LABOR unrest in Poland is reviving memories of 1980, when these same defiant Polish workers founded the independent trade union Solidarity. But things have been different this time. The optimism, the exuberance, of that earlier period is tempered. Poland's communist regime proved itself immovable and defensive last time around: Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski banned Solidarity and jailed many union activists. The government has shown a tendency toward a similar ``solution'' this time, storming the Nowa Huta steelworks late last week and arresting the strike committee. As of Sunday, the government and workers in the Gdansk shipworks were still at an impasse over worker demands. The government has declared the economy endangered.
No one disputes that point. But the danger is less the immediate strike activity than long-term, endemic problems that have kept Poland's economy in chaos for decades. Over recent years the government has tried a number of reforms, to little advantage. The Polish people's lack of confidence in their political leaders is a major hurdle.
Attempts at reform took a new turn early this year with the decision to allow prices to rise sharply, in hopes of adjusting imbalances of supply and demand. Predictably, workers were stung by that decision; wage demands shot upward. That wave of economic grievance led to the multiple strikes of the last few weeks. But strikes in Poland readily turn from economics to politics, as shown by calls for legal recognition of Solidarity and release of detained union leaders.
Such demands worry General Jaruzelski and his colleagues. They are willing, as recent events have shown, to grant steep pay raises in order to placate striking workers - despite the negative effect of such increases on their economic reforms. They aren't willing to grant recognition to something as abhorrent to traditional one-party rule as an independent union beyond state control.
But recognition of what Solidarity leader Lech Walesa calls ``pluralism'' is in fact crucial to any genuine reform of the country's economic system. In a speech last week to strikers at the Gdansk shipworks, he invoked Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy, emphasizing, as the Soviet leader himself has, that true economic reform can come only in tandem with political reform. Walesa calls for discussion between the strikers and the government.
Jaruzelski, meanwhile, is caught in a dilemma: to talk with Solidarity figures and thus admit their legitimacy or stolidly refuse to talk; to cave in totally to workers' demands or set limits on wages. And hanging in the background is the need to divine Moscow's wishes.
So far the Soviet leadership has only remarked that widespread strikes could damage the Polish economy. Some fear that a bona fide crisis in Poland could damage Mr. Gorbachev's own restructuring efforts by strengthening the hand of Politburo conservatives who want to reaffirm central political and economic controls. Gorbachev, for his part, has in the past said he's willing to let Eastern European allies follow their own paths of economic experimentation.
The reasonable path in Poland, certainly, would be to begin a genuine dialogue between the government and disaffected workers. As Walesa preaches, the present rulers will have to loosen their grip and allow private individuals and groups a say in their economic future. Otherwise, economic stultification, feeding the political resentments of a creative, intensely nationalistic people who yearn to see their country realize its potential, is likely to continue.