Lech Wałęsa is a Polish politician and a former trade union and human rights activist. He co-founded Solidarity, the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995.
Wałęsa was born in Popowo, Poland, on 29 September 1943. He came from a poor family and his father was a carpenter. He attended primary and vocational school in Popowo, before entering Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk as an electrical technician in 1970. In 1969 he married Danuta Gołoś, and the couple now have eight children. His son Jarosław Wałęsa was a member of Poland's Sejm, currently is a member of European Parliament. Lech Wałęsa is a devout Roman Catholic, and has said that his faith always helped him during Solidarity's difficult moments.
He was a member of the illegal strike committee in Gdańsk Shipyard in 1970 (Polish 1970 protests). In 1976, Wałęsa lost his job in the Gdańsk Shipyard. In June 1978, he joined the illegal underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża), organized by Bogdan Borusewicz, Andrzej Gwiazda, Krzysztof Wyszkowski, Lech Kaczyński, Anna Walentynowicz, Antoni Sokołowski, and others. On 14 August 1980, after the beginning of an occupational strike in the Lenin Shipyard of Gdańsk, Wałęsa became the leader of this strike.
The strike was spontaneously followed by similar strikes, first in Gdańsk, and then across Poland. In September that year, the Communist government signed an agreement with the Strike Coordination Committee to allow legal organization, but not actual free trade unions. The Strike Coordination Committee legalized itself into National Coordination Committee of Solidarity Free Trade Union, and Wałęsa was chosen as a chairman of this Committee.
Wałęsa kept this position until 13 December 1981, when he was arrested. General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared a state of martial law on 13 December. Wałęsa was incarcerated for 11 months in eastern Poland in several villages (Chylice, Otwock and Arłamów near the Soviet border) until 14 November 1982.
In 1983, he applied to come back to Gdańsk Shipyard as a simple electrician. The same year, he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to receive the prize himself, fearing that the government would not let him back in. His wife, Danuta Wałęsa, received the prize in his place.
From 1987 to 1990, Wałęsa organized and led the "half-illegal" Temporary Executive Committee of Solidarity Trade Union. In 1988, Wałęsa organized an occupational strike in Gdańsk Shipyard, demanding only the re-legalisation of Solidarity. After 80 days, the government agreed to enter into talks in September. Wałęsa was an informal leader of the "non-governmental" side during the talks. During the talks, the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade Union and to organize "half-free" elections to the Polish parliament.
In 1989, Wałęsa organized and led the Citizenship Committee of the Chairman of Solidarity Trade Union. Formally, it was just an advisory body, but, practically, it was a kind of a political party, which won parliament elections in 1989.
While technically just a Chairman of Solidarity at the time, Wałęsa played a key role in Polish politics. At the end of 1989, he persuaded leaders from formerly Communist ally parties to form a non-communist coalition government, which was the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc's sphere of influence. After that agreement the parliament chose Tadeusz Mazowiecki for prime minister of Poland. Poland, while still a Communist country in theory, started to change its economy to a market-based system.
He is the only private foreign citizen to address a joint session of the United States Congress, which he did on 15 November 1989. He was also the first recipient of the Liberty Medal on 4 July 1989 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his acceptance speech, he said, "Liberty is not only a right, but also our common responsibility and duty."
Documents coming to light as of June 2008 allege that Wałęsa had been a collaborator of the Communist secret police (Polish: tajny współpracownik) under the pseudonym "Bolek", well prior to the formation of Solidarity. Walesa himself denies any collaboration and there is no substantiation of these rumors. On 11 August 2000, the Appellate Court of Warsaw, V Wydział Lustracyjny, declared that Wałęsa's Lustration Statement is true, meaning he did not collaborate with the Communist regime.
On 9 December 1990, Wałęsa won the presidential election to become president of Poland for the next five years. During his presidency, he started a so-called "war at the top" which practically meant changing the government annually. His style of presidency was strongly criticized by most of the political parties, and he lost most of the initial public support by the end of 1995. Wałęsa lost the 1995 presidential election, collecting 48.72% of the votes in the run-off election against Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Wałęsa again stood for the presidential election in 2000, but he received only 1% of votes. Many Polish people were dissatisfied with the fact that once again he wanted to regain his political power. After that, Wałęsa again claimed his political retirement. From that time on, he has been lecturing on the history and politics of Central Europe at various foreign universities. Although not politically engaged anymore, Wałęsa is still publicly addressed as "President".