Poland: muddling through a wave of strikes

The wave of strikes -- "work stoppages" is the official parlance -- continued throughout Poland for a second month without showing any sign of abeyance. It started immediately after the July 1 increase in prices of meat and some other foodstuffs.

Earlier protest movements of similar character -- in December 1970 and in June 1976, for instance -- were also spontaneous, but they were violent and short lived. The former led to major changes in the top political leadership, while the latter brought about an immediate retreat on the part of the authorities and subsquent police reprisals.

The current crisis, unlike the earlier two, resembles a brush fire: Extinguished in one place, it immediately flares up somewhere else without -- up till now, at least -- turning into an all-out conflagration.

There seem to be several different reasons for the character of the present movement. The authorities have apparently foreseen the workers' resistance and decided to avoid confrontation by accepting their demands whenever they were supported by direct action. Such a conciliatory attitude was rendered possible by the fact that this time the workers did not demand rescission of price increases -- virtually impossible in view of the current economic situation in Poland -- but called instead for compensatory wage increases and a cost-of-living allowance to counter creeping inflation.

Despite a total news blackout in the officially controlled mass media -- now eased -- the government's concessions could not be concealed and localized. They became widely known from Polish-language broadcasts of foreign radio stations, in particular Radio Free Europe, and thanks to a clandestine network of contacts established over the last years by various groups of political opposition, headed by the Committee for the Defense of the Workers (KOR).

The links between the opposition, composed mainly of intellectuals and students, and industrial workers have always been precarious at best. Nonetheless, police repression, directed selectively against any cooperation between the so-called dissidents and the working class, did not succeed in destroying them entirely.

This has been borne out by the similarity of demands presented to the authorities by striking workers in different localities and branches of economy. Thus, for the first time, the workers' resistance gained cohesion on a national scale and might possibly become institutionalized if the spontaneously constituted strike committees manage to survive. As a rule their name was changed to "workers' commissions" in deference to the official dogmas denying even the possibility of strikes under socialism. And, appropriately enough, whenever official labor unions took part in the negotiations, their representatives sided with industrial management and party and state authorities , not with the workers.

No one seriously denies the urgent need for a radical reform of the whole wage and price structure; its deficiencies contribute heavily to the dismal state of the Polish economy. The government, however, is too weak, both politically and economically, to attempt such a reform, and prefers to shift the cost of its own mismanagement piecemeal onto the shoulders of the working people.

By acceding to the workers' demands, it nullifies in advance any relief which might have accrued from diminished budgetary subsidies for basic foodstuffs and other necessities and creates an excessive money supply for which no market coverage is available. A firm refusal, on the other hand, might provoke a social -- and political -- explosion of incalculable consequences which everybody, including Moscow, is desperately anxious to avoid.

For the time being, the only practical solution appears to be continued muddling through. That is exactly what the current events in Poland are all about. Whether or not such a situation can last is, at best, problematical.

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