In Poland courtesy -- and confidence -- are in short supply

When a friend who had invited me for dinner stopped at the butcher's on the way home, she was fifth in line at the counter.

There was plenty of meat -- even ham from China. It was nearly 6 o'clock.

Only one of the salesclerks was still on duty, but she brusquely told my friend she was ''too late.''

My friend protested, pointing out that it was still five minutes to closing time. By then four more people had joined the line.

When the woman continued to refuse further orders, my friend said, ''OK, if you won't serve me, give me the complaint book!''

It had the desired effect. The salesclerk was surly about it, but she served everyone.

The incident was surprising in two ways: (1) None of the other customers supported my friend when she spoke up, and (2) none murmured an appreciative word although half a dozen benefited from the protest.

Their reaction was perhaps typical of the often-acquiescent weariness most Poles feel after two years of chaotic economic crisis and eight months of martial law.

But more of them -- especially the women, who bear the brunt of it -- are beginning to make use of the mandatory complaint book when they encounter (as they often do) indifference or outright discourtesy on the part of workers in shops and public offices.

Most Poles are underpaid by any real standards, and this often serves as an excuse for general gruffness. But shop assistants and clerks are by no means the worst off. Many of them are paid more than a lot of teachers, for instance.

The authorities have announced an October bonus of 3,000 zlotys for people whose present monthly income does not exceed 3,500 zlotys (about $42). No fewer than 11.5 million Poles -- one-third of the nation -- are qualified for this one-time ''first aid'' gesture by the government.

It is not quite so bad as it sounds, because there may be two, three, or even four people, each getting this lowest wage (or pension), in the same household. But it is dismal when compared with the national average income.

That is now 8,420 zlotys, with most people getting another 1,500 as part compensation for the 300 to 400 percent rises in food prices last February. (That can bring their total monthly income to some $120.) An adult must spend at least 5,000 zlotys monthly on food for even a subsistance-level diet.

Last month there was an incentive move to offset the new prices. It allows factory and office managers to set pay scales higher, if merited, than the centrally prescribed rates.

But, meager as they are, wages continue to rise faster than production can put goods on the market. The shortages vary from month to month. With most food stable for the season, the current shortage is paper. Exercise books for schoolchildren are being rationed, and restaurants must make do using the reverse side of old bills. Cotton balls can be had only with a doctor's prescription.

Stabilizing the economy on a market basis and at the same time ensuring some minimally tolerable living standard remain the authorities' central problem.

It means a gigantic transition process involving wages, prices, jobs, politically embarrassing income disparities, and unemployment. It also means carrying through with a reform -- if the government is resolute enough about it -- that is bound to hurt at least two or three years before any benefits show.

Last year it was openly said that the reform would mean half a million unemployed once feather-bedding was eliminated and enterprises were forced to make a profit or go out of business.

Retraining and early retirement (often meaning the unwise loss of valuable skills) were encouraged. But for now unemployment is minimized for political reasons.

The authorities admit the problems facing 15,000 of this year's 50,000 graduates but claim overall there are many more work places than job seekers. The snag: Most of the available slots are unskilled positions.

No more than 20,000 people are officially registered as unemployed, they say. Steel mills are partly idled or reducing shifts because of a shortage of labor as well as materials.

Nonetheless, many people are being paid although they are laid off, and unemployment benefits have been introduced. Already it brings the well-known Western anomaly of a man being better off on the dole (a word that is not used here, of course) than at work. The leadership hesitates about being as ruthless as economic realism requires.

But, curiously, one has a growing impression that ordinary Poles are so tired of it all that they would accept all the continued austerities ahead if, for instance, the present modest improvement of the market were maintained -- and if the government convinced them it was committed to socio-political reform as well as economic reform.

It still comes down to a very big question of confidence.

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