Why a Polish steel mill worries about an end to martial law

Stefan Niziotek has the clipped, incisive style of a man who knows his job thoroughly. He occupies one of the ''hottest'' seats in the production management of Poland's crisis-racked economy.

Although everyone in Poland now regards the formal, complete ending of martial law as certain to come sometime next week, Mr. Niziotek views the prospect with some reserve.

He is director of the vast Nowa Huta steelworks near here. With a labor force of 32,000 it is the biggest industrial unit in the country.

He could use another 6,000 men if he could find them. But that is easier said than done, even with Nowa Huta's earning possibilities. The problem is finding them someplace to live.

But instead of seeing his work force grow, Niziotek expects to lose another 1 ,000 men when the last martial law restrictions are removed. (Nova Huta's work force reached a high of 39,000 in the late '70s.) The lifting of martial law will end the freeze on labor that has meant workers have to have consent of the military to leave one job for another.

It is not just that steelmaking is one of the hardest jobs there is, but also that younger men aren't so eager to take such jobs these days.

The money is good. The steel mill pays well above the national average. Skilled workers make a basic wage of 20,000 zlotys (about $225) a month. With overtime, they can boost that to 30,000.

Niziotek believes he could draw men from other industries and rebuild the labor force to the 39,000 of the mill's record output of the late '70s, ''if only I can give them flats.''

In this respect, although Nowa Huta's production is climbing slowly, it remains in the doldrums just like the rest of Poland.

Suddenly housing is being recognized as one of the country's gravest social problems. It has been a problem for many years. But now, more than anything else , it is lack of housing that may delay economic recovery.

Before martial law, Nowa Huta could depend on three local building companies providing an allocation of a thousand flats a year. But the system changed, and building slumped during the years of economic crisis. Since 1980 Nowa Huta has received fewer than 100 new apartments a year.

''And I have 7,000 workers already on the waiting list,'' Niziotek said.

The plant recently set up its own building unit, but it will be 1988 before it can be supplying anything like 1,000 units a year.

Prodding the government hard to provide more housing might be the best way for the new unions, authorized as a limited substitute for Solidarity, to attract members. Experience at Nowa Huta shows the new unions have a long way to go - not only in attracting members but also in winning workers' confidence that they are ''independent'' representatives of their interests.

The mill was one of Solidarity's most militant strongholds. Although the days of open demonstration seem to be over, thus far Nowa Huta's new union counts only 5,665 members - 18 percent of the work force. Whatever has happened to Solidarity, workers are not hurrying to place their allegiance elsewhere.

The law says the new union structure is self-governing, independent, and autonomous of the state authority.

No one here or in Warsaw believes the Pope suggested to Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader, or to anyone else that the workers should join the new unions to make them vehicles both of cooperation with and pressure on the government.

The Roman Catholic Church would probably like to see the unions operating along such lines, but it will be a long time before they can or do.

The purpose behind martial law - apart from averting what would most probably have become civil bloodshed - is to reinstate the ''leading role of the party'' throughout Polish society.

That is what the authorities' tussles with the cultural unions are about. Some of these unions have been dissolved. The formidable Writers' Union continues to be suspended because leaders elected before martial law refuse to recant the pro-reform and Solidarity stance of 1980-81.

The founding of the new union at Nowa Huta illustrates the problem.

The various sections of the mill sent a total of 204 delegates to the meeting. They elected an executive committee of 63, which in turn elected a presidium of 11. The vice-president, Edward Duda, who has been a steelworker for 25 years, insisted in an interview with five presidium members that all these elections were by secret ballot.

Eight of the 11 presidium members, it transpired, belong to the Communist Party. Mr. Duda said that did not matter, because the presidium only ''coordinates'' union activity.

The decisionmaking body is the executive committee, of whom ''only 40 percent'' (of 63 members) are in the party. Mr. Duda professed not to know how many Nowa Huta workers are party members. ''The union did not ask,'' one was told - but one may be sure it is not 40 percent. (On a visit early last year, the writer was given a figure of 1,200.)

The party's ''leading role'' in the new unions is not in doubt. What is clear is that Solidarity has no chance of returning.

Organizing unions by industry, which Solidarity rejected in order to remain a national ''movement,'' has started in major industries like steel and power.

That looks like the only way to preserve some minimum degree of the 1980 reforms.

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.