Polish unions face court test: socialist enough?

Tensions in Poland are lower. Now comes the acid test of the government's commitment to go along with historymaking union reforms that sprung from the recent labor unrest.

Today, for instance, is the day that Polish workers apply for full legal standing of their big "free, self-governing" trade union groups.

Their action is the second significant milestone in a week in the government's implementation of concessions made to end the summer's costly labor unrest. The other precedent-setting development was the live broadcast on state-controlled radio of a Roman Catholic mass from a Warsaw church Sunday morning.

Both mark a development unique in three decades of communist rule in alliance with the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.

First was the state-controlled radio's live broadcast of a Roman Catholic mass from a Warsaw church of Sunday morning, launching what now will be a regular weekly radio feature.

Today, delegations from 30 interfactory Founding Committees will go before a judge at the Voivodship (district) court in Warsaw to apply for legal registration. True, a Katowice steel works has already lodged an individual application, but today's application is the first made by a virtually "national" group. It represents not only the Baltic ports but also most of the other major strike centers as well.

The court could say "no" should it find the new union statute contrary to the Constitution.

What this means is that the statute defining the union's aims must not call Poland's "socialist" (communist) system into question, nor its place in the "socialist camp" alongside the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members.

Both the Szczecin and the Dansk strike settlements, largely adopted as the model for most of the other affected regions, declare that the new and independent unions would be "socialist in character" and in full harmony with the Constitution.

Today's registration move is being made by a umbrella organization representing 30 separate Gdansk-based interfactory committees acting together as a single organization. The intention was to avoid the delay that could occur if they had all independently applied for legal acceptance.

Now they are linked in a single union known as Solidarnosc (solidarity). But this body is regarded as only temporary until proper congresses can be convened.

"Till then everything is provisional," says Janusz Onyszkiewicz, an adviser of the Warsaw founding group that acts for some 90 enterprise union groups. "The important thing is to get started," he says.

New, independent trade unions are now vying with official pro-government unions for members. But attempts by the old unions -- to which the workers have belonged for many years -- to acquire respectability has slowed the initial avalanche of desertions from the these unions to the new freer unions.

Some of the biggest and oldest unions within the official discredited federation have already taken the first step of disaffiliation and declared themselves "selfgoverning, independent" bodies pledged to behave very differently in the future.

The top committees of miners, chemical and coal workers, and the seamens' and dockers' unions -- with nearly a million members between them -- are among those that have made the shift. Now they are making strong appeals for wide worker participation in the drafting of statutes and in free elections of delegates for formal, founding congresses later this year.

So far, party and state top leaderships have shown a carefully even-handed attitude toward both sets of unions.

Where there have been efforts to hinder the creation of the new unions it has been mainly the work of local hard-line officials and managers.

Obviously, however, the authorities would be relieved to see some of the old groups retain, or regain, some of their former standing and authority. But any suspicion that they might in the future gain preferential treatment could quickly spark a new crisis.

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