Poland's need: a public dialogue

The goings-on in Poland do not cease to amaze. So "unextraordinary" have worker strikes become -- and more job stoppages took place at the weekend -- that they no longer dominate headlines in the West, even though such events remain unprecedented in the Soviet bloc. Now comes a report that the Polish government plans to debate union leaders over state-controlled television. That , too, would be a major breakthrough for a communist society in which the news media are circumscribed and genuine debate takes place "in camera" not "on camera."

A welcome breakthrough, moreover. For if one thing is most needed in Poland now it is an honest dialogue between state and people. The government resists granting the free trade union Solidarity a five-day, 40-hour workweek on grounds that Poland cannot afford it. Poles, however, remain distrustful of the government. They have reason to be, for the pattern of past political "reforms" has been to grant concessions with one hand and then proceed to dilute them with the other.

Debating issues in the open would be salutary. The fact is, the government has a good case for not giving the unions everything they ask for. It is a question whether an economy deeply in debt, and facing scandalously low productivity and unfinished investments in idled gigantic factories and plants, should give workers the benefits that come normally with a healthy and mature economy. Granted, the regime's ill-begotten policies plunged Poland into its present crisis. But where to now? Reforms are under way, but it will be some time before they are worked out, put into effect -- and bear fruit. Meantime, Poles are going to have to put their shoulders to the wheel. Lech Walesa, the shrewd leader of Solidarity, knows this full well and indeed has been sounding the message.

Which is not to say the government can be trusted. The struggle between hard-liners and moderate reformers within the communist party goes on, and in the provinces especially officials are trying to undercut what the unions claim they won. Hence the tug of war between unions and regime and the tensions which this causes are bound to continue. One only hopes that the Poles maintain their astonishing discipline and that the balance between the contending forces will not be upset so as to frighten neighboring Muscovy.

A television dialogue could help all sides. It would enable the government to explain its view. It would give union and party leaders an opportunity to confront the ambiguities of the Gdansk agreements and the misunderstandings which have arisen as a result. It could help strengthen Lech Walesa's hand and make it easier for him to control the hot-head radicals within his own free labor movement.

Above all, it would mean that a communist government at long last is willing to talk forthrighly with the proletariat it is supposed to represent. This would transform lip service to "freedom of speech" into real observance of it -- and thus foster the goal of building Poles' confidence in their own government. Who knows, a good Kania and Walesa Show just mig ht get a better rating than soccer.

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