vah wenz' ah] leader of Poland's Solidarity
Movement, first President of the Republic of
Lech Walesa was born in Popowo,
Poland, on September 29, 1943. After graduating
from vocational school, he worked as a car
mechanic at a machine center (1961-1965). He then
served two years in the army, rising to the rank
of Corporal before being discharged. In 1967 he
was employed in the Gdansk shipyards as an
In December 1970 workers at the
Lenin Shipyard went on strike. A clash with
government officials ensued, and Walesa was one
of many workers who were briefly detained. In
1976 he was fired for his role in organizing new
protests. Employed only intermittenty during the
next four years, he intensified his efforts to
organize free non-communist trade unions.
In August 1980 Walesa led a
strike at the Gdansk shipyard; that strike gave
rise to a wave of strikes over much of Poland.
Forced to negotiate, Polish authorities signed
the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, which
gave Polish workers the right to strike and to
organize their own independent union.
The Catholic Church supported
the Solidarity movement, and in January 1981
Walesa was received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. From 1980 to 1981,
Walesa traveled to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France,
and Switzerland as a guest of the International
Labor Federation. In September 1981 he was
elected Solidarity Chairman at the First National
Solidarity Congress in Gdansk.
Amidst fears of Soviet
intervention and mounting economic pressures, the
Polish government suspended Solidarity and
imposed martial law in December 1981; Walesa was
arrested and held under house arrest. In November
1982 Walesa was released and reinstated at the
Gdansk shipyard. Although he was kept under
constant surveillance, Walesa was able to
maintain contact with other Solidarity leaders,
most of whom had gone underground. Martial law
was lifted in July 1983, but many of the
restrictions were continued in the civil code.
Solidarity's cause gained a much-needed boost in
October 1983, when the Nobel Foundation announced
that Lech Walesa had been awarded the 1983 Peace Prize.
As economic conditions
worsened, Solidarity's popularity increased.
Eventually the government was again forced to
negotiate with Walesa and Solidarity. The result
was the holding of parliamentary elections which
led to the establishment of a non-communist
government. Walesa then began a series of
meetings with world leaders. In November 1989 he
became only the third non-American in U.S.
history to address a joint session of the United
States Congress (the other two being the Marquis
de Lafayette and Winston Churchill). In April 1990 Walesa was elected
chairman of the Solidarity Union.
In December 1990 Walesa was
elected President of the newly-established
Republic of Poland. Pledges to transform Poland
into a market economy and eliminate unemployment
encountered obstacles, and Walesa was unable to
make good on either pledge. Over the course of
five years Poland had five different governments,
and Walesa dismissed two of them. In 1993 the
Polish people expressed their disillusionment
with Walesa's coalition government by electing a
majority of former Communists to Parliament. In
July 1994 Walesa vetoed a law that would have
liberalized Poland's strict abortion laws.
Despite his decreased popularity, Walesa ran for
re-election in November 1995, and was soundly
In addition to the Nobel Peace
Prize, Walesa has also received the United States
Medal of Freedom, Norway's Award of the Free
World, and the European Award of Human Rights.
Although officially retired
from Polish politics, Walesa continues to voice
his opinions on current events and to call for
reforms when he deems them necessary.
The Struggle and the
Triumph: An Autobiography was published in
Pope John Paul II
Nobel Peace Prize
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