Lech Wałesa

Victory can be achieved by various means. It can be gained with tanks and missiles, but I think that one wins better with truth, honesty and logic… This is a new weapon.
Lech Wałęsa

I’m not Polish, but I’ve sometimes lived in largely Polish communities, including Hamtramck, Michigan, where my wife and I now reside. Poland has often been carved up by the powers around it, never united enough to stand against others. But a united movement wondrously called Solidarność (Solidarity) cracked apart one of the most powerful empires in history. It was led by ordinary Poles, working-class people like my neighbors—who are so proud of what was accomplished in their homeland.
Daniel Buttry

Lech Wałęsa (b. 1943)

Lech Walesa appearing at the European People's Party in 2008. Photo shared via Wikimedia Commons.

Lech Walesa appearing at the European People’s Party in 2008. Photo shared via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest ironies in history is that the Communist empire was undone by a genuine national workers’ revolution. The workers’ nonviolent revolution that began in Poland was the key blow that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its iron grip over Eastern Europe. At the head of the revolt was an unemployed electrician named Lech Wałęsa.

Wałęsa was born to a peasant family during World War II. When he was older he joined the flow of workers to the cities of Poland, which was engaged in massive industrialization under the new Communist regime. In 1967, he landed a job as an electrician at the shipyard in the coastal city of Gdańsk.

The first clash between the shipyard workers and the government erupted in December 1970. Wałęsa was a member of the illegal strike committee. When the government succeeded in crushing the strike, Wałęsa was briefly jailed. Then in 1976, he was fired from the shipyard for his organizing efforts as a shop steward. He supported his family by various temporary jobs, but he continued to make contact with union activists, joining the illegal and underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast. Mean- while the state security apparatus kept Wałęsa under surveillance and periodically detained him.

In August 1980, the 17,000 workers at the Gdańsk shipyard went on strike. In the 1970 clash, they had taken their protest into the streets where the workers were easy targets for the police, but this time they decided to occupy the shipyard. They locked the gates and refused to leave. The government couldn’t risk destroy- ing the shipyard with an assault on the workers. Wałęsa raced to the shipyard, dramatically climbed the fence and was enthusiastically received by the striking workers. During the strike, families passed food over the fence for the workers. Many of the work- ers, including Wałęsa, were devout Catholics, so priests joined the workers to say mass.

Wałęsa became the leader of the Strike Coordination Committee at the shipyard. Initially the strike was about higher wages, but Wałęsa urged them toward the more visionary and political demand for free trade unions. The strike at the shipyard inspired other workers throughout Poland to join with them, and an Inter- Factory Strike Committee was formed to coordinate the strikes.

The Polish government finally entered into negotiations with the strikers, led by Wałęsa. On August 31, 1980, the Gdańsk Agreement was signed giving workers across Poland the right to strike and to organize their own independent trade union.
After the successful strike in Gdańsk, representatives gathered from the various unions across Poland, and they established The Solidarity Free Trade Union (Solidarność in Polish, Solidarity in English). The union grew to about 10 million members, representing most of the industrial workers in Poland. A related agricultural union also was also established called Rural Solidarity. In September 1981, Wałęsa was elected chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress, held in Gdańsk.

With growing fear that the Soviet Union might invade to sup- press the increasing strength of Solidarity, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland. Solidarity was “suspended,” and many of its leaders arrested. Wałęsa was arrested and detained for 11 months in a house at a remote location to keep him in isolation. After his release he was allowed to return to his old job in the shipyard, but only under intense surveillance. However, he still managed to keep up secret contacts with other underground union activists, while remaining above the law.
In 1983 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wałęsa, an action criticized by the Jaruzelski regime. Fearing that the government would not let him return if he left Poland, Wałęsa sent his wife to receive the prize on his behalf. The international attention helped Solidarity continue its struggle during the height of the martial law period.

When Mikhail Gorbachev began launching reforms from Moscow, the pressure from Solidarity began building again in Poland. In 1988, Wałęsa and Solidarity struck with renewed confidence, occupying the Gdańsk shipyard once more. Jaruzelski was forced to negotiate with Wałęsa and Solidarity. Solidarity was legalized, and the Polish government reached an agreement with the union to hold semi-free parliamentary elections that for the first time allowed the participation of non-Communists. In June 1989, the Solidarity-endorsed candidates won overwhelmingly, taking all but one of the seats in the national assembly not reserved by law for the Communist Party. The first non-Communist Prime Minister was chosen: Tadeusz Mazowiecki, an advisor to Solidarity.

The political pressure for change became unstoppable. In December 1990 the first free general election was held in Poland since World War II. The electrician who had led the strike that began the revolution became the first president of Poland in the post-Communist era. Poland’s successful rejection of Com- munism opened the floodgates of change in Eastern Europe. In short order, the East German regime collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down. The Czechs held their “Velvet Revolution,” and Eastern Europe crumbled as a Communist bloc. The Cold War ended, and in 1991 the Soviet Union broke up. One of the greatest empires in history crumbled in large part from nonviolent resistance launched by the union Wałęsa led.

Though Wałęsa was a brilliant union activist and leader of the resistance to Communist Party rule, his presidency was erratic. He fought with many of his old Solidarity colleagues, including Mazowiecki. In 1995 when Wałęsa ran for a second term as president, he was narrowly defeated. He has since alternated between speaking engagements around the world and venturing again into Polish politics, each time with less success than earlier forays. He will be remembered not for his political career but for his activism at the shipyard and at the negotiation table. There he won a true workers’ revolution, using nonviolence, tenacity and faith.

Meet more peacemakers like Lech Wałęsa

This profile on Lech Wałęsa comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. Blessed are the Peacemakers is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.

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