Walesa trained as an electrician and mechanic, and as a young man went to work at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Walesa was an outspoken critic of the shipyard management and of the communist regime. He was involved in the shipyard strike of 1970, and throughout the next decade played a role in organizing the shipyard protests. In 1976 he was fired for his political activities. Although he was only sporadically employed for the next four years, he persisted in his organizing.
In 1980 the shipyard workers were ready to strike again, and Walesa emerged as a leading spokesman of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Eastern Bloc. A series of strikes spread throughout the country, forcing the government's recognition of Solidarity, but this victory was short-lived. When Solidarity called for free elections, the government outlawed the union. Fearing Russian military intervention, Poland's puppet government declared martial law in December 1981. Walesa was arrested and held for months without trial. When he was finally released in September 1982, he remained under government surveillance.
By 1989 Gorbachev had made it clear that he would not intervene to prop up communist governments in Eastern Europe. Nationwide protests at last forced the communist regime to hold free elections and Solidarity quickly formed a new coalition government. Walesa traveled to the United States, accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan, and became the first non-head of state to address a joint session of the United States Congress.
In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected to a five-year term as President of Poland. His autobiography, The Struggle and the Triumph, first appeared in English in 1992. Walesa supported the policy of "shock treatment" to convert Poland's socialist economy to a Western capitalist model. A devout Catholic, he followed the Church's teachings on matters of social policy, and opposed legalized abortion.