Can Poland have shorter workweek and stem slipping productivity?

With the Christmas festivities behind it, Poland now gets down to the serious and unfinished business of its summer crisis. The next few weeks will be a testing time for the leadership since it must now deliver on its earlier promises to produce concrete ideas for reforming economic planning and management, carry out a new trade union law, and fulfill its pledge to reduce censorship.

Today the government is resuming meetings with leaders of the new Solidarity unions for more discussions on implementing the agreements that halted the strikes.

There is at least one item on the agenda that could spark a new dispute: working hours.

Here, the beleaguered Polish government, confronted with mounting debts, is faced with the unenviable task of trying to reconcile worker reforms, such as a shorter workweek, with the urgent demand to boost worker productivity. A shorter workweek, which Solidarity is holding out for, would adversely affect the already strained economy.

The Baltic ports' strike settlements envisaged the introduction of "free Saturdays" or some other way of reducing hours. The subsequent agreement with the Silesian miners called specifically not only for abolition of the four-brigade, round-the-clock, six-day workweek, but also for a flat five-day week with free weekends and only voluntary overtime.

Although legislation on this is still pending, it already has been put into practice, with disastrous effects on coal exports -- Poland's biggest earner of hard currency.

Last year saw a peak, with more than 41 million tons, or about one-fifth of Poland's total coal output, exported. The 1980 plan called for an export of 43 million tons. But, because of the summer stoppages, the shorter working hours at the coal face in the four months since then, and increased industrial demand at home, the figure will barely reach 33 million tons.

The government is torn between what it accepts as the "socially justified" cuts in hours and its estimated loss next year of some 11 million tons of coal.

Poland's unhappy problem, as the economic journal Zycie Gospodarcze points out, is that coal cannot be replaced by other export items because the country as a whole has yet (despite its immense purchases of Western technology) to develop export-oriented industries capable of penetrating hard-currency markets on a wide scale.

The government is hoping to win Solidarity's support for a plan to phase in the "free Saturdays" over the next five years. It is question that may be determined finally by official attitudes to other features of the strike accords , such as assurances that the unions will have regular access to the national press and broadcasting time.

The censorship question is even more potentially controversial. There is a mid-January deadline for the government bill, but discussion is still split between the government's wish to make the censorship office responsible to itself, and the demands by journalists and other groups that want it under parliamentary control.

There is dispute also about the scope and legal authority of censorship. The regime's obvious concern is to preclude any possibility of a "free press" spilling over into criticism or questioning of what it regards as the highly sensitive "untouchable" subjects of Poland's foreign relations, primarily with the Soviet Union (including past history), and with the communist world at large.

The reformers -- at least the great majority of them -- accept these political necessities. But they demand that no-go areas be strictly limited to an agreed minimum and be very precisely delineated in the coming law.

The new party leadership has condemned and disavowed the false "success propaganda" with which the previous regime stifled all criticism. It has declared itself far open and honest public information policy.

The result is apparent already in the degree of freedom, unthinkable only six months ago, with which newspapers, radios, and TV now report and discuss public affairs. Without legal definitions, however, there are bound to be misgivings that this might be only a transitory phase while the government sets itself up firmly.

Or, as a Polish writer commented to this reporter, that censorship will continue to be used as a means of silencing "uncomfortable" writers.

Christmas, meantime, has passed and, despite its manifold market difficulties , it was an especially welcome break for a nation near crisis since midsummer. There was somewhat more Christmas cheer in terms of foods than most had expected. The lately nascent atmosphere of dialogue and "mutual respect" (as Pope John Paul II said) between the major groups in society was further underlined.

For the Roman Catholic Church it was the best Christmas since the first years after World War II. A surprise item was a pre-taped telecast by the Pope: It was given first place in Wednesday evening's television news highlights and was run in full at the end.

Later, the Christmas Eve midnight mass was broadcast live relayed to churches throughout Poland from the cathedral at the Pontiffs former archbishopric at Krakow.

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