Lech Walesa was born in 1943 in Popowo, Poland. After graduating from vocational school, he worked as a car mechanic at a machine center from 1961 to 1965. He served in the army for 2 years (to the rank of corporal), and in 1967 was employed in the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician. In 1969 he married Danuta Golos and they have 8 children.
During the clash in December 1970 between the workers and the government, he was one of the leaders of the shipyard workers and was briefly detained. The leader of the Polish Communist Party authorised the police and army to use force causing hundreds of fatalities - the actual figure has not been established. Lech Wałęsa 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 Gomułka 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 licensing 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. The state's pricing system 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. 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. Fearing a national outcry, Gierek was reluctant to ease the strain on the budget by raising prices. 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.
In 1976, as a result of his activities as a shop steward, Wałęsa was fired for his outspoken criticism of the Communist government 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.
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 spark that ignited the Solidarity revolution was a government decree that raised meat prices in July 1980. In August 1980 Wałęsa led the Gdansk shipyard strike which gave rise to a wave of strikes over much of the country. 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. 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.
The Catholic Church supported the movement, and in January 1981 Wałęsa was cordially received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. In the years 1980-81 Wałęsa travelled to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France and Switzerland as guest of the International Labour Organisation. In September 1981 he was elected Solidarity Chairman at the First Solidarity Congress in Gdansk. As workers rushed to join up at hastily improvised union locals across the country, Solidarity soon grew to 10 million members - a quarter of the Polish population. 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.
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. The country's brief enjoyment of relative freedom ended in December 1981, when General Jaruzelski imposed martial law, "suspended" Solidarity, arrested many of its leaders, and interned Walesa in a country house in a remote spot. Army vehicles were clanking across the country, 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."
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 Wałęsa's Nobel prize raised the spirits of the underground movement, but the award was attacked by the government press. The Nobel committee saluted "the power of victory which abides in one person's belief, in his vision and in his courage to follow his call."
The Jaruzelski regime became even more unpopular as economic conditions worsened, and it was finally forced to negotiate with Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues. The result was the holding of parliamentary elections in June 1989 which, although limited, led to the establishment of a non-communist government. 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. 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.