Polish workers' protests sputter

''What can you do with a pistol at your head?''

The Gdansk shipyard worker's reported comment summed up the Poles' mood of frustration and anger this week.

By Oct. 13, strikes and demonstrations against the government's banning of Solidarity seemed to be sputtering out under the weight of the authorities' heavy hand. There were still scattered anti-government protests across the country but tough police action, tear gas, and the threat of severe penalties were having their intended effect.

''It's over for now,'' some Gdansk shipyard workers were quoted as saying as their three-day stoppage ended Wednesday. ''We are catching our breath. But it does not mean the end of Solidarity.''

Although the Polish regime may be able to crush the immediate emotional response to its elimination of the independent union, one thing seems certain: The workers' mood of silent protest will persist a long time, making any return to normality extremely difficult.

Thus Poland has again been brought to the brink of another test of wills in which the government's superior force has at least a temporary effect, but in which none of the country's problems are brought nearer solution.

Moreover, until detained Solidarity leader Lech Walesa is freed, it seems likely that resistance will continue to coalesce around his name and the principles of independence for which he stood. One important factor in the apparent crumbling of protests Wednesday could have been that - after all the speculation and pressure from Western groups and Polish emigres abroad - Walesa was not named by the Nobel committee for its peace prize.

According to a reliable informant in Warsaw, the workers had been holding back to see if, in fact, Walesa received the award. Had he done so, this source said, ''Poland could well have been plunged into a general strike action tied to his name. Now we can only wait - like the government - to see what the next few days bring.''

The most visible reason for the erosion of the workers' protest action in the great Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk was the impact of the government's blunt ''mutiny'' warning and threats of heavy imprisonment for breaches of military law. The yard was declared a totally militarized establishment Oct. 12 and the security forces stood by in strength.

Elsewhere, there were reports that workers in the big Cigielski engineering works at Poznan had staged a two-hour stoppage protesting the dissolution of Solidarity. This stoppage at the plant in western Poland where strikes touched off the first revolt against the communist leadership in 1956 was one of the few reported actions away from the Baltic coastal region. In Nowa Huta, riot police were said to have used tear gas to disperse a march of several thousand townspeople and steelworkers.

Overall, the picture remained somewhat blurred at time of writing. But a general impression of observers in Warsaw was that the three days of protests may have proved less tumultuous than the authorities had feared.

Leaflets circulated in Gdansk are said to tell the workers the ''time is not right'' for a general strike. But they urged Solidarity activists to be ready to follow a lead that might be given by leaders operating underground.

It is no surprise that Gdansk shipyard workers have reacted with defiance to the Polish military regime's dissolution of their union. Solidarity was born there in August 1980 out of the hard, bitter bargaining with the Communist authorities that produced a wide-ranging package of promised reform including the union itself.

Through this year of martial law, its workers have largely stayed apart from the periodic strikes and protest actions undertaken at other big union centers. In conversations with this reporter they scored all politics but voiced one simple, direct demand: the return of ''our union.''

In mid-July, a group calling itself the ''enterprise commission,'' acting in the name of the former Solidarity organization in the shipyard, disassociated itself from the Warsaw underground activists' call for nationwide protest Aug. 31. It called on the authorities instead to institute genuine dialogue with Solidarity leaders and the workers and set forth the group's own formula for union revival.

''We do not want confrontation,'' the group's statement said. ''The use of force is alien to us. We want loyally to cooperate with the authorities . . . in accordance with the rules of partnership and legally to act on the basis of our union statute which complied with the Constitution and was registered as such by an independent court.''

The statement appealed to the authorities to ''take our voice seriously.'' Otherwise, it said, there would be no option open ''to us'' but underground activity in cooperation with other regions.

This document, dated July 23 and sent immediately to the authorities and to the official news agency, has never been publicly aired.

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