Polish government gets down to turning promises to workers into law

This week the Polish government will start working on the final version of the legislation that is to ensure the independence of trade unions and guarantee their right to strike.

A joint government-Solidarity commission has taken six months to work out a compromise draft of the union law. The document institutionalizes the right to strike -- the first time this has been conceded by any communist regime.

It also recognizes Rural Solidarity, an agricultural union that was granted the same rights as the workers' Solidarity after tens of thousands of the private farmers, who raise most of Poland's food, stood up to the regime's refusal to recognize such a union.

The government is taking comfort in the stipulation that strikes are permissible only in "defense of collective workers' interests" or against a threat to new union rights and freedoms. The government sees that as providing some assurance that the new unions will not assume a political role; Solidarity sees in it a safeguard for its essential claims.

This compromise should defuse much of the conflict and erase some of the mutual distrust. But other tug-of-war issues remain. One is the precise form of the self-management and workers' councils that are to be introduced into industrial enterprises.

Even more sensitive questions are likely to arise as economic reforms require the postponement of 900 investment projects between now and 1983, producing a substantial loss of jobs and a considerable drop in living standards for as long as two years.

Some 1 million people will have to take work in agriculture or accept one of two other alternatives: retraining and transfer to employment in services or in small-scale light industries, or early retirement with compensation.

Those laid off are expected to include a swarm of bureaucrats from a cumbersome group of branch ministries that have clogged the economy. These bureaucrats obviously oppose the planned cutbacks, but economists insist that elimination of most of these branch ministries is essential if enterprises and managers are to be made responsible and to gain the independence and initiative the government has promised them.

The immediate crisis may be starting to bottom out. Western creditor nations have rescheduled most of the government-backed loans falling due this year, thus boosting the confidence of the Polish regime. The Western banks that are owed more than half of the estimated $26 billion foreign debt have no choice but follow suit.

But Western governments and banks will not be the only ones looking for better management and performance. The unions will be watching to see how layoffs are carried out, how equal are the sacrifices involved in the austerity program, and how effective are the restraints on excessive earnings (and perks) in the upper brackets.

The vital question is whether the government can introduce the needed price reforms. It was efforts to raise prices on food and reduce gigantic subsidies that sparked the run of crises in 1970.

The current regime seems to believe it can manage this, and that the public understands that belt-tightening is unavoidable. It just might suceed, if it involves Solidarity and the public at large in its decisions, especially those affecting the lowest-paid workers.

The Communist Party seems to be regaining a sense of confidence. The Central Committee meeting did not yield to rank-and-file demands for removal of reputed hard-liners, but it did add grass-roots representatives to the Politburo.

The impressive May Day turnout on a chilly, windy, and rainy Friday morning must have given party leader Stanislaw Kania some satisfaction. It was an informal parade of tens of thousands of citizens, with Mr. Kania and colleagues walking in the lead rather than taking salutes or making speeches from atop a rostrum.

Solidarity's leaders boycotted, preferring to observe the May 3 anniversary of the 1971 Constitution. But many thought the decision and the union's conspicuous absence a mistake.

It was not just party members who turned out but also a host of ordinary citizens who apprently like the May Day tradition. The whole affair appeared to exhibit the kind of national unity that Mr. Kania says is essential if Poles are to overcome their present difficulties without outside "assistance."

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