USSR lends ear to workers' gripes

The upheaval in Poland has helped prod a sobered Soviet leadership to begin paying more attention to worker gripes at home.

The complaints are many and varied: everything from food and apartment shortages to poor transport and medical services.

Signs of a new attentiveness by Soviet officialdom began to emerge last summer. They have intensified, peaking with a change in the leadership of the state-controlled labor union organization before its five-yearly national congress which opens here March 16.

There are clear limits to the changes. The Kremlin is not about to inject its own docile Soviet unions with a dose of Solidarity-style independence. Most of the few Soviet workers who began toying with such ideas back in 1977 have been tried and sentenced, a process that is continuing.

Also, lending a closer ear to worker displeasure is not the same as doing something about it -- a task which, even assuming the best of official intentions, seems to have been complicated by the traditional snags of Soviet bureaucracy.

But the seriousness of the Soviet efforts has been underscored by prompt official media attention on such bureaucratic lapses and, diplomats add, by some supportive words from Konstantin Chernenko, a Politburo associate and longtime aide to President Leonid Brezhnev.

''I think the Polish crisis was greeted with acute attention here,'' remarked Leonid Kravchenko, the energetic editor of Trud, official organ of the Soviet union organization. ''Each of us certainly searched ourselves for ways of eliminating the possibility of such actions here.''

During the past year, Trud helped organize 10 ''open letter days'' at various Soviet farms and factories. Workers were given the opportunity to toss written and verbal questions, suggestions, and complaints at various officials for four to five hours. Roughly similar events had been held before but on a smaller scale, according to Mr. Kravchenko. Two other Soviet newspapers began setting up similar gatherings.

The hope, union officials say, is to put new teeth in the existing union organization. On paper, Soviet unions have considerable rights. Although one of these -- the strike -- will surely not be used, union sources say their organization will push management and state bureaucracy harder to improve work, housing, transportation, and recreation conditions.

One ranking union figure said President Brezhnev will highlight these points in a keynote address to the Union congress.

Union sources stress that other, more traditional union roles are not about to fall by the wayside. The unions will still see themselves as a vehicle for guarding labor discipline, upping production, and meeting the omnipresent economic plan. But the Trud editor said he expected the coming congress to put particular emphasis on the unions' role as lobbyist for improving workers' ''social condition.''

Mr. Kravchenko and others suggested this priority was one reason for the sacking of national union leader Alexei Shibayev March 5. Most of Mr. Shibayev's experience had been on ''the management side,'' one official added. His replacement has previously been on the union's national secretariat, the official noted. (He confirmed reports that Mr. Shibayev will become a deputy government minister -- ''certainly not a promotion.'')

Meanwhile, a Moscow radio report has said that in nationwide preparatory meetings for the congress, ''union bodies which have failed to make sufficient use of their rights to resolve problems concerning production, work, and the everyday life and leisure of the working people were sharply criticized.''

The Soviet communist newspaper Pravda, on March 9, ran an article accusing some union officials of ''bureaucratism, formalism, and inertia''-- and of ''toothlessness'' in defending the interests of workers. The commentary said some union organs had become mere ''adjuncts of management.''

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