biography, Nobel Peace Prize
[Lech Walesa, Solidarity]
trades union, Poland, communism

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Lech Walesa
An outline historical biography
The Solidarity trades union

  Lech Walesa (pronounced Vah-wen-sah) was born as the son of a carpenter in a clay hut located in the village of Popow, between Warsaw and Gdansk, Poland, on September 29, 1943. The Second World War was in operation with Nazi Germany being an occupying power. Lech Walesa's father, Boleslaw, was conscripted to dig ditches and died in 1946 from the exposure and beatings he suffered. His mother, Feliksa, seemed to have the most effect on Walesa. The parish priest remembers her as "the wisest woman in the parish."

Walesa was only an average student at his parish school and after graduating from the state vocational school in Lipno, where he learned the electrician's trade, worked as a car mechanic at a machine center from 1961 to 1965. He served in the army for two years, rose to the rank of corporal, and in 1967 was employed in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk as an electrician.

Poland has had a rather turbulent and unfortunate history in its position amongst powerful neighbours. Once an extensive country, but one which was apt to suffer serious domestic turbulences, by 1800 Poland had been partitioned out of existence with its former provinces being allocated to the Russian and Austrian empires and to Prussia. At several stages in Poland's history the Roman Catholic Church there has served as a focus through which efforts were made to preserve a Polish, and Catholic, nationality. Although Poland had been reconstituted as an independent state between 1921 and 1939 the aftermath of the Second World War saw a Poland with revised frontiers and under the ideological control of Soviet Russia.

Most Poles regarded the Polish Communist Party in Warsaw as little more than an outpost of Soviet Imperialism. In 1956 there were riots in protest at food shortages, in 1968 Polish intellectuals joined those of Czecheslovakia, another reluctant satellite in the Soviet orbit of control, in protesting the lack of intellectual freedoms. In 1970 there were serious turmoils all along the Baltic coast after the government raised food prices. Lech Walesa was prominent in a leadership role amongst the workers in Gdansk at this time. Gdansk, and the immense Lenin shipyards, featured as the focus of protest against the government in these turmoils. Lech Walesa championed reform but he also urged restraint in the methods used to achieve that reform. In one notably instance he persuaded a crowd of some 20,000 not to attack a nearby prison.

It happened that the leader of the Polish Communist Party, Wladslaw Gomulka, authorised the police and army to use force causing tens, and perhaps hundreds, of fatalities - the actual figure has not been established. Lech Walesa was one of the many hundreds who were now arrested by the authorities and subjected to periods of detention.

Following on from the riots of 1970 Edward Gierek replaced Gomulka and promised to transform the standard of living of the Polish people through the deployment of foreign capital. In all, Gierek imported about $10 billion worth of modern capital goods. Then he wasted all of it in textbook cases of how not to run an economy. For example the Ursus tractor factory intended to produce tractors of western design proved to not have the required licencing to allow it to sell its output in the West. The tractors produced were too expensive to be sold in the East, besides this most Polish farm equipment did not fit the tractor.

In efforts to inhibit domestic protest that might be caused by economic deprivations, Gierek allowed wages to rise 40% from 1970 to 1975, compared with an increase of only 17% over the previous decade. To give Poles enough meat, Gierek quadrupled imports of grain and fodder; the per capita consumption of meat jumped from 132 lbs. per year in 1970 to 154 lbs. in 1980. The state's pricing system meanwhile, was primarily designed to hold down food costs to consumers, and was a very effective blueprint for fiscal disaster. The state was paying farmers 10 zlotys for a liter of milk that sold it stores for 4 zlotys. Live hogs were bought from farmers at 130 zlotys per kilogram and sold as butchered pork at 70 zlotys per kilogram. Farmers bought bread and fed it to their livestock because it was cheaper than the wheat it was made from. Price subsidies began absorbing a staggering one-third of the national budget.

In Cracow, meanwhile, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla emerged as a strong advocate of human rights and promoted an independent intellectual life. In 1974 Communist Party ideologue Andrej Werbian called the Cardinal "the only real ideological threat in Poland." The astuteness of Werbian's judgment became dramatically apparent four years later when Wojtyla became John Paul II. The naming of the first Polish Pope caused an explosion of national pride in Poland. As had occurred so often in the past, a religious act had become a patriotic cause for the Poles.

Fearing a national outcry, Gierek was reluctant to ease the strain on the budget by raising prices. He was right. When he finally increased prices in 1976, there were major riots in Radom and at the Ursus tractor factory. The brutal repression of these riots led to the formation of the committee for Social self-Defense (KOR), a precursor of Solidarity. The organization was the first significant link between the dissident intellectuals like Jacek Kuron and the workers who later founded the Soldarity trades union. Inspired by KOR activists, small independent--and illegal--labor unions cautiously began to form in various parts of the country. Lech Walesa joined such a unit and was arrested and briefly jailed scores of times.

In 1976, as a result of his activities as a shop steward, Walesa was fired and had to earn his living by taking temporary jobs. In 1978 with other activists he began to organise free non-communist trade unions and took part in many actions on the sea coast. He was kept under surveillance by the state security service and frequently detained.

