The scene was rather dramatic. One man was standing on a bulldozer. Another man had just climbed over the fence and was now standing next to the big machine that towered over him. A huge crowd of thousands of workers was on strike.
Just two sentences marked what turned out to be one of the most decisive moments of Polish history. “Remember me,” yelled Lech Walesa to the director of the Gdansk shipyard. Walesa was trying to persuade striking shipyard workers back to their jobs on a cold December day in 1970. “I gave 10 years’ work to this shipyard and then was fired. Well, I’m here to tell you we’re not going to listen any more to your lying promises,” he said. There and then he decided that he was going to draw a line in the dirt on being taken advantage of.
Walesa, a former car mechanic and army corporal, was working as an electrician for the shipyard. One year married, he found himself embroiled in an uproar with the shipyards. A day after his outburst, the other shipyards in Gdansk and Gdyknia joined the sit-down strike. Soon, more than 500 factories followed suit.
Many companies and people strike each year; this strike, however, was the beginning of a full-scale showdown with Poland’s communist government. The solidarity strike had struck.
Life wasn’t easy for Walesa and his wife. He was briefly detained. He lost his job in 1976 as a result of his activities as a shop steward. Temporary jobs—and his Power of One—got him through.
In 1978 he began organizing free non-communist trade unions. The state security service kept him under surveillance—and detained him regularly.
Walesa was being mistreated, along with numerous other workers. But he didn’t let the situation deter him from his golden walk. He prayed, and every evening in the Lenin Shipyard there was Mass, with thousands of workers on their knees, singing and praying. They knew they were doing the right thing in striking out for freedom—but it didn’t make the circumstances any easier. Still, he persisted.
In 1980 he led the Gdansk shipyard strike, which opened the door for many more strikes throughout Poland. People saw Walesa as the leader, fighting for workers’ rights. Eventually the authorities negotiated with Walesa the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, giving the workers the right to strike and to organize their own independent union.
Walesa didn’t stop there. He earned a Nobel Prize in 1983; the government press attacked the award. Parliamentary elections were limited, but they led to the establishment of a non-communist government. As head of the Solidarity labor union, Walesa began meeting with world leaders. He was the third person in history to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
In 1990 he became chairman of Solidarity, then became President of the Republic of Poland.
Walesa knew his fight for freedom would be arduous; he struggled, he suffered, yet he fought. He worked for what he believed in—and didn’t allow circumstances to keep him down from what he believed was right. He refused to let some else steal his personal worth and dignity.
That you may retain your self-respect, it is better to displease the people by doing what you know is right, than to temporarily please them by doing what you know is wrong.—William J. H. Boetcker
When everyone is against you, it means that you are absolutely wrong– or absolutely right.—Albert Guinon