Poland manages to raise meat prices without protests

Poland seems to have increased meat prices without tears this time. At least, the new prices that took effect yesterday did not prompt the explosive reactions from workers and the general public that similar government moves had done in 1970, 1976, and 1980 when the Solidarity union was born.

Friday's confirmation that prices would be raised Monday caused scarcely a ripple. Most people seemed resigned to the inevitable.

By late yesterday there had been no reports of the token work stoppages that the militant underground had sought in big industrial plants in Warsaw and provincial industrial centers.

A senior government minister told the Monitor that work had proceeded normally through the morning. That seems to have been the general pattern.

It corresponds to the mood this writer observed in three days in this Baltic city -- including a visit to the Lenin shipyard, the ``cradle'' of the Solidarity movement.

Officials of the Communist Party and the new government-sponsored unions admit they are not having an easy time winning over the shipyard's 12,000 workers to the government's longer-term program of reform and ``normalization.''

But a five-hour visit to the shipyard on Friday, including talks with many workers, supported authorities' confident predictions that there would be no significant response here to the price hikes.

Former Solidarity members expressed acute dissatisfaction with wages, prices, and working conditions but no inclination to strike or take other militant action.

Poles had known for some time that meat prices were to rise. Strong public reactions had prompted the government to postpone them from early June to Monday, July 1.

The average increase is 10 percent, the biggest, 15 percent. That is significant for workers who average 20,000 to 23,000 zlotys ($130 to 150) monthly.

Meat is the main item still rationed. Workers in heavy industries like the shipyard get 4 to 4.5 kilograms monthly (some 9 to 10 pounds) -- twice the normal ration -- but they still don't eat meat every day.

In a talk with the Monitor, Lech Walesa, former chairman of the Solidarity movement, indicated firm opposition to strikes or other protests that could spill into the streets.

``We have to draw lessons from the experiences of 1970 and 1976 [both occasions in which food price rises sparked strikes that erupted into riots that were bloodily suppressed by the police] and of the more recent past [1981-82 and martial law],'' he said.

``We see what happened every time, that we cannot win against force.''

Walesa acknowledged that not all of the underground union groups agree with his ``peaceful means only'' line. ``There are those who `boycott' such ideas and want to go on with more militant forms of action,'' he said. He says he is confident that most Polish workers share his view.

The government's concession on the timing and scale of the increases does nothing to assist it with the economic reform it is still struggling to get under way. The higher, market prices are essential elements of the reform.

In addition, the state is going to pay private farmers more in an effort to induce them to produce more food and put it on the open market.

But the revenue from the new prices -- reckoned at about $158 million -- won't have much impact on state subsidies on food. These still run to some $3 billion.

Add to that the cost of the compensations to cushion the higher prices and the bigger social-welfare expenditures for the poorest Poles and the economic reform seems to be left on square one.

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