Poles worry about food, prices, not Kania ousder

The dramatic ouster of the Polish Communist Party leader Stanislaw Kania coincides with a crucial agreement between the government and the Solidarity union on the bitterly controversial issue of freezing food prices.

For the economically hard-pressed Poles, there is no question which development is uppermost in their thoughts or which in the long run is likely to have a more significant impact on the country.

With no hope of more butter before spring or more meat before fall 1982, and the hardships of chilly homes with the oncoming winter because of almost certain power station closures due to coal shortages, the agreed freeze on food prices overshadows any change in leadership. The same is true for the demands within the Communist Party's Central Committee for a ban on strikes, and a declaration of a state of emergency.

More than likely the effect of the party calling for a ban on strikes or invoking a state of emergency would be to fuel the pessimistic opinions of Poles that the regime's leadership is unable to find solutions to the crisis.

In fact such is the cynicism of Poles to their political leaders that the switch Oct. 18 in the leadership from Kania to Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski is likely to be greeted with little more than indifference.

The ouster is regarded as but another move in a recurring game of musical chairs. Unlike the dramatic ouster of party leader Edward Gierek in September, 1980, which paved the way for the reform process with its unprecedented changes for communist Poland, the switch does not represent a collapse of the regime.

It is not expected to change the middle road followed by the current leadership or reverse the reform process.

A far more decisive change is the agreement on food prices. After three days of talks, the two sides announced Sunday they had signed an agreement freezing food prices ''til they had hammered out a plan to meet other consumer issues in the present steadily worsening crisis.''

It was the first show of any kind of break in the deadlock between them since the opening days of Solidarity's Gdansk Congress in early September.

While representatives of the government and the union were signing this agreement on one of the most sensitive issues bringing the crisis to its current dangerous pitch, Kania was being berated in the party's Central Committee building in Warsaw. In the third day of a stormy debate, Kania was harshly attacked for ''weakness'' in the face of Solidarity's political challenge and alleged inability to take an effective ''law and order'' stand to bring the crisis under party control.

Jaruzelski is expected to ensure that limits are respected. During last summer's crisis, Jaruzelski, like Kania, was in favor of political solutions and the rejection of the use of force either against the strikers or in the aftermath of the crisis.

Since Jaruzelski's appointment as premier in February he and Kania have evidently worked closely together in trying to preserve the ''line of social agreement'' with the nation at large as well as with Solidarity. To this extent the switch of the party leadership - the key position obviously in every communist bloc leadership - should not be seen as the kind of dramatic reverse for reform as it would have been if one of the harder line members of the top party apparatus had been selected.

Yet the firing of Kania is another marked indication of the turmoil within the Polish communist party struggling to take control. Kania was forced out of the Polish party leadership in a determined and desperate last-ditch bid by the hardliners to halt Poland's reform process.

The decision to replace him with present prime minister, General Jaruzelski, who is not only a member of the Politburo but also head of the Army, is likely to vest the Army with a more powerful role in the present crisis situation.

By choosing Jaruzelski, the committee that threw out Kania seems to have shown also that it was even more firmly opposed to installing anyone who might conceivably try to affect a ''Russian-style solution.''

As to the food prices, both the government and Solidarity agreed to freeze all the proposed food price increases even though both recognize them as central to the economic reform while discussions continue on Solidarity's other demands for urgent improvements in market supplies, and a controlling role for itself in distribution.

While mutual calls for encouragement and hope have been sparse in Poland lately, both the government and the union made a preliminary concession by pulling back from their intransigent positions prior to their renewal of compact.

With spreading labor unrest and an ever more difficult food situation, Jaruzelski proposed a standing joint commission of government and union representatives.

The peasants' Rural Solidarity concurred. So did the so-called branch unions, remnants of the former government-sponsored TU organization after the mass of its membership flocked to Solidarity last year.

Solidarity declined and proposed instead a ''council'' of unions on which it might operate independently of the government.

Behind-the-scenes efforts, however, produced an agreement to meet in an informal working group which began at once to discuss the most pressing problems at stake as winter's approach threatened an even more grave situation. Above all they were to talk about food supplies and prices whose proposed increases had already sparked strike threats all over the country.

The next move may be to allow Solidarity the strong controlling role demanded at its congress in questions of food production and of ensuring equal distribution round the country of whatever food there is.

A call for a state of emergency in the face of a strike situation is is at best academic since to declare a national emergency is constitutionally the prerogative not of the party or even of the government but of the Council of State acting in unison with a parliament much more conscious of its own authority than it was a year ago.

Moreover, the ''right to strike'' is the sacred prerequisite of the new union independence and any threat to it now would certainly torpedo hopes of further progress in these new talks with the government.

More realistic were the suggestions of some renegotiation for temporary modification of the ''social'' agreements written into the general accord which brought the 1980 strikes to a close.

The most notable is the ''free Saturdays'' concession, meaning a five-day week and a virtually complete industry and business standstill on Saturdays which in Poland's present condition has proved an economic disaster, particularly in so as vain efforts to stop the decline in coal output are concerned.

But every effort or incentive offer to encourage miners to do overtime on Saturdays has so far foundered on Solidarity's strict egalitarianism and its demand that weekday pay must be raised to the higher rates promised for Saturday working in order to demonstrate that the latter truly is voluntary.

The writer is in Vienna briefly between assignments in Poland.

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.