Polish leaders struggle to overcome vast worker apathy

Poland's communist leaders are worried. They desperately want to get the country's shaky economy back on its feet. But so far they have signally failed to spark any enthusiasm among Poles for the sort of hard work needed to achieve this.

Two events this past week reflect the authorities' efforts to overcome apathy and alienation among Polish workers:

* The relatively mild sentence handed down by a Gdansk court against the former Solidarity firebrand, Anna Walentynowicz - or ''Red Anna'' as she was known from the start of the ''free'' union movement in the late 1970s.

* The choice of Kazimierz Barcikowski, a Politburo member who carries more weight among working people than many of his colleagues, to make a major speech to 2,000 workers gathered in Warsaw from all over Poland.

Anna Walentynowicz, who had been charged with continuing her union activities after the December 1981 military crackdown and again after her release from internment last year, was given a 15-month sentence. This, in turn, was immediately reduced to three years on probation.

''Red Anna'' was prominent in the formation of Solidarity at Gdansk in August 1980. But her militancy soon brought her into conflict with Lech Walesa's moderate leadership, and she was removed from the union's first national committee.

But the Solidarity rank and file still held her in high regard. The low-key opening of her trial a few weeks ago suggested that the authorities wished to avoid provoking any further unrest. The sentence itself is now relatively mild.

The awareness of continued unease among the workers was implicit, too, in the speech made by Mr. Barcikowski to the Warsaw gathering of union ''activists'' (as the official radio called them). His speech was a mixture of two strong warnings:

* A threat to the underground opposition of firm action against its alleged endeavors to intimidate activists in the new government-created unions and of workers proposing to join those unions.

(Reuters reports that underground leaders of the banned union appear to be urging a repeat of last year's May Day celebrations, in which thousands staged an informal pro-Solidarity march in Warsaw. At the same time, some 500 Solidarity supporters once interned by the government have appealed to the authorities to amnesty all political prisoners before the Pope makes his June visit to his homeland.)

* An almost desperate note in telling workers and the populace at large that any amelioration of the continued appalling state of the economy would be impossible without public support of the government's recently announced recovery program.

The recovery program was presented to parliament last week. It prescribes tough efforts to fight inflation. Taxes and interest rates are to rise, and government spending is to be cut back substantially.

But, Mr. Barcikowski acknowledged, public apathy is as serious an impediment to this new program as inflation itself. The plan, he said, involved limits and self-denial.

''These measures are not popular. But they are indispensable,'' he said. ''Without gradually restoring a balance in production and the consumer markets, we will be stuck with the rationing system, with empty shops and queues waiting - often in vain - for goods still in short supply.''

The question boils down to public response. And, one might add, some sharing of responsibility, not for the past but in a new situation that seems locked in a vicious circle of mutual recrimination.

Hence, Mr. Barcikowski's choice as spokesman in this week's effort to come to grips with the workers was significant. A tough man, he is also one of the consistently moderate, reformist members of the Politburo. And in his speech he acknowledged the apathy and indifference that are gripping so many Poles. But, he said, the economic situation can only worsen unless people back the government plan.

He claimed that the new unions - which have a legal guarantee of ''independence'' that has not yet been demonstrated in practice - now count 2 million members.

That suggests some recent gains. But it is far short of the 30 percent of the labor force that the government has targeted for this year. And it is far short of the old (Solidarity) union membership, which exceeded 10 million.

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