LABOR unrest is hardly a new occurrence in North America or Europe, although both regions have been relatively free of the type of free-wheeling walkouts and massive strikes that marked the 1930s and 1940s. But when labor unrest suddenly rocks Eastern Europe - with its still highly regulated political and economic systems - one quickly realizes that major economic changes are under way there. Yugoslavia is only the tip of the iceberg. Unions are also feeling their potential in Hungary, as is the case with workers in government-created unions in Poland. The latter unions were set up by Polish authorities to replace the outlawed Solidarity trade union movement. Now, many members of the so-called Polish ``independent'' unions are beginning to demand greater say on work issues.
Meantime, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is talking about greater democracy for Soviet workers.
Still, it is in non-East-bloc Yugoslavia that unionists have been most heard of late. Strikes, usually referred to as ``work stoppages'' by government authorities, are not unfamiliar in Yugoslavia, which makes much of worker participation in the running of the nation's economic system. But work stoppages of late have been erupting like spring flowers. Over 70 labor-related incidents were reported around the nation recently in reaction to Belgrade's announcement of a new law returning wage scales to the average levels of the last quarter of 1986. The pay freeze was undertaken to help bring order to the nation's worsening economy.
Following the recent strikes, Belgrade announced that it would amend the wage law to be fairer toward enterprises and workers that have not had excessive pay increases in past months. But the government, as of this writing, has not backed down from its threat to mobilize troops if further strikes endanger the position of the ruling Communist Party.
All parties would gain by working out a compromise on pay. Yugoslavia needs greater growth.
At the same time, authorities should recognize that union organizations in their nation - as elsewhere in Eastern Europe - cannot help having an important influence on the making of economic policy. What Eastern European authorities are now discovering, as Western industrial and government leaders have long known, is that worker unity is not to be lightly dismissed.