We explain who Lech Walesa was, and how he became one of the main leaders of Polish independent trade unionism and President of Poland.
Who was Lech Walesa?
Lech Walesa (Wałęsa in Polish) is a Polish labor union activist who, between 1980 and 1990, organized and led Solidarity, the first independent labor union within the Communist Bloc during the Cold War. His struggle for the independence of labor movements made him repeatedly confront the Polish communist government.
Walesa was one of the most prominent popular leaders in his country, leading labor union activism for several decades. In 1983, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to secure the independence of workers' associations, amidst a backdrop of state oppression and control.
In 1988, he succeeded in obtaining the government’s recognition of the legality of Solidarity, which was allowed to run as a political party in the parliamentary elections. In 1990, Poland organized free elections for the first time in fifty years, and Lech Walesa was elected president by a large majority of the votes.
Lech Walesa's struggle for labor union independence and the free participation of citizens was one of the key elements that sparked a massive democratic wave against the communist dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc.
- See also: René Descartes
Personal life of Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa was born on September 23, 1943, in a village called Popovo in Poland. His father, who was a carpenter, died when he was two years old. During that period, the Soviet army entered Poland. His uncle married his mother, and thus both families were merged. Through his mother's influence, Lech had a strong Catholic upbringing.
After finishing elementary school, he took trade courses in metallurgy, mathematics, technical drawing, and electricity. He held different jobs and between 1963 and 1965, he served in the military.
In 1967, he started to work at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk as an electrician. While in that city, he met Danuta Golos, whom he married and had eight children. The following year, he was elected as a representative in the shipyard's workers' council, which marked the beginning of his lifelong commitment to political activism.
Political life of Lech Walesa
Political rise as a union leader
In 1970, Walesa led the Strike Committee at the Lenin Shipyard and participated in the workers' protests against the increase in the price of basic consumer goods, which were repressed by the Polish police.
In 1976, he lost his job at the shipyard due to his criticisms against the head of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR, as abbreviated in Polish). In the following years, he was fired from several companies because of his political activity.
His political activism began to gain popular recognition. In 1980, popular revolts became widespread and the Lenin shipyard went on a general strike. The shipyard's union leadership readmitted Walesa, who became a key leader of the Polish labor union movement.
The birth of Solidarity
The scope of the workers’ revolt in 1980, which soon incorporated political demands, led the government to finally capitulate and sign an agreement with worker representatives, granting workers the right to organize freely.
As a result, the different unions united into a single federation which took the name Solidarity, under Walesa’s leadership. In less than a year, over 10 million Polish workers joined the organization.
However, the USSR opposed labor union independence and, under Soviet pressure, the Polish government imposed martial law, banned Solidarity labor union, and arrested its main leaders. Walesa was imprisoned for nearly a year, until he was granted house arrest.
It was in this context that he was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. The Polish government openly opposed and strongly criticized the Swedish Academy that awards the prize. Fearing he would not be allowed to re-enter Poland, Walesa sent his wife Danuta to receive the prize on his behalf.
In 1988, another series of mass strikes broke out. Poland’s communist government was once again forced to negotiate with Walesa and other union leaders. As a result of these negotiations, Solidarity was re-legalized, and free elections were called for a number of seats in Parliament.
The Solidarity movement participated in the elections and won by an overwhelming majority. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a fellow partner of Walesa’s, became Prime Minister of Poland in 1989. This event is considered the beginning of the democratic wave that put an end to the communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.
Presidency of Poland (1990-1995)
In 1990, Walesa won the presidential election, serving as President of Poland until 1995. During his government, he sought to strengthen presidential authority at the expense of the Parliament. A devout Catholic, he proposed a series of measures aimed at integrating the Catholic Church into the functions of the state and society.
Under Walesa’s government, Poland changed from a country ruled by a communist regime controlled by the Soviet Union to a free and autonomous one. He led the transition to a capitalist economy and Poland’s entry into Western international organizations.
In this transition, he carried out the closure of state-owned enterprises and the privatization of many of Poland's resources and factories. This caused an increase in the price of basic consumer goods and severe hyperinflation.
Given this situation, he was unable to maintain popular support and leadership within Solidarity. At the end of his term, he lost the next elections and gradually lost political influence.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia (2002). "Lech Wałęsa". Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Palmowski, J. (2000). "Lech Wałęsa". A dictionary of twentieth-century world history. Oxford University Press.
- Van Dijk, R., Gray, W. G., Savranskaya, S., Suri, J., & Zhai, Q. (Eds.). (2013). “Lech Wałęsa”. Encyclopedia of the Cold War. Routledge.