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Lech Walesa began his career in Poland’s Gdansk shipyards where his activism and charisma helped push his country to semi-free Parliamentary elections in which he was elected President.
Walesa co-founded Solidarity, the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union. He became a symbol of democracy and is widely recognized for leading Poland out of Communism. His actions are viewed as the crucial first step in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Walesa spent his early life as a mechanic and then in the Polish military. When he resigned from the military, Walesa was hired as an electrician at Gdansk shipyards. Troubled by the poor treatment of his fellow workers, he became involved in trade-union activism and quickly rose to prominence after organizing a strike in 1970. His activism garnered the attention of the Polish Government which soon placed him under surveillance. In 1976, he was fired from his position after multiple arrests. Walesa then emerged as a leader of the growing movement calling for better working conditions and the right to free association. In 1980, Walesa played an instrumental role in negotiations of the Gdansk Agreement between the Polish Government and striking workers, an agreement that culminated in the creation of Solidarity.
After the government imposed martial law and outlawed Solidarity, Walesa and his fellow activists were arrested and detained. Upon his release he returned to the docks as an electrician and continued his activism. The leading underground weekly paper featured his motto, “Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed”. His continued dedication led to the 1989 Round Table Agreement which resulted in a Solidarity-led government in which Lech Walesa was elected as President of Poland.
Although his presidency lasted only one term, his administration oversaw the transformation of Poland to a free market economy. After Walesa left office, the Polish economy was among the healthiest in central and eastern Europe. Walesa remains a symbol of hope and has inspired many to pursue similar aspirations of rights and freedoms throughout the world. In 1983, Lech Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to human rights and for playing a vital role in shaping Solidarity in his country.