Polish strikers go back to work, but calm is tied to larger role for unions

Three weeks of militant -- but this time nonviolent -- labor unrest in Poland have been quieted, at least for the moment. Whether discontent erupts again will dev pend largely on the outcome of promised negotiations between a top-level government commission and representatives of workers from the troubled areas.

The workers are in a determined mood. The announcement of higher meat prices on July 1 sparked the three weeks of strikes, but unhappiness about prices has been overtaken by other, broader demands, including greater recognition for the labor unions.

To prevent new and more widespread work stoppages, the communist authorities may find themselves compelled to restore a major -- but short-lived -- reform won by the workers a generation ago.

The "bread and justice" riots in Poznan, in western Poland, in June 1956 forced the Stalinist leadership from office and garnered wide reforms, including a "workers' charter" that visualized genuine unions and workers' councils fully involved in industrial co-management. There were also concessions to the Roman Catholic Church and to the peasants.

But the new regime soon saw the workers' councils as dangerous rivals to party organization in the factories. By 1958, official practice had robbed them of any significant status. The unions once again became simply channels for party policy, as they were elsewhere in the communist bloc.

In December 1970 an even more violent workers' revolt centered on much the same issues again brought down the government. Edward Gierek, who took over the party leadership, made new pledges of rapport and a "new deal" for the workers.

Things went well until 1976. But higher wages had raised consumer expectations, and the workers went out on strike a third time.

This time they were protesting not only the government's plan to raise meat prices immediately to economically desirable, unsubsidized levels but also the initially popular Gierek regime's failure to appreciate the grievances of ordinary Poles.

Mr. Gierek averted the worst by canceling the increases. But four years of recession and its escalating effects on Poland's economy left him no choice but to adopt the belt-tightening program announced last February.

Ordinary Poles' frustrations had also deppened. So meat again symbolizes only the tip of an iceberg of discontent that will require imaginative action if a crisis is to be avoided.

Both sides -- the people, who feel they have put up with too much too long, and officials, who cannot conceive of strikes "against socialism" -- have shown restraint.

Perhaps the leadership's somewhat ominous warning that prologed stoppages could arouse "fear among Poland's friends" had its intended effect.

In Lublin, Warsaw, and other cities, tension eased as workers went back to their jobs, subject to further negotiation on wages and other long-held grievances. Railroad crews in Lublin had left their trains standing on the main lines to the Soviet Union for four days. And workers had idled some 40 industrial plants in Warsaw and other cities.

The government has stood aside while managements and local leaders negotiated interim increases tied to productivity. It has few alternatives except to adopt some of the reforms long urged by more liberal members of the Communist Party. Foremost among these is wide democratization of public life, including the unions. Current worker demands include a larger role for the unions.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, similar trends are emerging.In Hungary, unions that won a certain leeway within market-minded economic reforms a decade ago expect more in return for support of government austerity-efficiency measures to meet domestic difficulties aggravated by world recession.

In hard-line Czechoslovakia, a union spokesman has predicted "conflict" on the factory floor over new production criteria that require better work performance but freeze wages through 1981.

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