Vienna — For the third time in a decade Poland's communist leaders have tried to raise food prices -- and have been met with strikes by the workers who constitute their major power base.
Wildcat stoppages at major industrial plants in the first days of July are thwarting their latest efforts to grapple with economic problems impeding development plans for the 1980s.
The immediate issue is government plans to begin phasing out subsidies that have kept food prices at the level of 10 to 15 years ago.
Within 48 hours after new meat prices were announced July 1, managements were authorized to negotiate wage bonuses to compensate for the higher prices, even though these will largely cancel out any reduction of subsidies and leave the principal dilemma unresolved.
In late 1970, a similar move to put food prices on a realistic economic basis toppled the regime that had ruled Poland from the mid-1950s. Its successor -- headed by Edward Gierek -- instantly instituted a program of consumer concessions.
Then in 1976 it tackled the question of food prices. But workers again rioted, and the party leadership again capitulated. Mr. Gierek left the hot-potato price question for another day.
But Poland's economic difficulties have worsened with the general world recession.
With the 1976-80 plan far short of vital goals, Prime Minister Edward Babiuch delivered a warning in February:
Amid preoccupations with soaring costs for energy and raw materials, and necessary cuts in foreign credits and investments, something had to be done about food prices, which cost the government billions in subsidies each year. Until last week, Mr. Babiuch was careful. There was some public relations preparation for changes. Government media began to focus on economic reforms in Hungary, especially moves to bring gradual economic reality to food production costs and consumer prices.
But on July 1, the government introduced, virtually with-out notice, a new meat distribution system entailing much higher prices, thus repeating an error the regime made in 1976.
The idea is to ensure more adequate and regular market supplies. But the system diverts most of the meat -- and the best of it -- from state butcher shops, where prices are controlled, to free commercial outlets, which sell at higher prices that only the better-off can afford.
Worker reactions were predictable and immediate although, fortunately for the regime, not violent as before.
Stoppages at plants up and down the country -- including several prominent in the 1976 demonstrations -- and a threat of industrial action by Warsaw's transport maintenance workers gave the government a salutary shock.
The regime is holding fast to its price rises, but the bonuses granted the workers offset its impact on them and leave the overall economic dilemma unresolved.
The regime still has to convince ordinary Poles of the critical nature of the present economic outlook. This was a strong theme in an article linked to the work stoppages appearing in the widely read Polish weekly Polityka July 4.
Editor Mieczyslaw Rakowsky echoed official pleas to Poles to work more conscientiously and accept austerities in the country's interest, "Work discipline is getting weaker," he wrote, and many producers daily demonstrate indifference.
But Mr. Rakowski, one of the reform-minded group on the party's Central Committee long advocating reforms, also singled out housing and other consumer frustrations that in part explain this widespread popular indifference.
He also criticized faulty economic mechanism and accused planning agencies and management of operating "often in defiance of common sense" and of "manipulating" statistics.
For the country's leaders, the only hopeful note is that protest so far seems "negotiable" rather than violent.
It could mean that the labor unions -- hitherto seen in Poland and elsewhere in the communist bloc as simply agencies for applying government-decreed policy -- might begin to gain some power.
And that, the "liberals" say, is one of the reforms most needed for winning the kind of confidence the government itself requires -- if it is to succeed with economically necessary things such as its new food-price policy.