Demands and hopes for reform are in the air in Poland more than at any time since the de-Stalinization of the mid-1950s. Six weeks of nonstop labor unrest have created precedents on which meaningful changes might be secured.
In the latest, 3,000 Lublin railwaymen, who were the first to strike this summer, have mounted the most significant challenge to the authorities so far. They are insisting on nominating their own independent candidates for workers council elections Aug. 19, in defiance of the rule requiring 80 percent of nominees to be official choices.
Their initial success in forcing management into direct collective bargaining over pay subsequently has been matched in worked stoppages elsewhere. Now more groups are adopting their demand for "genuine" workers' representatives in the unions.
To date, more than 150 other industrial units and public services, from aircraft and textile plants to city garbage collectors and bus drivrs, have been involved in the strike wave touched off by the July 1 introduction of higher meat prices.
Unlike similar outbursts in 1956, 1970, and 1976, this summer's strikes have been totally nonviolent.
This in itself reflects a more mature mood and sober determination among Polish workers that will be much more difficult for the regime to contain without bowing to their demands for more independent labor unions.
On previous occasions, riots panicked the regime into withdrawing its price increases. But nothing else was changed. This time the workers, ignoring union officials, quietly stopped wok and set up their own "commissions" to negotiate with managements. They demanded -- and won -- compensatory pay hikes.
Then they raised their long-pent-up resentment against the sham unions, which are more concerned with party and government policy than with the interests of the workers themselves.
This -- and the regime's recognition that it is powerless to do more than stand by and acquiesce in what is going on -- has become the most portentous political development in Poland for a very long time.
The regime now is facing a combination of the three most powerful elements in the country: the Roman Catholic Church, the peasants, and the industrial working class -- as wel as an influential "liberal" wing in its own party. All are looking for more credible government as the only way out of the present and persistent near-crisis situation.
How the government reacts will either begin to resolve the situation or make it graver still.
Afte the 1956 riots, the Roman Catholics, the peasants, and the industrial working class all won concessions. The church slowly enlarged its gains. Then in 1978 its immense role in Polish society was reassured by the creation of a Polish Pope.
The peasants -- the only noncollectivized ones in the Communist bloc -- still own almost 80 percent of agricultural land.
Only the workers, whose new councils were deprived of their independence within two years, and the long-suffering, queuing housewives, have been left out in the cold. But in recent demonstrations, the women have stood right behind the strikers, indicating that they, too, are determined to see concrete reforms this time.
If is not an easy situation for the government. Its plan to remove food subsidies as part of its program to restrain the domestic market and get exports moving faster has been setback. Wage hikes wil erode much of the saving in foor price subsidies.
This leaves Poland's burden of Western debts (nearing $20 billion) largely untouched, and hampers its efforts to tackle some of its most severe social problems.
Housing is a perennial problem. Although 2 million apartments have been built in the 10 years of Edward Gierek's regime, more than 2 million more would-be tenants with paid-up mortgages are waiting. Some may wait another seven years. In addition, some 10 million Poles are living on public handouts at or below subsistence level.
Twice in a year an ad hoc group of publicists and social activists within the regime has produced reports spotlighting lack of public confidence in government as the core of the present impasse. And for the first time in 25 years, th official news media are acknowledging the strikes and the legitimacy of their grievances.
The Gierek regime knows well that Moscow is watching events very closely. But so are the other East Europeans, some of whom are also hearing demands for "freer" unions.
A new deal for labor in Poland seems unavoidable. It could easily set off a round robin that the Soviets might have to ignore to avoid greater disturbances than strikes within the East bloc.