Lech Wałȩsa was born in Popowo, north of Warsaw, in Pomerania. He attended a technical college for electricians and from 1967 to 1976 worked as an electrician at the Lenin shipyards in Danzig. He was among the leaders of the strikes held on 14 December 1970, at the end of which he represented the workers during negotiations with the new secretary of the PZPR, Edward Gierek. In 1976 he was sacked for criticizing the official trade unions and shipyard management. In 1978 he joined the Independent Trade Unions of the Baltic Coast (WZZ). In 1979 he worked in close partnership with the KOR, and especially with Bogdan Borusewicz, Jacek Kuron and Jan Litynski. He distributed underground literature among the workers and organized WZZ groups. In 1979 he was signatory to the “Charter of workers’ rights”, which contained the programme for a free trade union movement. He was detained by the police on numerous occasions and was frequently forced to change his job. At another strike in the Lenin shipyards in Danzig on 14 August 1980, he headed the workers, despite no longer being a shipyard employee; in fact one of the workers’ demands was that Wałȩsa should be reinstated in his job. He was elected chairman of the Inter-company Strike Committee. He appointed the Commission of Experts chaired by Tadeusz Mazowiecki and led the negotiations with the government delegation. On 31 August he signed the agreement in which the government accepted the workers’ 21 demands. He was elected president of the Solidarność Independent Trade Union. A highly charismatic figure, in the autumn of 1980 he toured the country gaining huge popularity; deeply religious and a skilful negotiator, he combined a pragmatic and flexible approach with absolute faith in the values of the trade union. His charisma also enabled him to keep the various spirits of Solidarność together, and especially to mitigate the most radical of them. In 1981 he travelled extensively abroad and was received in the Vatican by John Paul II. In October he was re-elected president of Solidarność at the end of the trade union’s first congress.
In the night between 12 and 13 December 1981, during the coup d’état headed by general Jaruzelski, Lech Wałȩsa was arrested and interned. The authorities were relying on his cooperation to form a Solidarność controlled by Warsaw, but, despite not being averse to mediation, he rejected any such compromise, just as he rejected a high-ranking state job a year later. The authorities made several attempts to discredit him in the eyes of public opinion both as an opponent of the regime, and as an individual. On 14 November 1982 he was released and placed under surveillance, as if he were under house arrest. He refused to go underground though without giving up the ideals of Solidarność. As he himself was to write “at that time I lived half-way between social isolation, inactivity and prison”. As soon as he was able, he was back on the move, touring the country to meet the trade union’s underground activists and taking part in the political process. In April 1983 he returned to work in the Lenin shipyard and on 5 October he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1987 he met US vice president George Bush in Warsaw and in June, during the Pope’s pilgrimage to Poland, he was give a private audience with John Paul II, who publicly appealed to the nation to “pick up the great inheritance of Solidarność”. In 1989 worsening social tension forced the authorities to seek Wałȩsa’s intervention. This opened the way to the Round Table talks that were to lead to the definitive legalization of Solidarność and to the semi-free elections of June 1989, the first step towards the collapse of the communist regime.
From 1990 to 1995 Lech Wałȩsa was president of the Polish Republic. In 1995 he set up the “Lech Wałȩsa Institute”.