Poznan, once storm center, reflects new Polish calm

This thousand-year-old city, flashpoint of the bloody 1956 strikes, dramatically illustrates the differences between Poland's past and present thrusts for reform.

While angry workers took to the streets in protests that left many dead and injured 24 years ago, laborers recently discussed reforms at their workplace in a show of restraint and discipline.

In fact, such a mood of unity and self-confidence exists here that it would seem risky, indeed for the Communist Party to dilute any of the recent demands won by strikers.

Much of the country's current ferment really began here. Just over 24 years ago, the big Stalin engineering works here -- named by the strictly Soviet-patterned regime that seized power after World War II -- went on strike. For months its workers had vainly protested harsh increases in work norms and losses in real earnings.

On June 28, 1956, they marched through the city in a peaceful demonstration, their Communist Party secretary among them. Banners demanded "bread and justice." Others railed against "false communism."

All was quiet and orderly until a report that a delegation sent to Warsaw to present their grievances had been arrested roused angry feelings. rioting and shooting followed. By nightfall the next day, more than 50 persons were dead, 300 wounded, and an equal number arrested.

Mercifully, nothing like this happened when the 18,000 workers at the Cegielski plant (its original name was restored following the bitter 1956 days) went on strike a month ago. Violence notwithstanding, the parallels of events then and now are striking. In both cases pressure mounted for a change in living conditions. History repeated itself in uncanny detail when the early July strikes led to the economic immobilization of the Baltic coast and later spread to main industrial regions.

There has been the same tide of demands as in 1956 -- for economic reform, for better living standards, and for honest public accounting. At a recent parliamentary session, members spoke out bluntly about the system's failure for the first time since the 1956 unrest. Now as then, government ministers have hastened from one strike center to another to mollify workers with pledges of immediate wage increases.

The sprawling Cegielski complex churns out a variety of engineering and machine products. Like every other workplace in Poland, it is powered by a young work force, although many veterans of 1956 are still around.

The long line of new cars parked near the complex indicates that living standards have improved. But over the years Polish expectations have risen much faster than improvements. This was particularly true after the big pay hikes of the early Edward Gierek years. By the mid-1970s, Cegielski workers had more money in their pockets. But there were also fewer essential goods to spend it on. Poznan is a well-ordered city, much developed since World War II. A mixture of Gothic and Renaissance, high-rises and concrete, it has doubled in population to more than a half million.But the lack of variety and quality products in store windows and the ubiquitous queues outside shops tell the same story as in Warsaw or any other Polish town.

On the eve of the Szczecin and Gdansk strike settlements Aug. 29, the Cegielski plant stopped work for 24 hours as a warning to the authorities not to block publicatin of the Baltic agreements by the Poznan news media.

The workers drew up their own set of demands, 27 points in all, which reflected the current social, economic, and political discontents of Polish life.

Most have since been accepted by the new leadership in response to the nationwide clamor over food shortages and rising prices and against abuse of official authority and privileges accorded party members, the police, and members of the armed forces.

Despite its damaged credibility, the Communist Party still has several thousand members at Cegielski. Among them are a member of the strike committee and one from the group drafting a new union statute.

Neither of these tough, energetic young men voiced opposition to the concept of totally new, independent union. Both suggested there is a strong party move afoot to preserve and rehabilitate the old union.

Whether "rival" union can exist remains to be seen. But the authorities may regard it as a way to exercise at least some control.

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