Store shelves remain bare after Polish party parley

The optimism of delegates at the politically successful communist Party congress here is receding rapidly as the stark realities of Polish life come crowding in on an economically pressed leadership.

Such essential basic items as soap, toothpaste, stockings, and matches are missing from store shelves.

All but the lowest paid workers and pensioners have money to spend. But there is nothing to buy.

From the factories come fewer refrigerators, washing machines, and television sets.

But the most urgent need is food. The situation has been serious for some time. In the past month shortages have become even more acute.

No single fact, however, illustrates the severity of the country's economic troubles as much as the decline in coal production. Output of coal, one of Poland's two major hard currency earners, was down almost 22 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 1980.

Polish Premier Wojciench Jaruzelski drove the hard economic facts home at the congress here when he said the price of food, coal, natural gas, and housing would have to be increased 110 percent. HE also said wage increases would have to end. The prime minister indicated that only "superhuman force" and "profound economic reform" could correct Poland's chronic economic problems.

The critical question facing the leadership is whether the country will respond.

The government faces new tensions that range from demands for hefty bonuses in the ports to the threat of "hunger marches" in several industrial cities.

The latter seem justified enough if -- as just reported from Lodz -- people are standing in line for 24 hours in hopes of finding meat.

Any day could bring fresh clashes between government and unions. But the regime cannot meet many of the demands now being made on it. General Jaruzelski has not only called for a halt to wage increases, but has also elaborated on the law-and-order theme stressed by other leaders. The government, he said, would exercise all its constitutional means under law to save the country from economic disaster. There were "certain limits which must not be passed."

He spoke of early action to raise food prices, thus to start phasing out subsidies that are swallowing nearly one-third of the nation's budget.

Most Poles realize that action like this, however painful, has finally become unavoidable.

There are other areas of potential conflict:

* The government has no alternative but to persuade the unions to accept some adjustment of the "free Saturdays" instituted earlier in the year, through some rotating overtime scheme that will keep vital production going on weekends.

one problem here is Solidarity's exaggerated ideas of egalitarianism and militant opposition to even voluntary overtime (albeit it with overtime rates and other incentives).

"The miners certainly deserve a five- day week," says party chief Stanislaw Kania, "but we cannot apply it to the mine." There is wide public agreement with his argument. Many miners obviously are willing.

* The government is pledged to self- management in the factories. But Solidarity's demands (as in the current case of the state airline) that workers be allowed to choose their managers themselves. It wants recognition that they specifically are the ownersm of their respective enterprises.

For the regime, the factories are socially owned and the union demand is a challenge to one of the nonnegotiable elements in the "socialist state."

* Only in agriculture has the government yet formulated precise plans for economic reform.

The party program now admits that the private farmer is the "core" of agriculture. Besides increased investment, considerable industrial capacity is being switched over to producing machinery and fertilizer for the private farmer.

In other areas of economic reform what seems to hold the government back is fear of the unmentionable -- unemployment. Economists estimate that as many as a million people could be unemployed over the next few years.

Increasingly, it seems inevitable that more foreign aid is crucial.

But the Russians -- like the Western creditors to whom $27 billion are owed and repayment overdue -- are chary, as the recent COMECON meeting showed, of providing more until a clear-cut, comprehensive plan for recovery is forthcoming.

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