Poland's 'revolution in slippers'

Mahatma Gandhi would approve Poland's "nonviolent revolution." For that is what it is. The gentle ascetic who led India to independence surely would have said it is the only way Poles may hope to achieve their present bid for a more just, more open society.

Nonviolence has ruled since that first mid- August day when the Gdansk shipyard gate was closed and its 16,000 workers began the sit-in that ended only when the government bowed to their 21 demands. It was, and is, the most extraordinary episode in Eastern Europe since the area fell to the communists after Workd War II. In the long run, it may prove the most significant.

Given Poland's long history of fierce uprisings and armed revolutionary movements, it is even more remarkable. It is an event of the highest drama -- made even more dramatic because of its quiet, peaceful means.

In 1970 Wladyslaw Gomulka called out troops when strikes flared along the Baltic over new food prices that were making already bad living standards worse. It was a tragic miscalculation that dealt his regime a blow from which it never really recovered. It also marked the start of this new "revolution."

In 1976 Edward Gierek made a similar mistake. Although his use of force was not on the same scale, it was enough to hasten a "revolutionary" process that came to fruition last year.

Today's workers have learned the lesson of 1970 and 1976: that taking grievances to the streets can provide a "law and order" pretext for the use of force. Last summer, shortly after the strikes began, the strike leaders devised an impressive code of discipline. And Poland's host of shipyard workers, dockers, steelmen, miners, and factory hands complied.

From those first days right on through this year's latest tense round of strikes, there were no incidents of violence or disorder among the strikers, nor any move to take to the streets. The kind of violent action seen in other strife-torn cities around the world was noticeably absent here. There were no paving stones ripped up of cars burned or overturned to make barricades, no stoning of police or official buildings, no noise, no tumult and shouting.

The Polish authorities had also learned a lesson. Driving past a barraks at Gdansk whose high gateway was momentarily open, I glimpsed a fleet of jeeps in the yard inside, each manned with four riot policemen, helmeted, fully ready for action. But they never came out. Throughout the strikes, the police presence has been conspicuously lowkey.

The man who became party leader in September, Stanislaw Kania, and the defense minister (who has just been appointed prime minister), Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, both rejected the use of the armed forves, or force of any kind, in a repressive role. They continued to do so as Poland lurched through the fall into winter with one new crisis following another.

Primarily, however, it was the workers' disciplined resolve not to provoke or be provoked that avoided what often could easily have brought bloodshed. Ans who knows what else? The Poles have always been ready to fight for their independence whatever the odds. Many are hot-tempered; and many of them drink too much.

One of the strike leaders' wisest moves last summer was "prohibition." No alcohol was allowed in the plants. There was tea, bread, sausage, cheese, fruit. Truckloads of mineral water were taken in. There were few breaches of the alcohol rule. (Outside, in the towns, liquor stores were closed.)

Discipline has not slackened since workers flocked to the Warsaw court when Solidarity's registration battle was fought. Recently the farmers, too, flocked in when their case was before the court. But there were no untoward incidents.

Typical was the recent sit-in by 100 workkers at Bielsko-Biala (where again liquor was banned). "The group has made themselves comfortable," a Krakow newspaper reported. "The kitchen provides meals. Many of the strikers are in slippers. During breaks in the negotiations, some play cards. sleeping bags and bags of toiletries lie under the tables."

They finally carried the day. Their sit-in was on local issues that Solidarity chairman Lech Walesa initially had said did not warrant a strike. He changed his mind. "It is a good thing," he said, "when working people finally say, 'No.' There are moments when one must just say, 'Enough is enough.'"

That, really, is what this people, with their Gandhian abstinence and "nonviolent revolution" -- or, if you like, their "revolution in slippers" -- have been saying for eight months. And, at last, they are being listened to.

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