Lech Walesa, leader of communist Poland’s outlawed Solidarity movement, returns to his apartment in Gdansk after 11 months of internment in a remote hunting lodge near the Soviet border. Two days before, hundreds of supporters had begun a vigil outside his home upon learning that the founder of Poland’s trade union movement was being released. When Walesa finally did return home, on November 14, he was lifted above the jubilant crowd and carried to the door of his apartment, where he greeted his wife and then addressed his supporters from a second-story window.
Walesa, born in 1943, was an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk when he was fired for union agitation in 1976. When protests broke out in the Gdansk shipyard over an increase in food prices in August 1980, Walesa climbed the shipyard fence and joined the thousands of workers inside. He was elected leader of the strike committee, and three days later the strikers’ demands were met. Walesa then helped coordinate other strikes in Gdansk and demanded that the Polish government allow the free formation of trade unions and the right to strike. On August 30, the government conceded to the strikers’ demands, legalizing trade unionism and granting greater freedom of religious and political expression.
Millions of Polish workers and farmers came together to form unions, and Solidarity was formed as a national federation of unions, with Walesa as its chairman. Under Walesa’s charismatic leadership, the organization grew in size and political influence, soon becoming a major threat to the authority of the Polish government. On December 13, 1981, martial law was declared in Poland, Solidarity was outlawed, and Walesa and other labor leaders were arrested.
In November 1982, overwhelming public outcry forced Walesa’s release, but Solidarity remained illegal. In 1983, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Fearing involuntary exile, he declined to travel to Norway to accept the award. Walesa continued as leader of the now-underground Solidarity movement, and he was subjected to continual monitoring and harassment by the communist authorities.
In 1988, deteriorating economic conditions led to a new wave of labor strikes across Poland, and the government was forced to negotiate with Walesa. In April 1989, Solidarity was again legalized, and its members were allowed to enter a limited number of candidates in upcoming elections. By September, a Solidarity-led government coalition was in place, with Walesa’s colleague Tadeusz Mazowiecki as premier. In 1990, Poland’s first direct presidential election was held, and Walesa won by a landslide.
President Walesa successfully implemented free-market reforms, but unfortunately he was a more effective labor leader than president. In 1995, he was narrowly defeated in his reelection by former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance.