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Labor strife tests governments in Poland, USSygmal

By Joseph C. Harsch / August 7, 1981



Incongruous as it may seem, the story over this past week was the same in communist Poland and in capitalist United States. In both places the government was being challenged by workers demanding an improvement in their standard of living. In both cases the government felt that it had to resist the demand.

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But, just as incongruously, it was the democratically elected government of the United States that had the stronger hand. It could even use military personnel to supplant the strikers. The Polish government could use its military against the strikers only as a final desperate resort that would probably end in a national disaster.

President Reagan had a stronger hand than Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski partly because there were only some 13,000 air traffic controllers in the strike that defied the US government. In Poland the entire labor movement, supported by the farming population, was in the real opposition. It amounted virtually to the Polish nation against its discredited government.

It is easier for a popular government fresh from a stunning political victory in the Congress to defy a minor fraction of the total work force than for an unpopular government to challenge the entire work force backed by the sympathy of the nation.

And in the American case, the air traffic controllers were not only breaking the law by striking against an agency of government in violation of their own contracts. They were also making demands for wage increases far above anything that could be justified by the current rate of inflation.

The US government had offered the air traffic controllers a wage package amounting to a raise of about 6 percent. This is slightly below the current inflation rate. It would have given controllers an average of about $2,300 more a year. They went strike with demands for a wage package that would have given each worker about $10,000 more per year, on top of his current average salary of retirement pay, which would have cost the government a great deal more.

By US government calculations the governnment offer would cost the Treasury about $105 million over the three-year life of the contract, whereas the total of union demands (including higher retirement benefits) would amount to $681 million for the three years.

US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis refused to consider the union's demands, on the grounds that "we can't yield to demands that would contradict all our best efforts for reasonable and sensible fiscal policy."

President Reagan backed his transportation secretary by asserting that air traffic controllers who failed to report for work within 48 hours would have "forfeited their jobs and will be terminated."

Over in Warsaw members of Solidarity, the national industrial union, jammed traffic in front of Communist Party headquarters at the most important street in intersection in the city. The leaders of the once-omnipotent Communist Party had to look out of their windows and watch burly protesters gently manhandle police out of the way.

Power in the street in Poland had passed from party to workers. This is probably the first time in any communist country when it could be said that a geniune "dictatorship of the proletariat" had come into existence. How wistfully must the Communist Party leaders in their besieged headquarters at the corner of the Marszalkowska and Jerosolimskie in Warsaw have read about President Reagan's firm treatment of strikers in the US.

Behind the twin stories of defiance of government in both Poland and the US is the same modern phenomenon. Workers expect government to maintain, and indeed improve, their actual standard of living. In Poland they want a better life which the country cannot afford. In particularly they want food which the country does not have.

In the US the air controllers wanted a better life than the government can grant them without adding more fuel to the flames of inflation, which it is trying to check. Any wage increase below the inflation rate tends to restrain inflation. Any increase above the inflation rate serves to stimulate inflation.

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lost at least the first rounds of her battle against Britain's inflation when she granted civil servants a 25 percent rise at the beginning of her ministry. President Reagan in Washington has been briefed on the sad consequences of having done that. He is trying to hold the wage line below the inflation line.

More Soviet warships steamed into the Baltic during the past week as the economic crisis deepened in Poland. There were units of four Soviet fleets in what may be the largest number of Russian naval units in the Baltic since czarist times.

Elsewhere diplomatic attention was focused on the arrival of Egyptian President Sadat in Washington. Thus begins a series of visits to Washington by the main figures in the Middle East. The hope of many is that President Reagan will be able to extract from these visits the foundation for a new beginning toward a broad and general peace in the Middle East betw een Israel and its Arab neighbors.