Poland's deepening labor unrest is fast turning into a credibility test for Edward Gierek's beleaguered regime. The growing loss of confidence in the country's leaders and in the communist system is mirrored in the almost unprecedented show of unity among the striking workers and in their sweeping demands.
As the walkout by shipyard workers spread to more than 100 enterprises and factories along the Baltic coast Aug. 18, the defiant workers continued to press for the removal of a string of grievances. Among them:
* The government's mismanagement and refusal to reform an obsolete economic mechanism.
* The Communist Party's monopoly in all labor relations.
* The censorship of every written word, and of the news media.
There is considerable doubt that these demands can be met without a major revision of government strategy, although changes along these lines have been pushed by an articulate, but outnumbered, liberal wing of the Communist Party.
Meanwhile, labor unrest, which has added some $130 million to the national payroll in wage concessions given striking workers, has become so acute that Mr. Gierek postponed talks scheduled for this week with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Ironically, the labor unrest that has brought the country to a cross-roads was sparked by government efforts to grapple with the present economic crisis.
Two months ago the government moved to put meat prices on a market basis to reduce the massive subsidies that have artificially held consumer food prices at the level of 20 years ago in spite of continuously rising production rises.
The Gomulka regime had tried to put meat prices on a competitive basis in 1970 and fell in the process. When the new leader, Edward Gierek, tried again six years later, he had lost most of the goodwill that accompanied his rise to power and almost went the way of his predecessor.
The July 1 move to bring meat prices in line with realistic market prices to stimulate production among Poland's disgruntled private peasant farmers again ignited controversy. This time it set off a desciplined strike movement that has spread and idled important sections of the economy.
The stoppage last week at three of the four major ports and the numerous shipyards along the Baltic coast will be even more costly.
The thriving shipyards are a vital element of the Polish economy. The skilled, highly productive workers there enjoy wages more than twice the national average.
This year the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk and its 16,000 workers are building 19 vessels, most of them for West European and United States clients.
Although not so big, the neighboring yard at Gdynia is equipped to build the most modern and largest vessels. It has a 200,000 ton floating dock.
The region as a whole earns a massive proportion of Poland's hard currency, which is becoming increasingly more crucial. This year, for example, Poland must find $7.5 billion to meet repayments and services on loans from Western banks and business houses.
That is a liability that will, in fact, absorb all of this year's export earnings.
The sole bright note in this somber picture is the decision by 24 West German banks to issue a new loan of 1.25 billion deutschmarks (about $690 million), one-third of it earmarked for development of Poland's other "boom" industry, coal.
Waiting on this West German move was an American-led consortium that now is expected to proceed with an additional $200 million loan.
In both instances it is somewhat less than the Poles had hoped for Mr. Gierek had doubtless thought to press for more in an official visit to Bonn this week, but now he has had to postpone his talks with a generally sympathetic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Mr. Gierek has just returned from vacationing with Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev in the Crimea. Whether there were indications of new help from that quarter is not known. In the less serious 1976 crisis, the Soviets bolstered his regime with cash as well as oil and grain.
This time, however, aid seems unlikely, considering Russia's own chronic shortages. If it were forthcoming, it surely would be announced as part of the regime's efforts to ease this dangerous situation.
It is Chancellor Schmidt's view that Poland's problems are due less to the high cost of its devleopment program than to world economic strains. He says, therefore, that the West generally should be ready to help.
At present, the economic issues seem almost marginal. Instead the demands being put forth by the striking workers reflect the deeper conflict between the government and its people.