It's business as usual: shortages and long lines
Warsaw — This is not an especially beautiful city, except in its Old Quarter. The rest is "new" and not architecturally distinguished. But right now Warsaw looks its best in these sunny September days, very welcome after an August in which the only high temperature was political -- coming from the strikebound north.
No crisis atmosphere here. City life quite normal. That is, there are the same tired lines of women outside the butcher shops. More meat is promised from imports that are yet to reach the market.
Almost normal, too, are the queues at the newsstands. Daily there is even a line of people snaking in from the street at the kiosk in my hotel an hour before it opens, since the newsstands never seem to get enough papers.
Now that there is something to read in the papers it is a pity newsprint shortages preclude bigger editions.
Something to read? Well, the last few days' hard-hitting debate in Parliament was extensively covered -- though paraphrased and "sanitized" enough to remove the worst stings in the numerous criticisms of the regime.
Sufficient bits remained, however, to let people know some pretty straight talking had gone on -- which is something.
Meanwhile, government itself is trying to get things moving. Quite a brisk start has been made with some of the lesser reforms, the ones aimed at people on the bottom of the cash ladder and which can be implemented without too much legal ado.
Some 400 zlotys, for example, is to be added to the smallest pay packets to bring them up to 2,400 zlotys ($80) monthly.That is still half the national average but will help those who are scrimping. Allowances also are being raised for large low-income families as well as for pensioners and single mothers.
Pig farmers are to received five zlotys a kilogram more for their goods. And next year a 42 1/2-hour work week will be implemented for everyone. The state-owned shops that sold domestically produced, quality goods -- as well as Western imports -- for hard currency will no longer do so.
The Polish wares they stocked were always in short supply. These included sheepskin coats, leather goods, and household furnishings. and fixtures.
Household items often were snapped up by immigrants returning from the West to settle in the home country. It has been particularly galling for young couples buying or building their own apartments not to be able to find necessary , basic fixtures.
Modest as they are, the first reforms will still cost money. But the government's larger problems will come in financing the big general wage increase written into the strike settlements for every working person and in compensating for shorter working hours, especially among the miners.
The government has said a new line will have to be drawn according to the country's "economic possibilities." Any thoughtful person knows these are limited enough. But politically, a still finer line must be drawn.
Trade-union reform is a particularly sensitive issue. The government must take care not to raise doubts in the strikers' minds that it is going to "sell them short." At the same time, it must exercise at least enough influence over their organizational structure to avoid ideological troubles with the Russians.
Either way the regime can court trouble. Even while the new leadership ponders these problems, workers not previously involved are striking or threatening stoppages in order to force concessions. Many of these grievances tend to be centered on local issues -- a cotton mill at Bialystok in the northeast, or public transport at Tarnow in the south. Sometimes they are politicized, with unpopular local officials the targets.
This was the case with the miners at Katowice last week. All of their demands were satisfied except one: the removal of the city's party secretary.
Obviously the regime needs time. It would like to think the first phase of the near-nationwide revolt is over and that it can get on with implementing the reforms it must to avert untold consequences. One ambiguous step could start the whole strike process over again.
The government cannot afford further pressure from new strikes. "Reassuring" as the Kremlin's recent messages have been, both to new party leader Stanislaw Kania and his predecessor Edward Gierek, the regime knows that continued Soviet "understanding" depends very much on how it safeguards the party's position in the new union structure. Secondly it hinges on how soon the regime sets about boosting the party's public credebility.
Indications could emerge soon when the Central committee meets again. Its Aug. 24 meeting made the initial changes in party and state leadership. It announced another session for a "deep analysis" of the causes and effects of the July- August crisis.
But this second meeting, Sept. 5, was concerned with hurriedly plugging the gap left by Mr. Gierek's sudden departure. The "analysis" cannot be delayed much longer.
The committee wil also a date for an extraordinary congress that Mr. Kania sees as essential to getting his battered party on its feet again. Top leadership changes in a ruling Communist Party, especially when made in so dangerous a crisis as this, are always followed by a shake-up at all levels of the party machine.
A new congress offers the only way in which the Polish party's image might be improved by bringing younger men -- Mr. Kania's generation and younger -- into a largely new central committee.
The next step would be at the provincial level: Removal of officials most identified by the workers and ordinary Poles with responsibility for the causes of their discontent.
In no other way can the party hope to assert itself in beginning to convince the public of its commitment to genuine reform and calm society enough to keep the Kremlin out of the Poland's domestic affairs.