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Personality Spotlight: Lech Walesa -- Polish labor leader:NEWLN:He challenged communist leaders -- and won

By DOUGLAS STANGLIN

WARSAW, Poland -- Five thousand people, huddled against the cold, waited beside the courthouse for news of the biggest showdown between the unions and the government since Polish workers threw down their tools in August.

When victory came, no one doubted who would bring the word: Lech Walesa.

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The a salty-tongued labor organizer -- his name is pronounced Valensa -- has called rallies, threatened strikes, demanded talks, made speechesopenly and spoken freely with foreign reporters. It is only a hint at the enormity of his accomplishments in the Polish labor movement to realize that any one of these tactics -- attempted just once -- would draw a five-year prison term in virtually any other communist country.

But Walesa held firm, forcing the government and the Communist Party in a crucial Supreme Court case in November to acknowledge complete independence of the nation's largest labor coalition.

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When the verdict was read, Walesa strolled outside the yellow sandstone courthouse to tell the world.

Grabbing a bullhorn, he climbed aboard a waiting bus and told them, 'It was a victory for common sense. A Pole came to terms with a Pole.'

'The workers should know for whom and for how much they work,' he said.

Then he joined the jubilant crowd for a chorus of 'God Save Poland.'

'Long live Walesa,' the people chanted as the bus pulled away.

It was a sweet moment for the electrician, and a long time coming.

Walesa, whose walrus moustache and rumpled clothes have become an international trademark, has been bucking the system for nearly a decade.

Walesa has built a reputation among fellow workers of mythic proportions.

'People attribute to him some abilities that even he doesn't have because there is a demand for a leader in this country,' said one of his closest friends.

What Walesa does have is the keen ability to pull together a nation's restless labor force whose emotions often threaten to erupt into anarchy.

In 1970, three years out of electrical school, Walesa led a brief, unsuccessful strike in the same Lenin shipyard where workers balked last August.

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'We lost because we were inexperienced,' he said.

He has held three jobs and was fired from each for political reasons, the first time in 1973. After he was fired from the Gdansk shipyards following the unrest in 1976, he went to a building firm and was fired again in 1979 -- officially for missing a day's work but really because he addressed a rally commemorating the scores of workers who died in the 1970 strikes.

He has been unemployed this year.

When shipyard workers went on strike last summer to protest higher meat prices and long lines, Walesa was on his way home from the hospital with a new daughter, his sixth child.

Police, nervous over his previous role in labor unrest, arrested him anyway. Word spread to the shipyard and his release became a major demand.

Walesa was freed and ran off to find his followers, jumping a shipyard fence to reach them.

He is tough, but with a sense of humor. When he sits down before a prime minister or a supreme court judge, he does so as an equal, despite his limited formal education.

That, perhaps more than any other factor, has made him a folk-hero among his own people. From them, Walesa -- a deeply religious Roman Catholic -- draws his power and inspiration.

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'Hey, Leshik, hey Leshik,' they yell, using his nickname.

'The crowd changes him from a tired man into a man beaming with energy,' said one Pole who has watched him work.

Before a meeting in a union hall in Gdansk or a soccer stadium in Krakow, he sits alone, thinking. Then he takes a quick nap on an office couch.

'I am not a politician, I am a trade unionist,' Walesa is fond of saying. But he draws crowds like a politician. In Krakow, 30,000 people turned out to surround him with flags and flowers and carry him through the streets on their shoulders.

Even Walesa, a man of enormous self-confidence, seemed overwhelmed, and rushed quickly through a set speech.

'He was a little frightened by the size and the emotion of the crowd,' an aide said later.

One Westerner who has observed Walesa at close quarters throughout the recent months says 'he has a bit of the messianic touch' and has come to expect the adulation he now receives, but it has not turned his head.

Walesa is beginning to take it all in stride.

