Polish workers have yet to cap their struggle to form free trade unions

A Polish friend had just seen the American movie Norma Rae with its triumphant end to the fight to unionize a Southern textile plant. "Victory -- the union is formed -- the end," said my friend. "For us it is just the beginning."

He meant the struggle going on to build up Poland's new independent unions under the terms of agreements made with the communist authorities in ending the summer strikes.

The worst of that crisis is perhaps over, but not the crisis itself, as the new Communist Party leader, Stanislaw Kania, himself says. Nor is the opposition from a large block within the party apparatus who oppose reform and its budding new pluralism.

In this division between factions -- with clear-cut victory still undetermined -- the unions remain the crucial, key issue.

It is still early in their efforts to organize themselves, despite Mr. Kania's assurances of official cooperation and goodwill.

"Conducting the August strike was only the first stage," says Lech Walesa, chairman of the Solidarity federation of port and factory groups involved in the Gdansk negotiations. "Organizing the union is much more difficult."

It has been a fortnight since he lodged the first request for legal recognition and status for a new union. A dozen others have been approved in this time.

But legal argument is still going on about Solidarity's claim for "national" rather than regional status and about a clause in its draft statute precluding Communist Party or state officials from holding any office in the union. That, says the Warsaw court handling registrations, infringes citizens' constitutional rights.

Whatever the outcome, the new regime's "renewal" program to establish public confidence and win a better image for its badly shaken party will stand or fall on its genuine acceptance of this new style in labor relations under a communist government.

Mr. Kania's candor and his modest style are encouraging a cautiously hopeful public response.

He has said the new unions must conform with the political system and accept the party's "leading role," and the unions have recognized that in their statutes.

But he forbore from making any reference to "antisocialist forces," a sinister term initially applied by some of the party's hard-liners (who still use it privately).

The shake-ups at the top of party and government since August have removed 30 or more prominent people identified with the economic blindness and other failures of the late supporters.

For the moment, their major achievement is the way in which they have brought everything into the open -- both policy mistakes and personal responsibility -- and initiated the movement for elective democratization within the party, greater scope for parliament, and participation of Poles who do not belong to the Communist Party but are otherwise qualified.

The Sejm (parliament) is different already. It has regained an old watchdog prerogative in checking government proposals before bills are formally presented.

Deputies are making forceful interventions. Ministers are often openly skeptical. Admittedly on legal grounds, 38 voted against government-sponsored amendments to rules. Eight abstained on the appointment of Mieczyslaw Moczar, a controversial political figure in the past, as head of the watchdog committee.

The party rank and file, whose "mood of bitterness" Mr. Kania acknowledged, is behind the new approach. But there is not yet a big majority in the Central Committee or among leading apparatchiks in the provinces.

Four Voivodship first secretaries have been removed, but in the other 45 regions many more must be changed before the necessary support in the country is assured.

Mr. Moczar was a strongly nationalist and hard-line head of the secret police in the '60s, but he has come out as a firm supporter of Mr. Kania. He has the advantage, in Polish eyes, of being disliked by the Russians.

No one here is talking much about the Russians any more although they go on accusing the new unions of being "copies of unions in capitalist countries" led by anticommunists with "imperialist" encouragement and help.

Czechoslovak and East German leaders and news media keep up a drumfire on the same line. It is a little like the kind of thing the East Germans and Polish leaders of 1968 did with the Czech reformers.

But it is not taken too seriously. "There is no need to worry about editorials in Pravda," a liberal commentator remarked. "Only if it was to print a letter, say, allegedly from 'party veterans' [like the 99 who wrote to Moscow from Prague in 1968] might there be cause to worry.

"Given our Polish context vis-a-vis Russia, that does not seem so likely. We know, of course, that what is happening here can only be put aside if the hard-liners are able to retain sufficient strength to slow down the process or via "foreign assistance."

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