The spark that ignited the Solidarity revolution was a government decree that raised meat prices in July 1980. As they had done many times before, Polish workers reacted with angry protests. But this time something was different. This time the workers occupied the factories. Still, the movement had no focus. In Gdansk's Lenin shipyard, protest seemed to be on the verge of dying out when a stocky man with a shock of reddish-brown hair and a handle-bar mustache clambered over the iron-bar fence and joined the strikers inside. They all knew Lech Walesa. He was an unemployed electrician, fired eight months earlier for trying to organize an independent trade union.

With a double chin, a bit of a paunch, and of middle height, Lech Walesa, then 36, did not have an imposing physical presence. His working-class Polish was rough and often ungrammatical: his voice, perhaps from years of heavy smoking, was hoarse and rasping. His speeches were frequently riddled with mixed metaphors and skewed analogies. His real strength as a speaker was an ability to reduce complex issues to simple words and images that everyone could understand. Said one Solidarity official: "He knows his audience. He can sense what they want, and almost always he is right."

In August 1980 he led the Gdansk shipyard strike which gave rise to a wave of strikes over much of the country with Walesa seen as the leader. The primary demands were for workers' rights. The authorities were forced to capitulate and to negotiate with Walesa the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organise their own independent union.

If any one event had helped to create the psychological climate in which Solidarity trades union emerged, it was the visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland in June 1979. From the moment that the Pope knelt in Warsaw's airport to kiss the ground, he was cheered wildly by millions of Poles. John Paul never criticized the Communist regime directly, nor did he have to: his meaning was plain enough. "The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man," he told an enormous outdoor congregation in Warsaw. With that hardly veiled allusion to Communism, a deafening roar of approval filled the great city square. Says a Polish bishop of that day: "The Polish people broke the barrier of fear. They were hurling a challenge at their Marxist rulers."

During the August 1980 defiance of the communist authorities, the Lenin shipyard functioned as the emotional center of an extraordinary national movement. Festooned with flowers, white and red Polish flags and portraits of Pope John Paul II, the plant's iron gates came to symbolize that heady mixture of hope, faith and patriotism that sustained the workers through their vigil. In September 1981 Walesa was elected Solidarity Chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk. As the world watched and wondered if Soviet tanks would put an end to it all. Walesa and his fellow strikers stood their ground. Like soldiers before battle, they confessed to priests and received Communion in the open shipyard. To reduce the risk of violence, Walesa called for a ban on alcohol and insisted on strict discipline. Through it all, his plucky courage and infectious good humor helped keep up the workers' spirits.

Firmness and patience paid off; the government team finally gave in on almost all of the workers' demands. In addition to the right to strike and form unions, the Warsaw regime granted concessions extraordinary in a Communist country, including reduced censorship and access to the state broadcasting networks for the unions and the church. At a nationally televised ceremony, where strikers and government representatives stood side by side and sang the Polish national anthem. Walesa signed what became known as the Gdansk agreement with a giant souvenir pen bearing the likeness of John Paul II.

The Catholic Church had supported the Solidarity movement, and in January 1981 Walesa was cordially received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. Walesa himself has always regarded his Catholicism as a source of strength and inspiration. Falling to his knees, Walesa kissed the papal ring and then briefly resisted the Pope's efforts to pull him to his feet. The union leader then had a rare private meeting with the Pope, which lasted for half an hour. Later, in his public remarks, John Paul II warmly supported Solidarity. "I wish to assure you," he told Walesa, "that during your difficulties I have been with you in a special way, above all through prayer." He declared that the right to form free associations was "one of the fundamental human rights." But the Polish Pope also cautioned Walesa to follow a moderate course.

As workers rushed to join up at hastily improvised union locals across the country, Walesa and the other ex-strike leaders quickly found themselves at the head of a labor federation that soon grew to 10 million members--fully a quarter of the Polish population. One of the key organizational problems for Walesa and Solidarity was the question of defining policy and strategy. In the beginning, Walesa insisted that Solidarity should be a pure and simple labor movement, not a political opposition. On the day he showed up at a Gdansk apartment building to open Solidarity's first makeshift headquarters, a wooden crucifix under his arm and a bouquet of flowers in his right hand. Walesa told a crowd of reporters, "I am not interested in politics, I am a union man. My job now is to organize the union."

Some 900,000 Poles quit the Communist party after August 1980, reducing its strength to a mere 2.5 million, only 7% of the population. The resignations increased in October when the Central Committee urged party members, about 1 million of whom belonged to Solidarity, to quit the union. In a strikingly candid statement, Central Committee Member Marian Arendt recently told a Polish weekly: "Mostly it is workers who are leaving (the party). Once I was so naive as to think that a few evil men were responsible for the errors of the party. Now I no longer have such illusions. There is something wrong in our whole apparatus, in our entire structure. "The party was on the verge of total collapse. What was more, Solidarity's surge had started another surprising movement in Poland: a grass-roots crusade for reform that sought to democratize the party from within. Adopting the workers' slogan of ODNOWA (renewal), party reformers tried to make the leadership more responsive to the rank and file. Party Boss Stanislaw Kania, a pragmatic politician who had replaced Gierik in September 1980, shrewdly adopted the cause of renewal in the hope of controlling it from the top and limiting its scope. At the same time, he cooperated with Solidarity to avoid a possibly disastrous confrontation.

