Polish compromise expected, but mistrust lingers

The latest test in brinkmanship between the Polish government and the Solidarity union did little more than demonstrate the continued lack of confidence between the two sides.

The new unions and a new Communist Party leadership committed to reform accept and recognize each other -- but only just.

Neither is yet sure of the other's intentions. The party fears Solidarity as a potential political rival. The union movement is afraid the regime has ideas about neutralizing its independence.

But after the unilateral Saturday off called by Solidarity Jan. 10 and the tough response -- in words -- by the government, most Poles continue to see the issue as essentially one for compromise.

The willingness to stay off the job for the day to back up the demand for a five-day, 40- hour workweek seems not to have been as widespread as the militants had forecast or hoped.

The labor force totals about 12 million. The best estimate of Solidarity's adherents is about half that number.

Nevertheless the shutdown was big enough to vindicate Solidarity's confidence in its strength. In the big cities and towns and major industrial centers, including the northern ports where the new unions originated, the stoppage reportedly was complete.

In Warsaw, most of the bigger plants were idled or had only small number showing up for work. Management of at least two brought forward the normal "free Saturday" due Jan. 31, obviously counting on a compromise on the dispute by then.

A half million miners were not working. But they had won a specific agreement last September terminating around-the-clock production as of this year , granting a five-day workweek and all weekends off except for overtime on a strictly voluntary basis.

The Gdansk and Szczecin strike settlements, however, committed the government only to "reduction" of work on Saturday subject to further negotiation and set no deadline. The unions' frustration may be due in large part to the delay.

But, basically, negotiations deadlocked on the government's insistence that an economy nearly crippled by its foreign debts and production losses resulting from five months of labor unrest simply cannot withstand introduction of a five-day week at one blow.

It has instead proposed a scheme for alternate free Saturdays through 1981 and reduction to a 42 1/2 hour week overall.

There are indications that the economic argument carries weight with many Poles, however firmly they stand behind Solidarity's general aims or however skeptical they remain about the government's assurances that harder work now will mean better things to come.

To make its case, the regime points to what is happening in mining. As a result of the strikes, coal output last year fell at least 12 to 15 million tons short of target. There was a 25 percent loss in exports to hard-currency (creditor) countries. With the shorter workweek, the figures may be even worse for 1981.

The regime still has its hard-liners ready to take a tougher stand against Solidarity. The union also has its moderates and militants, some of them extreme.

The union militants seem to many Poles, as well as to the "liberals" in the government, to be concerned primarily with maintaining the maximum "political" pressure on the regime.

Right up to the Saturday stoppage, Warsaw's own branch of solidarity, which generally has been identified with a more temperate line, was appealing for further talks and urging the government to clarify its position. Lech Walesa, leader of the unions' national committee, has repeatedly eschewed strikes except as the last resort. Twice late last year it was only his influence that toned down ominous-looking situations.

There are reports he was uneasy about last week's decision.

He is concerned, he told this writer in a wide-ranging talk a short while ago , to keep Solidarity "out of politics." He sees the implicit dangers. "We now have really to organize ourselves as a union movement," he said, "and, above all , we ha ve to learn howm and negotiate."

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