'I don't like to travel,' he said. 'But the people in Krakow want to see me in person. This is a bad habit we have in our country. We put all our confidence in one man as a leader. Then, when we don't like them later on, we spit on them. I don't want people to spit on me like they have spit on other responsible leaders in Poland.'

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Some say Walesa has studied crowd psychology and uses it to lead the workers. It may come in handy -- the labor coalition he heads, called Solidarity, now counts l0 million members.

But he is no dictator. He doesn't always get his way. In the last round with the government, he was strongly opposed to issuing new strike threats, but the union did anyway. Still, even as a moderate, he can tap the feelings of the majority. He can voice their hopes and demands.

'He chooses the best solution like a computer,' said one close associate.

He is not the brainiest of the labor leaders, nor the best theoretician, but he likes to sit down with workers. They trust him to speak their mind and win without bloodshed.

The brown-eyed Walesa, whose shaggy, reddish-blond hair always looks slightly disheveled, was born Oct. 29, 1943, in Wloclawek in northern Poland. He moved to Gdansk after finishing school. He was one of five children. After his father's death his mother married her late husband's brother, Lesh's uncle Stanislaw.

The couple emigrated to the United States seven years ago at the invitation of the elder Walesa's sister.

A member of the Walesa family in the United States -- there are '50 or 60' in New Jersey and Massachusetts -- says that Stanislaw intended to save money and then return to enjoy retirement with his wife in Poland. But Mrs. Walesa was killed in an auto accident four years ago. Stanislaw decided to remain in the United States.

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Stanislaw Walesa now lives in Jersey City, N.J., where on Sept. 1 he shared a Labor Day podium with presidential campaigner Ronald Reagan (he met President Carter too). It was one day after Polish television had broadcast to the country his nephew's signing of an agreement with the communist government establishing the first independent trade union Poland has had since World War II.

If Stanislaw Walesa were to return to Poland now he would find Lech's life rapidly changing.

Lech Walesa, his wife, Elizabeth, and their children have moved from a two to a six-room apartment. He used to show up with an open-collar shirt. Now he wears a tie. He says he used to have just one suit but now owns five, given to him by priests.

He has also learned to handle the press, though he can be outspoken.

After one 14-hour day of talks with Premier Jozef Pinkowski, he told reporters he was tired, 'but the government is even more tired.'

An aide on his right gave him a nudge -- a signal to watch his tongue.

After the union faced down the government in court, Walesa was whisked off for an audience with Cardinal Stefan Wysyznski. He waited nervously for the cardinal to approach, wiping the sweat from his palm with a handkerchief before shaking the cardinal's hand.

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Wysyznski hugged and kissed him. Walesa beamed.

'I would like to have a shot of vodka, though I don't drink at all,' Walesa told hundreds of workers later at a press conference. 'Pardon me that I am not serious.'

He takes his religion as seriously as his labor activity. His office is more like a shrine than a workplace. On the walls are a crucifix, rosaries and a photograph of the pope.

Walesa says whenever he is confronted by temptation -- as when the government tried to buy him off -- he goes to church to pray and 'the Lord keeps me pure.'

He goes to church every day in any case.

He tells friends his dream is to meet the pontiff, a fellow Pole. John Paul II has invited Walesa to Rome, but union work has kept him from going.

'The union is for believers and nonbelievers,' he said.

Wherever he goes, even into the Supreme Court chambers, he wears his religion with pride, in the form of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa on his lapel.

The future for Lech Walesa, like Poland itself, is uncertain. He says he doesn't like politics, but he knows he makes a difference.

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'I am not your master, I am your servant,' he often tells the crowds. But they look to him to lead the way.

Walesa has seen the leaders -- Gomulka and now Gierek -- come and go. He knows how fast fortunes can fall.

'I don't want a personality cult,' he said recently.

The biggest question is whether he, too, will be swept out of touch with the crowds and buried under layers of bureaucracy.

'Oh, no, this will continue,' he said of his mission among the sweat and the grime. 'We've got to stay in touch with our people.'

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