Solidarity tries to get itself (and Poland) on its feet

Solidarity is a young movement and one of youth. There is a lot of passion in them. "But . . . one cannot deny them goodwill or intelligence. Certainly they cannot be charged with laziness and a wish to earn more and work less."

This comment on Poland's independent trade union was made recently by the director of a big industrial plant.

If more managers and politicians had taken that kind of level-headed view of what a Communist Party publicist has described as "the driving power of change," much of the recent unrest might have been avoided.

In the latest strike, it was the government's initial hedging and a condescending reluctance to take the students in Lodz seriously that provoked them into prolonging their strike into February. Officialdom finally climbed down with an agreement conceding most of the students' demands.

The prolonged farmers' sit-in at Rzeszow was another instance in which the government's obduracy only fueled skepticism and doubts that it really accepted Solidarity --workers, farmers, or students -- as the "respected partner" it insists on being.

As the director said, Solidarity is young. It was only six months ago that it exploded onto the Polish scene. Quickly and naturally it came to lead the massive movement begun at Gdansk and the other Baltic ports. None of its members had any experience of bona fide trade unionism. It has to grow up.

But, until a few weeks ago, when the new premier, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, brought a heartening touch of resolution and conciliation to the regime, the union leadership was for too busy with strikes to tackle the "post-revolution" desk work of organization. It was improvising from day to day.

Last fall, union chairman Lech Walesa told this writer: "We have to organize ourselves, we have much to learn -- above all, how to negotiate."

But he was kept hurrying from one strike center to another, trying to bring order to union activity and to keep local and regional issues from being escalated by the militants into unwarranted confrontation with the authorities.

Officials were dragging their feet. And many militants within Solidarity believed the union could get what it wanted only if it continued to call strikes and exert "political" pressure.

Solidarity's fantastic growth rate compounded the problems of organization. What started in August as a shipyard and dock-workers' movement spread throughout Polish industry.

Until recently, the union had only a national coordinating committee. Its sole authority over 50 regional groups was the persuasive powers of Walesa and his advisers.

Now Solidarity has begun organizing its finances, and it is holding local and regional elections in preparation for its first national congress. That meeting is to establish limits on regional autonomy and set up a national coordinating council.

But the union has yet to address otherfundamental questions of economic reform, factory self-management, and productivity.

"Turning Poland 'into a European Japan'?" a Western diplomat muses. "Maybe in Gdansk, where something like a social commitment does exist and, having acquired the initial major aims, people are thinking about partnership in the economy." But not anywhere else.

A "Polish 'Japan'" was the euphoric phrase used by Mr. Walesa in the early days. Gdansk, his base, has always been "different," a region with a certain rapport between local leaders and workers even in the late 1970s, when relations were deteriorating fast elsewhere.

It is part of the "young" Baltic area, depopulated (of Germans) after World War II and resettled by Poles moving from eastern areas that were ceded to Russia. It has a radical, hardheaded, and unromantic working class and is the union powerhouse for the whole country.

Premier Jaruzelski's Feb. 13 call for 90 days of industrial peace gives Solidarity as well as the regime a breathing space.

If the regime uses the breather to bolster the union's confidence in its partnership, and Solidarity uses the time to turn itself into a real trade union , between them they might begin to put Poland back on its feet.

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