Poland: 'free trade union' issue becomes critical point

The possibility of an early solution to the Polish strike has come unstuck on the most critical issue at the bargaining table: the ideologically sensitive question of trade unions.

Although the strikes appear to have achieved most of their economic demands, they have not been able to budge the government on their demands for free trade unions.

The first flickering sign of a breakthrough in the crisis was snuffed out late Thursday when striking workers on the Baltic Coast broke off talks until agreement could be reached on this controversial issue.

Strike leader Lech Walesa characterized the position of the two parties as "polarized and apart."

Until then reports from sources close to the Interfactory Strike Committee seemed to indicate that there had been an easing of the situation in negotiations during the day. There was even talk from the Gdansk shipyards of an early solution after a week of hard bargaining.

For the Communist Party, the unresolved free trade unions question is almost a "last-stand" issue. The party already has suffered a humiliating defeat. It knows there will be further erosion of its authority and badly damaged prestige if it gives way altogether.

What the strikers want are absolutely free unions that they themselves would set up independent of both party and management, in accordance with the convention of the International Labor Organization, of which Poland is a signatory.

Related demands call for strike pay, for restoration of normal rights for workers victimized after the 1970 and 1976 strikes, and the release of a small group of activists jailed for earlier agitation for independent unions. These are apparently acceptable, says Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski, the chief government negotiator.

But on the unions themselves the government is resisting strongly and is said to be putting up counterproposals to preclude any political challange and to require the unions:

1. To recognize the "leading role" of the party.

2. To undertake not to affiliate with any international trade union movement.

The second of these conditions, at least, would seem to offer no problem, since if it precluded the new union group from contracts with Western unions, it would also free it from any political obligation to affiliate with the Soviet-controlled East bloc federation of "democratic" trade unions.

As the crisis lingered a Communist Party spokesman went on television to sound another grave warning of the "catastrophic" consequences of delay.

"The choice," said Mieczyslaw Rakowski, editor of the influential weekly Polityka and one of the strongest reform voices on the party Central Committee, "is between going down in chaos and self-destruction, or correct the system in keeping with what the workers are demanding.

"But we have to reach a 'social contract.' We cannot continue bargaining endlessly. In an avalanche of social upheaval everything will be lost."

Later, chief government negotiator Mieczyslaw Jagielski, caused some surprise by announcing "progress on all" of the strikers' demands, bar the one on free trade unions.

The real issue, however, is the workers' insistence on first establishing the "fundamental changes" in the system that party leader Edward Gierek has promised.

A majority of Poland's 12 million laborers who are not on strike -- especially those industrial workers with a strong "socialist" tradition dating from the last century -- are probably not against the basic social elements of the system.

But the Baltic strikers themselves appeared to be as solid as ever in requiring, before they go back to work, very precise pronouncements on what the regime will do to remove long-apparent injustices and anomalies. Members of the Communist Party, the police, and Army, for instance, enjoy such perquisities as privilege stores. In addition, the strikers want to see tangible improvement in their worker conditions.

So far the government's main concessions have been in accepting the strike leaders as the workers' own representatives and in some changes of attitude on the public's right to know.

The nation at large now does know what is going on in the north. In the last week, it has learned more truth of the country's economic condition than ever before. For the first time, for example, a newspaper has told Poles the extent of the country's indebtedness to the West -- $20 billion. The foreign tab was rung up in the country's quest for industrial modernization through Western technology.

The economists, meanwhile, are concerned that subsidies that were to be a phased out through the new food prices cost the nation a staggering $3 billion last year, more than seven times what they did in 1971.

And the anticipated saving has been eaten into by the wage settlements of the earlier strikes.

Or that the strikers' demand for a 2,000 zloty ($70) monthly increase for everyone will add $24 billion zlotys (about $800 million) to the present annual wage bill, increasing it by one-quarter.

Mr. Jagielski argued that no nation, even a highly developed one, could afford this rate of general increase. In Poland's case, he said, it would be "suicidal."

But such is the accumulation of long-pent-up grievances and frustration that economics as yet is playing little part in the present negotiations as far as the strikers are concerned.

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