A five-day work week was granted on Jan 31 1981 after decades of six-day work weeks in Poland. But that only aggravated the economic crisis by further reducing production--especially in the coal-mining industry, whose output fell by nearly 10% in 1981. In addition, the country was soon swept by a spate of wildcat strikes over local issues. In some cases, Solidarity chapters were taking on the Communist Party bureaucracy by demanding the ouster of corrupt local officials or the conversion of party buildings to public hospitals. For the first time, rank-and-file militants threatened to spin out of Walesa's control. "We must concentrate on basic issues. "Walesa pleaded as the protests spread. "There's a fire in the country."

All the while, the Kremlin watched with rising anxiety. Solidarity's very existence was incompatible with the Communist Party's monopoly of power. But perhaps even more important, the drive for democracy within the Polish party challenged the Leninist doctrine of centralized party discipline. Poland's festering economic crisis also put a drain on the whole Soviet bloc, whose member nations' economies were interlocked within the COMECON trade organization. And in Moscow's worst-case scenario, the "Polish disease" might infect other East bloc countries and the Ukraine, posing a threat to the future of the Soviet empire.

On October 18 1981 the Communist Party's Central Committee accepted the resignation of the ineffectual Kania and elevated General Jaruzelski to the party leadership, the real source of power in the country. Jaruzelski was thus the head of the party, the government and the army. The very fact that the Soviets allowed the Poles to violate the Communist dogma that party civilians must always control the military was a sign of their dismay over the Polish party's disarray, and of their faith in the Soviet-schooled general.

Jaruzelski appealed for national unity. He asked Solidarity and the church to join with the party in a "front of national accord" that would cooperate on economic recovery. The overture raised hopes that Poles might at last find a way out of the impasse by forging the vital element that had been missing from their body politic for more than three decades; a true social compact.

Then on December 12, Solidarity radicals gave Jaruzelski the excuse to do what he probably had been planning all along. From the start, the government and the Kremlin had made it clear that they could not tolerate a challenge to the existence of Poland as a Communist state, or any loosening of ties with the Soviet Union. That is precisely what the radicals voted to do at their last meeting in Gdansk. While Walesa looked on in frustrated silence, they called for a national referendum on the future of the Communist government and a re-examination of Poland's military alliance with the soviet Union.

That was the perfect pretext for the government to impose martial law. Near the end of the session, when communications with the outside world had already been cut, Walesa stood up, raised both arms in a gesture of despair, and angrily told his fellow leaders: "Now you've got what you've been looking for."

The end had begun. Within in hours, most of the union leaders had been arrested. Walesa had been flown to Warsaw, and army vehicles were clanking across the country. By the time Jaruzelski appeared on television, Solidarity's tumultuous revolution had been gagged and shackled. No one could know if Warsaw's leaders would honor their pledge to restore the people's freedoms once "order" returned. But one thing was certain; the flame that was lighted in August 1980 had brightened all Poland, and Poles do not give up easily. In the words that emblazon the tomb of the venerated Marshal Pilsudski: "To be defeated and not to surrender, that's victory."

If the government of General Jaruzelski had not imposed the crackdown, the Soviets certainly would have. The presence in Warsaw of high-ranking soviet officers, including Marshal Viktor Kulikov, even suggested a direct soviet role in planning what amounted to an invasion by proxy. For more than a year, the Kremlin had made it clear that it would not indefinitely tolerate the development of a union movement that could challenge a Communist government as directly as Solidarity had--a movement that was calling, in effect, for government by consent of the governed.

In November 1982 Walesa was released and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards. Although kept under surveillance, he managed to maintain lively contact with Solidarity leaders in the underground. While martial law was lifted in July 1983, many of the restrictions were continued in civil code. In October 1983 the announcement of Walesa's Nobel Peace Prize raised the spirits of the underground movement, but the award was attacked by the government press.

Over the following years the Jaruzelski regime became even more unpopular as economic conditions worsened. Under Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to use military force to keep communist parties in satellite states in power. The Polish Communist party was finally forced to again negotiate with Walesa and his colleagues in a revived Solidarity movement. The result was the holding of parliamentary elections in September 1989 which led to the establishment of a Solidarity led government.

Walesa, now head of the revived Solidarity labour union, began a series of meetings with world leaders. In November 1989 he became the third person in history, after the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill, to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

In April 1990 at Solidarity's second national congress, Walesa was elected chairman with 77.5% of the votes. In December 1990 in a general ballot he was elected President of the Republic of Poland. He served until defeated in the election of November 1995.

Walesa has been granted many honorary degrees from universities, including Harvard University and the University of Paris. Other honors include the Medal of Freedom (Philadelphia, U.S.A.); the Award of Free World (Norway); and the European Award of Human Rights.

In 1969 he married Danuta Golos and they have eight children.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History

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Lech Walesa
An outline biography