Polish regime bends but strikers want even more

A return to work in Poland's strike-bound north looks little nearer despite the sweeping purge of the country's leadership. As government negotiators and strike committees resumed contacts Monday there was scant sign of a break in the strikers' declared resolve to stay out until demands on key issues are met "in full."

Above all the workers appear to be holding firm in their demand for more independence and control in running the unions, the pivotal issue in the present strike negotiations.

One day after Communist Party leader Edward Gierek's Aug. 24 unveiling of a more conciliatory turn in government policy, including a pledge of new and free union elections, the cool response among the workers seemed unaltered.

"Changes in the administration and promises of improved conditions are not a solution to our demands and problems," one Gdansk committee leader said.

Another took a milder line. He spoke of a "stretched-out hand" of the party and government as "a good omen that gives negotiations a chance of success." But his hopeful note was a lonely one.

In general, not even the removal of the hard-line Politburo and trade union leader, Jan Szydlak -- who a few days before had told shipyard workers the party did "not intend to share power" -- has had any effect on the striker's persistant skepticism toward the government.

Nor have the most sweeping changes in the party and government in a decade -- which included everyone involved in the first vain official efforts to settle the strikes except Mr. Gierek himself -- appeased the workers.

In bargaining over the key issue of the degree of freedom and control the workers will have in their unions, time is not on the government's side.

Many within the party, though by no means a majority, believe some tangible measure of union reform is feasible without altogether surrendering the party's role.

Hungary is often cited as an example. There the workshop floor has distinct opportunity for participation plus independent initiative. In theory the workers can even strike, though this is not encouraged.

The weekend purge of high party and government members has not brought in too many "reformers." But it has removed several formidable hard-liners.

The most interesting new appointments are probably those of Stefan Olszowski and Josef Barecki. The latter until now was the highly regarded editor of the party's newspaper Trybuna Ludu. His posting as head of Polish radio and TV is seen to herald a new, more open information style.

Nevertheless, the regime remains under severe pressure as the urgent, often appealing tone in Mr. Gierek's address to the nation vividly reveals. It must have been a galling experience for him, as leader of a powerful Communist Party, publicly to make the admissions he did.

* The Central's Committee six-hour session, he said, was "often heated," apparently on the part of those whom he confessed had foreseen the country's economic crisis some years ago, but "had not been heeded at the time."

(It is known that dissent within the party has grown steadily in the last two years. Some of those now returned, or newly appointed, to senior party or government posts were among the critics of past economic policy.)

* "Our party," Mr. Gierek said, "wants honestly to correct its mistakes. . . . We are ready to talk with the workers' representatives. . . ."

It is the Communist Party that normally claims to be the true and sole representative of the interests of the working class. Yet here was its leader admitting the existence and competence of others.

Mr. Gierek said there would be new union elections, with as many candidates as the workers chose to nominate. He invited them to propose their own draft for a new statute for the unions to be presented to the central council in November. But the workers want to go further: to a fully independent, "free" union structure -- one parallel to the official body. This is something a Communist Party cannot countenance if it wishes to retain an exclusive hold on power. There is a remarkable parallel between today's struggle and the one in 1956 after Wladislaw Gomulka's return to power. Hopes then that the unions, which had been treated purely as transmission belts for party policy, might gain an independent voice were short-lived.

A resolution was drawn up saying the unions were to be fully independent of state and party influence. But within a year, a statute was adopted that returned to the pre-1956 concept insisting on the "directing role" of the party in all union activity. It is still in force today.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.