Warsaw — The regeneration of Poland's labor unions is developing into a lively nationwide contest for the "hearts and minds" of 12 million workers and other state employees.
From its eight-floor headquarters here at one Copernicus St., the battered Goliath of the discredited official unions is struggling to salvage what it can of its crumbled authority.
But the new free and independent union movement is evoking a tremendous response. In improvised town and regional offices all over the country, ad hoc committees of volunteers are working long hours to cope with a fast-rising tide of people in a hurry to join.
The official Central Council of Trade Unions, meanwhile, is trying to shed its old bureaucratic image in a desperate attempt to stem the threatened exodus.
It has issued a declaration and novel appeal to old union loyalties: "If you do not like the present officials, elect new ones who have your confidence. If you don't think we are doing all that can be done to defend your interests, join us in changing the situation."
Until a few months ago, the central council still commanded the formal affiliation of the vast bulk of the labor force. But it has lost its credibility. "Work committees in the factories were nothing but rubber stamps," was the common verdict among the strikers who brought the maritime industrial north to a standstill last month.
"Members were chosen because they were accommodating to party and management, " said one. "Troublemakers' -- people who really spoke for the workers -- were not wanted."
They had no other choice but stay on. A union card, however disenchanted the holder, still meant medicare and social welfare benefits, cut-rate vacations in union holiday centers, and a better chance of credit to furnish an apartment.
These are important concerns to the budding independent unions. At present they have no funds -- nothing in fact, except typewriters, mimeograph machines, and a tremendous amount of hope, determination, and enthusiasm.
The central council still holds the money bag. And whether funds and contributions will be divided according to the number of union members who transfer to independent organizations is going to be a major issue.
At the midtown apartment here, where the founding congress for a union covering the whole industrialized region around Warsaw is being prepared, committee members allege that leaflets are circulating telling workers they risk losing their benefits if they change from the official unions to independent ones.
The leaflets bear no imprint of authorship. Similar "scare" notices recently appeared in the southern Polish town of Kielce, sparking an immediate strike. The central council denies responsibility.
"We are not trying to hamper formation of the new unions," council chairman Romuald Jankowski says. "The agreements between the strikers and the government must be honored. Everything in the protocols will be fulfilled and no pressures should be used by either side."
Mr. Jankowski, a worker at 15, admits the old unions' failures and makes clear he thinks they were hamstrung by the party, though he is a communist himself. He promises a "thorough-going transformation." The new labor law due in the next few weeks will "expressly recognize the unions' authority in everything affecting the workers and their conditions," he says.
Strikes will be legalized, and both existing unions and new ones will have legal status as "fully autonomous, self-governing organizations," with full rights as "partners" with the state and its economic agencies.
Clearly, neither Mr. Jankowski nor the new union committees see yet how the system will develop. Will there be two "rival" groups? Might they ultimately merge after independence is finally established?
Can party members who join the new unions hold office? "Yes," says Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a consultant advising the provisional committee.
In the present atmosphere, it seems unlikely many communists will get elected to committees even if they do join the new unions. Just to be on the safe side, however, the draft statutes prepared here and by the Gdansk committee preclude anyone holding a managerial post in state administration or an office in a political organization from becoming an official in the union.
"We don't want to be politically labeled," says Mr. Onyszkiewicz, "nor, for that matter, as Catholic either."
Will there be an overwhelming mass exodus from the old unions even though they are to be reformed? New union committees from all over Poland are reporting high registration figures. Daily hundreds of workers, mostly young people, crowd into the Warsaw headquarters.
Not all register immediately. Many come with searching questions before deciding. But delegates from some 40 companies have already submitted block applications. Included in these are Warsaw's three biggest tractor, steel, and automobile plants -- with over 40,000 workers among them. The general trend, says Mr. Onyszkiewicz, is from 50 to 80 percent of the work force to join.
Mr. Jankowski is reconciled to losing many members. But he also professes confidence that perhaps just as many will stay with their old unions, providing they are reformed.
But what might the Russians say or do about all this? Poles seem increasingly confident as the crisis atmosphere moderates that Moscow will not worry too much about independent unions or their implied pluralism -- or even their right to strike -- provided the regime does not let reform weaken its essential "socialist" and bloc commitments.
The Poles know they occupy a vitally strategic place in the Eastern alliance. Repeated "firm assurances" from the Soviet leaders of non-interference and a second Soviet pledge in less than a month of additional economic aid underline Moscow's interest in a quiet solution of Poland's present troubles.