Solidarity power outshines communist rule in Poland

"We in the shipyard last year were not alone. We felt that the whole of Poland was behind us. It was that which gave us our strength." With his words to the first national convention of Poland's young but already muscular independent trade union Solidarity, Lech Walesa put his finger on the key to his movement's success.

Despite a stormy first year with strikes sometimes trying the patience of ordinary Poles. Solidarity undoubtedly commands much m ore public confidence than the Communist Party.

[This was emphasized by a Sept. 7 Reuters report that the convention drafted a resolution urging the Polish parliament not to accept the government's version of laws on worker self-management until a national referendum on the issue could be held. The resolution threatened to ask Solidarity's 9.5 million members to refuse to recognize the parliament if the laws went through unchanged. Union officials explained that could eventually lead to a demand for new parliamentary elections.]

The party leaders are still having to battle very hard to establish their own credibility -- let alone to command any popular belief in their commitment to reform.

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the government still appears to be uncertain as to just how to cope with this precocious sociopolitical giant. Neither internal union rivalries, nor outside saber-rattling by the Soviet Union , nor immense pressures from Poland's own ruling Communist Party have prevented Solidarity becoming a formidable power in the country.

Even as the three-day convention, Sept. 5-7, was filling a stadium here with speeches and applause, the Soviets were conducting one of their largest military exercises since World War II near Poland's borders. The Tass news agency announced that some 100,000 men were taking part in ground and naval maneuvers, both in the Soviet Union itself and in the Baltic not far from this seaport.

The reason for this flexing of Soviet military might was not specifically given. But the maneuvers -- the third major Warsaw Pact exercises in or around Poland over the past year -- appeared to be aimed at maintaining psychological pressure on Poland.

With one eye on Moscow's anxieties, Mr. Walesa and his fellow union moderates have tried to keep those issues on which they are on a collision course with the government out of the politically charged national arena.

One of these disputes involved the government's refusal to concede to Solidarity complete editorial control of what the state-controlled radio and television broadcast about this convention. As a result, Solidarity refused admission to Polish state media.

This decision drew more applause than anything else in the opening proceedings. But Polish television carried film of the conference on its Saturday evening news show anyway. It was from the BBC, which along with other West European and US network, has full facilities here.

The government could take comfort, however, from one unique aspect of the convention. The "overture" to the three-day proceedings was a mass said in the cathedral of the Oliva suburb of Gdansk Sept. 5 by Poland's new primate, Archbishop Josez Glemp.

The primate's presence was a symbol of the "moral authority" of the Roman Catholic Church in this historically Western and Christian land. It also symbolized the church's endorsement of Solidarity's social aims.

But to the government it could be welcome reassurance of the church's support for the regime in everything that it elects to do along the path of peaceful solution of Poland's crisis, and implicit counsel also for prudence and restraint in the union.

The moderating presence of the church helped counterbalance the absence of the party leader from the platform at the convention opening. For more than 30 years the country's communist leader has made the keynote address at union gatherings that were little more than the transmission belt for decisions already made by the party. Solidarity put an end to that custom.

The three days were filled with symbolism and implicit challenge to the regime, sometimes made explicit in fiery speeches. But they also set the stage for the second part of the congress later this month. By then, working commissions will have hammered out the union's program and its ideas on tackling Poland's gigantic economic problems.

It is on these that the toughest test of wills yet between the party and Solidarity must be fought out. The self-management issue is likely to spark the toughest battle. Both the union and government have agreed that some system of worker self-management is essential for economic revival; they disagree on the precise form, however.

The militants in Solidarity -- with solid backing from the rank and file on this issue -- are preparing a "fight to the finish" over whether workers' councils will have absolute control of the choice and appointment of enterprise directors.

The government has given an emphatic "no," but its draft seems to propose something pretty near the kind of self-management (including a competitive selection of directors) long established and developed -- by trial and error -- in communist but non-bloc Yugoslavia.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.