three days later, an agreement was reached that fulfilled the strikers’ demands. But then, strikers in other Gdańsk enterprises requested Walesa to continue his strike out of solidarity, to which he immediately agreed.
Walesa was also one of the leaders of the Interfactory Strike Committee that united the enterprises of the Gdańsk-Sopot-Gdynia area. This committee issued a set of bold political demands, including the right to strike and form free trade unions, and it proclaimed a general strike. Fearing a national revolt, the communist authorities yielded to the workers’ principal demands, and on 31 August Walesa and Mieczysław Jagielski, Poland’s first deputy premier, signed an agreement that permitted the workers the right to organize freely and independently.
In response to this momentous agreement, some 10 million Polish workers and farmers joined semi-autonomous unions, leading to the Interfactory Strike Committee transformation into a national federation of unions under the name Solidarity (Solidarność), with Walesa as its chairman and chief spokesman. Solidarity was officially recognized by the Polish government in October, and Walesa steered the federation on a course of carefully limited confrontations with the government in order to avert the possibility of Soviet military intervention in Poland.
The federation’s gains proved ephemeral, however: on 13 December, 1981, the Polish government imposed martial law, Solidarity was outlawed, and most of the leaders of Solidarity were arrested, including Walesa, who was detained for nearly a year. The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to Walesa in 1983 was criticized by the Polish government. Fearing involuntary exile, he remained in Poland while his wife, Danuta, traveled to Oslo, Norway, to accept the prize on his behalf.
As the leader of the now underground Solidarity movement, Walesa was subjected to constant harassment until collapsing economic conditions and a new wave of labor unrest in 1988 forced Poland’s government to negotiate with him and other Solidarity leaders. Those negotiations led to an agreement that restored Solidarity to legal status and sanctioned free elections for a limited number of seats in the newly restored upper house of the parliament. Solidarity won an overwhelming majority of those seats in June 1989, and, after Walesa refused to form a coalition government with the communists, the parliament was forced to accept a Solidarity-led government, though Walesa himself refused to serve as premier.
In 1990 he ran in and won Poland’s first direct presidential election by a landslide. As president, Walesa helped guide Poland through its first free parliamentary elections (1991) and watched as the government converted Poland’s state-run economy into a free-market system. Walesa had displayed remarkable political skills as the leader of Solidarity, but his plain speech, his confrontational style, and his refusal to approve a relaxation of Poland’s strict new prohibitions on abortion eroded his popularity late in his term as president. In 1995 he sought reelection but was narrowly defeated by the former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance. Walesa ran for president once again in 2000 but carried only a tiny fraction of the vote.
In the wake of that defeat, Walesa announced that he was leaving politics. Subsequently, he devoted much of his time to the affairs of the Lech Walesa Institute, which he had founded in 1995 to spread the word of Solidarity’s achievements, promote democracy, and build civil society in Poland and the world. In August 2006 Walesa announced that he had quit Solidarity at the beginning of that year in opposition to the union’s support of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party.
The anniversary of the struggle for freedom against tyranny in Poland in 1989 was defined by the solidarity of the workers and union leaders, teachers and students, church leaders and intellectuals. All these ordinary folks united in a common cause that inspired the world, helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and set the nation on a course toward freedom and democracy.