What is so important about smaller price increases in Poland, one might ask. When the Polish government announced Tuesday that price rises would be 50 percent lower than previously planned, it did two things.
It delayed a necessary, but unpopular, economic reform. And it may score a few points for its new trade unions.
Higher prices were initially foreshadowed late last year to take effect Jan. 1, as part of a restructured price system tied to market costs and worker incentives.
The strong public reactions - too reminiscent for official comfort of earlier times, when arbitrary prices increases sparked rioting and national crisis - prompted the government to withdraw its proposals.
Instead, it initiated a unique consultation procedure, in which Poles were invited to state how they would prefer the package to be introduced.
After the consultation period, the government claimed that many respondents appreciated the need for the price reform.
But it admitted that a big majority opposed increases. This majority agreed, at best, to a slow, phased process in which those with lower and fixed (pension) incomes would get greater compensation.
The government has accepted this popular verdict. The revised increases, due at the start of February, are up an average 10 percent, not 15 percent as originally planned. On some basic food - cheese, margarine, cooking oil, and poorer-quality meat - there will be no increases at all. Higher price rises are limited to ham and other items that, for years, most Poles have considered luxuries.
The government, of course, remains caught between its two necessities: to implement economic reform, without which recovery will be slow; and to shore up its continued political weakness vis-a-vis the nation at large.
This step-by-step increase of prices will slow down the reform overall. But the consultation and the decision to accept the bulk of the public's recommendations may make points for the government, especially in its endeavors to promote its new unions.
Much is being made of the fact that the new unions were brought directly into the discussion of a major national issue. The unions were established under martial law in the October 1982 law which also eliminated Solidarity. Membership in the new unions is said to be approaching 4 million. At its peak, Solidarity had a membership of more than 10 million.
That is about the same as for the pre-1980 party-controlled unions, and the figure seems stuck at that level. Recruiting the millions of disenchanted workers still loyal to the ideals of Solidarity is a slow process indeed.
Legally, the unions are guaranteed as ''independent.'' The law says they are ''self-managing,'' responsible only for their statutes and programs and the election of officers and executive bodies.
Government and state economic agencies are expressly barred from interference in legitimate union activity. The right to strike does exist. But the law carefully defines a strict procedural pattern of joint labor-employer commissions in disputes, and court arbitration, before before a work stoppage may finally be called as ''a last resort,''
The mass of workers in most of Solidarity's former strongholds still hang back. Latest official reports spoke of more than 40 percent membership in Silesian
centers of southwest Poland, such as Katowice.
But in the Gdansk shipyard where Solidarity was born, membership is only 20 percent, and still less than 30 percent in equally militant regions like Wroclaw and Lodz. In individual large enterprises in such industrial areas membership rarely exceeds 10 percent.
Communist Party members who initially were in no hurry to join the new unions are being encouraged by their leaders to do so. More than a million, in fact, are said to have joined.
But their presence is having little impact. Few local unions seem to be choosing them as officials. In a year-end review, the authorities said they have still to win ''the undecided'' workers and those ''still in the middle of the road,'' according to the weekly Polityka.
''How many can be won over,'' Polityka added, ''will depend not on words but on deeds, and this is where the new unions have little about which to boast.''
The government insists it wants the new unions as ''equal partners'' in issues of workers' rights and interests. Some 60 union representatives were called into the price consultation, and persuaded the government toat least increase compensations.
The one man who was not consulted was Lech Walesa. The government continues to blame Walesa and the extremists equally for Solidarity's radicalization.
The new unions are under law barred from politics. But from the start, Walesa envisioned Solidarity as a strictly trade-union organization, and tried to keep it that way. In the union's fateful congress in September and October 1981, however, Solidarity shifted to a more political, and radical, course.
To outside observers, only Walesa could convince workers that the new unions might be useful. And allowing him to be heard might be the one chance of a compromise to encourage better performance at the work place.
Greater productivity, in turn, might make the painful progress toward economic reform a little easier to bear.