Solidarity in the boardroom

There is little doubt that the Solidarity congress meeting in Gdansk is an enormous challenge to the Polish regime and to the Soviet Union. That it is even being held is remarkable enough in a East European country. That it is marked by such lively, spontaneous debate is night incredible. The outside world cannot but blink its eyes in disbelief and wonder even while it harbors concern over the eer-present risks involved in such heady democracy. The question nags: are the Poles going too far in their struggle to remold Poland?

The determination to press for further reforms, despite all that has been gained so far, is understandable. The workers remember how short-lived were the concessions granted by the regime in 1956. This time they want to make sure that "economic reform" is not again consigned to the bin of unkept promises, but that genuine changes are made in the system. Only then, it is felt, can popular trust in the government be rebuilt.

Solidarity's perseverence has paid off. Union militants attacked the leadership's compromise with the government over the right of workers to run factories. But this may be more union electioneering than a serious effort to block agreement by the rank and file. The fact is, the compromise represents a big victory for Polish workers. The parliamentary law passed last week allows for the formation of workers' councils that would act in effect like boards of directors. These councils would have a say in the appointment of factory directors in all but strategic industries. This is a fairly radical innovation, thgouht to go beyond even the Yugoslav or Hungarian models of worker self-management.

Many will hope that, for the sake of Poland's independence, the far-reaching compromise with the government will be accepted and followed by a new union focus on putting the reform into practice. It may be comforting to hear voices from the Kremlin saying it has ruled out military intervention in Poland. But the Russians now indicate they may be prepared to use economic leverage -- their considerable trade with Poland -- to bring Solidarity and the government in line politically. Indeed it is quite possible that the latter's mutual fear of an economic squeeze accounts for their new willingness to compromise. To be sure, the Russians cannot afford to destabilize Poland, which would affect the whole East European trading bloc, but they could create enough economic chaos to give the Polish government an excuse for a crackdown.

It would be unrealistic to expect conflicts between Solidarity and government to disappear altogether. Indeed the union sees a certain amount of tension as indispensable if it is to survive as an independent entity and retain its credibility with the Polish masses. But there would seem to be prudence in leader Lech Walesa's warnings to Solidarity not to try to seize political power by destroying the government and the parliament. In his words, "This we cannot do -- we must protect ourselves from ourselves."

Poles, no less than any other people, might heed that advice.

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