New Polish unions assert their power

Poland's new unions have emerged as a potential national force for the first time since martial law silenced Solidarity just over two years ago. They asserted a considerable role in the recent decision by the government on food-price rises. Individual union representatives were called into a lengthy public ''consultation'' mounted by the government in response to widespread dismay at the scale of its first new price list.

More than anything else, it seems to have been the robust line the unions took that persuaded the government last week to cut the average price increase by 5 percent (from 15 to 10 percent), to leave essentials like cheese and cooking oil untouched, and to allot special compensation to the lowest paid workers and pensioners.

The unions immediately convened a conference of delegates from all over Poland to consider strategy. It was the first such move since they came into existence under the same 1982 law that banned Solidarity.

And the government - judging by the way its news media reported the event - seems to be welcoming the conference as a step toward giving the government-sponsored unions some credibility. The regime obviously hopes such credibility will, with time, defuse lingering loyalties to Solidarity.

The conference was held at the Lenin Steel Plant at Krakow, which was one of Solidarity's key strongholds and - as this writer saw on a visit there last summer - remained one of the places most resistant and skeptical toward the new unions.

This conference might, in fact, portend the start of a new mood on Poland's labor front. Instead of political opposition, the unions may opt in the future to challenge the government in terms of normal labor relations. That is, the unions would hold the government to its pledge to engage in union ''partnership'' when tackling the country's grave economic problems.

A final conference statement warned the authorities that the unions will oppose any further moves to raise consumer prices in the old arbitrary way.

It further made clear that the unions regard themselves as ''co-responsible for the country'' - words that had a certain ''Solidarity'' ring to them. And, the statement said, it was only in that light that the unions accepted the modified but still ''painful'' price increases.

This act of setting a course for the future raises interesting questions about what attitudes the Solidarity leaders - either former chairman Lech Walesa or the underground - will now adopt. (The underground has been silent since failing in December to rouse open public protest action against the price rises.)

Under the law, the new unions are ''independent.'' The Krakow statement firmly asserted their right to an ''active'' role in talks and negotiation to influence government decisions on ''all cruical economic issues.''

A spokesman, the head of the steelworkers unions, Alfred Miodowicz, remarked that this might often be ''vexatious'' for the authorities, but ''concern for the living standards of the working people is the trade unions' main task.''

Of course, the law allows the new unions to protect the living standards of workers. So the government - if it is to win some confidence with the more than 5 million workers still holding aloof from the unions (and especially in major industries) - has no option but to live up to its commitment.

Other battles for credibility are still being waged.

Squalls in church-state relations subsided with the protracted meeting some weeks ago between the Polish leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and the Polish Roman Catholic primate, Jozef Cardinal Glemp. More should emerge when Cardinal Glemp reports back on his consultation last week with the Pope. Both government and church are talking about diplomatic relations between Warsaw and the Vatican and that may change things.

The issue of dissidents remains at an impasse. Eleven members of the Solidarity underground and KOR, the dissident workers' Self-Defense Committee, are still being detained on charges of antistate activity.

The government is reluctant to rekindle angry feelings among Polse by bringing the dissidents to trial, but the detainees continue to reject the option of ''temporary'' emigration.

And though President Reagan further eased two aspects of United States sanctions toward Poland last week, the move has changed nothing in official Polish attitudes toward the dissidents.

Washington had already agreed to restore fishing rights in October. But last week the US said quotas for Polish trawlers in US waters may be worked out.

Allowing some Polish charter flights (but not regularly scheduled ones) to land in the US will not pull Poland's state airline out of its financial mess. Its troubles started with martial law, and were compounded by Western restrictions.

Poland has not met Washington's political preconditions (such as freedom for detainees) for ending the more debilitating American sanctions - denial of credits, loans, and tariff concessions on Polish goods, for example.

These remain in force, which is for Polish ''moderates'' a matter of bitter disappointment.

''Jaruzelski will always reject such conditions,'' one says. ''The effect of keeping (the sanctions) up is merely to help the hard-liners and to make it that much more difficult for him to hold them in check.''

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