Warsaw — The Polish government's compromise with the Solidarity union on a 42-hour workweek represent the best deal yet on work time in Eastern Europe or in the communist world in general.
In the current Polish context, it achieved much more, providing a respite in the most serious industrial unrest since last summers's strikes and so forestalling any emergency government action.
Solidarity's National Consultative Commission, meeting Sunday to review the compromise, ratified the agreement and suspended a one-hour nationwide warning strike that had been threatened for Feb. 3.
Both sides seemed locked in a Catch-22 situation when they went into crucial talks Jan. 30. Some 12 hours later they emerged with important gains for the unions on two of their thee sticking points, and for the time being the worst was averted.
It is unknown whether the sharper tone of current Soviet criticism of Solidarity and, by implication, of the government's failure to resolve the impasse was a factor.
But government and unions both made concessions to moderation and common sense, essential qualities if Poland is to secure the return to some normality in economic activity.
The seemingly intractable question of the workweek and free Saturdays was settled when the government accepted a five- day, 40-hour week plus one working Saturday in four instead of the alternate Saturdays it had been insisting on.
Solidarity, which wanted all Saturdays off, agreed to 1 in 4 and that the weekend shift would be eight hours instead of six.
Thus ended an unhappy dispute over a single hour: The unions had offered a 41 1/2 hour week and the government set 42 1/2 as a minimum. Neither seemed ready to budge.
Statutory recognition of a five-day week and of definite limits on Saturday work is unique in the communist bloc.
The Soviet Union ostensibly has a shorter workweek. The average officially is 40 to 41 hours. In practice it is much longer; overtime is a well-established demand on Soviet workers and East Europeans alike. (In one year, miners in the Donbas region averaged 158 hours of overtime.)
Saturday work is widespread. Nominally "voluntary," it is sometimes unpaid. workers assume that overtime is the way to boost inadequate earnings.
Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia theoretically have a 42 1/2 hour, five-day week. In East Germany, it is 43 1/2 hours. Hungary, despite other reforms, is on a 44 -hour, six-day week, with two working Saturdays a month. It won't get a five-day week until 1983.
Romanians work longest of all. The promise of a 46-hour limit by the end of 1980 fell behind schedule, obviously affecting a plan to cut the workweek to 44 hours by 1983.
The hours deadlock became so acute in Poland that it brought two other key issues to the forefront: one, the question of forming a private farmers' union, "Rural Solidarity"; the other, the conflict over censorship.
Many of the peasant freeholders who till 75 percent of the land and produce at least two-thirds of the nation's food are demanding their own union.
A government commission began separate talks with the farmers Feb. 1 in what appeared to be a breakthrough. The Supreme Court, which has been deferring a ruling on Rural Solidarity's application for registration, indicated it would make its ruling within 10 days.
Censorship had become as sensitive as any other area of conflict between the government and the people.
In the August strike settlements the regime pledged to pass a new law easing censorship by year's end. But it did not meet that deadline or a mid-January extension.
The new unions were also promised access to the mass media. The news media have subsequently given a great deal of attention to industrial affairs and workers' grievances. But Solidarity complained bitterly that it was not being allowed to explain its side of the arguments the regime made Saturday work a matter of patriotism.
The unions are not alone in criticizing the government's tardiness. A letter published Friday from the Polish journalists' association -- which has offered a plan for greatly modified censorship -- called the delay one of the main causes of present tensions.
The government has guaranteed Solidarity radio and television time on all matters of social and economic policy before government decisions or bills are put to parliament. In addition the union is to have a weekly TV program under its own direction.