Worker-state showdown looms in Poland

Events in strike-troubled Poland seem to be moving inexorably to some kind of showdown. But whether it will end in a military confrontation remains unclear. At this writing Tuesday, there was still no reliable confirmation of reports that columns of troops and riot police were seen on the highway between the capital and Gdansk on the Baltic coast.

So far Edward Gierek's beleaguered regime is willing to yield some on economic issues, but is showing little sign of compromising on political demands made by striking workers.

The Communist Party leader's Aug. 18 appeal to patriotism and his offer of only small concessions to the defiant laborers appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Workers in the strike-bound north are showing no signs of acquiescing despite Mr. Gierek's promise of general pay increases in a speech that was played prominently in Polish papers.

Instead, leaders of the 21-plant Inter-Factory Committee gathered in the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk have decided to stand by their demands for both economic and political changes. They have nominated a delegation to seek further talks with regional Communist Party authorities.

In his speech, Mr. Gierek rejected as "unacceptable" changes in the country's social system but made minor gestures to alleviate the everyday frustrations that have piled up over the years. He promised a look at the labor unions, but with no more than a hint of limited reforms or a curb on the bureaucracy.

He also said the government would try to ease the meat situation by importing more meat and said there would be some increase in wages.

On the political front, Mr. Gierek, facing the toughest challenge during his 10 years in office, took a determined line.

"There are certain limits beyond which we cannot go. We cannot tolerate demands aimed at the basis of the socialist state," Mr. Gierek said of the far-reaching issues the strikers has raised. If granted, some would entail dilution of fundamental aspects of the communist system.

Some workers in the shipyard at Gdansk greeted the end of his speech with whistles. A more common complaint was that Mr. Gierek "seems to have failed totally to understand what the workers are talking about."

The party leader, however, seems to have decided -- assuredly with Politburo backing -- that he has to "grasp this nettle danger" and try to face the militants down, whatever the hazards.

But there were hints in Mr. Gierek's statement that the government may be maneuvering both to gain time and to isolate the strikers from the rest of the country's work force.

Widespread as it has been, the strike wave has nonetheless been relatively limited in terms of a total industrial work force of some 5 million.

The stoppages, including the possible 100,000 workers involved in the Baltic region, have probably not affected more than one-quarter of a million people.

Despite rumors, there still is no sign of unrest in the Silesian coal, iron, and steel belt of southern Poland, which is a Gierek stronghold. There, before assuming national office, Mr. Gierek established a reputation for good government and the highest worker living standards in the country. Old loyalty may be the only thing holding them back.

Mr.Gierek, as is the custom in the communist world, attributed the current unrest to "anarchic and antisocialist" groups trying to turn legitimate complaints to their own political use.

But his speech did not appear to shake the militancy of the workers: "We have time on our side."

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