Warsaw — Poles are facing a cold, bleak winter. The "battle for coal" is being lost. Where once Poland's mines were one of its top hard-currency earners, today they barely produce enough fuel for the country's own minimal needs.
Down in the pits the miners are working at much less than their former capacity. Bitter disputes with the authorities have eroded morale. And some reports here say that the men are also slowed by undernourishment.
"Six to eight men are doing the job previously done by two. They simply have not enough strength," a reporter of Glos Pracy, the labor union paper, wrote after a tour of the mines.
What happened to Poland's coal industry is one of the still scarcely explained mysteries of what went wrong in the last years of the Gierek regime. The explanation most frequently offered is that coal mining was built up into one of the great "success" myths of a party chief who came from the pits of the Katowice coal region.
"For the first years, certainly, the miners seemed to live better -- and, in fact, did -- than most other workers in the country," an expert commented to this writer, "but not all that much better.
"Finally, the truth behind the propaganda has come out. Pits and men were being overworked for the sake of the figures, and little or no attention was really given modernization or to the deterioration in the miners' working and living conditions.
"Last year the bottom finally fell out of the market supply, and there you have the explanation of the present apathy and frustration in the coal fields.
"Without a solution to this problem and without winning back the cooperation of the miners, it is hard to believe there can be a solution."
The seriousness of the situation is evident in a few statistics:
* Coal production reached only 193 million tons last year -- 14 million tons short of plan.
* The best Poles can hope to do this year is 162 million tons, the level they reached in 1974. Officials say even this is impossible unless output reaches 14 million tons in each of the last three months -- winter months -- of this year. But monthly output in 1981 has averaged only 12.5 million tons.
* Not many years ago Poland sold about 40 million tons of coal to foreign customers. Last year they sold 12 million.
* Since 1974 Poland's population has grown by 2 million. There are up to a million more homes to be heated. Industrial and consumer demand for coal-generated electricity has risen by one-third.
All this has made the "battle for coal" the most urgent problem facing Poles as they enter a winter with no prospect of early improvement in the market situation or fuel enough for their domestic needs.
Because of awareness of this problem, observers were surprised at this week's last-minute cancellation of a projected visit by almost the entire party Politburo to Katowice to meet miners in face-to-face discussion of their and the industry's problems.
Last summer, the government promised them priority and the inner Cabined of Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski visited 25 mines. But their visit seemed to have singularly little effect. Conditions have worsened.
Authorities have not met their promises of improvements in market supplies in return for extra work from the miners. The effects of this failure are evident in the report Oct. 12 that on the last Saturday voluntary work had produced 31, 000 fewer tons of coal than on the preceding Saturday.
Western observers recently in the area brought back disturbing reports of the miners' mood and the apparent inability of government mining officials to find common ground with the men or their unions.
"There is no doubt," said one, "that the men at the coal face are undernourished, especially if they are to respond to a call for special effort between now and the end of the year. You have only to look at them."
Even the old pre-Solidarity miners' union adds to the chorus of complaints. It has just published a health report disclosing a 15-fold increase over the last five years in the number of colliers prematurely put on pension because of occupational ailments.
This year, production was further hit by the "free Saturdays" Solidarity won in the last year's strike settlement. The government has insisted that, although the miners may have a five-day week, the mines certainly cannot.
But efforts to secure "voluntary" work on some of the Saturday -- with incentives -- have broken down on a combination of the men's continued distrust and Solidarity's strong commitment to egalitarianism.
One of the country's most distinguished economists, Prof. Czeslaw Bobrowski, commented in a recent interview:
"The saying that 'Never before has the fate of so many depended on so few' goes back to the Battle of Britain.
"The statement implicitly contains a recognition for these few [Polish miners ], who should receive privileged treatment in wages and supplies. For at stake is not merely the fate of miners themselves, but the fate of us all."
Many Poles, in or out of Solidarity, agree.