Polish Militants Strike Cautious Note. Solidarity supporters fear worker skepticism may limit growth of relegalized trade union. VIEW FROM THE STEEL MILLS

A year ago, workers struck the giant Lenin steel mill here just outside of Krakow. Poland's communist government responded first with a refusal to negotiate, then by ordering crack Zomo militia to reopen the steel mill by force, and finally a few months later by reopening negotiations with Lech Walesa and his banned Solidarity trade union. Those talks have now resulted in the revolutionary agreement relegalizing Solidarity and calling for partially free elections this June.

At Nowa Huta, unlike in 1980, the accord has precipitated no explosion of joy. Workers interviewed here just before the accords were finalized were cautious. They remember feeling deceived when their union was banned in 1981 and today see no end to their economic hardship.

``We've won so many promises that we all are a bit skeptical,'' says the Rev. Josef Luszczek at the Mistrzejowice Church, Solidarity's spiritual base in Nowa Huta. ``This is a time of waiting - of waiting to see if everything takes place.''

Even so, positive signs are emerging.

Conciliation is supplanting a tendency toward confrontation. Since a minor five-hour work stoppage on Dec. 13, no labor unrest has rocked the steel mill. Solidarity leaders say the union will move into an office in the factory in June, and plant management strikes an accommodating tone.

``Solidarity isn't a devil. I'll treat them as a good partner,'' says Vice-Director Jerzy Knapik. ``It won't be a problem because they're good workers, and in any case, Solidarity won't be as powerful as in 1980.''

Union leaders and sympathizers agree. While the relegalized independent trade union is again strong at the huge Nowa Huta plant, Solidarity remains absent at smaller factories in the region, many of which have been hit by wildcat strikes in the last few months.

``We don't have a Solidarity in my company,'' says construction worker Kazimierz Rokita. ``I was a member back in 1980, and I'd like to join again, but so far, there's no choice.''

Back in 1980, Solidarity exploded into a 10 million member-strong nationwide movement. After martial law was declared, the outlawed union continued as a symbol of freedom, active in churches, underground publishing houses, and illegal cells in large factories.

But because of worker skepticism, most observers expect only 4 million to 5 million workers to rejoin the revived union's ranks, despite an organizing effort launched this week.

``It's true, Solidarity can't be like in 1980,'' agrees Maciej Kozlowski, an editor at the Krakow Roman Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. ``The union is strong in a couple of large factories around the country - [in] the Nowa Huta steelworks, the Gdansk shipyards, the Silesian coal mines - but elsewhere it is not well organized.''

If Solidarity's problems look large, they are insignificant compared to those of the official communist OPZZ trade union.

Scared of being overwhelmed by Solidarity, the OPZZ is playing spoiler. It has aligned itself with hard-liners within the Communist Party, trying to sabotage the round-table agreement at the last moment by demanding wage increases of more than 100 percent the inflation rate from a bankrupt government.

``Yes, we're going to lose a lot of members to Solidarity,'' says Wladyslaw Sitkowski, the Nowa Huta OPZZ chairman. But he insists that his union won't totally collapse, a judgment shared by Solidarity leaders. The OPZZ can offer benefits which the poorer independent union still cannot afford, such as access to housing and cheap vacations.

``The OPZZ helped me with my flat,'' says worker Fryderyk Sedlak. ``I'm not going to join Solidarity.''

Even as OPZZ snipes at Solidarity for betraying workers' interest, Krakow's new private entrepreneurs attack the independent union for selling out on economic reform.

In 1980, Leszlaw Kuzaj was Solidarity's vice chairman for the Krakow region. In 1981, he was jailed. Coming out of prison, he married and had a child. He needed money. So he exchanged his low-paying job as a professor of economics for the new role of businessman.

He is now the proud owner of a small chain of fashion boutiques and helped found Krakow's Association of Private Entrepreneurs - the first such legal association in Poland.

Mr. Kuzaj now blames his former union colleagues for blocking market-oriented economic changes - insisting on wage indexing and keeping open large, unprofitable factories. His prescription for the Nowa Huta steel mill is simple.

``Close it,'' he says. ``Solidarity was a classic protest movement, but it was not a creative movement.... Our group wants to fight for the economy of this country. Solidarity doesn't.''

Amid Nowa Huta's divisiveness, there are signs of cooperation. Church-state relations have improved. Last year, the authorities blocked the construction of Nowa Huta's third church, demanding that Father Luszczek end his support for the banned union. A new building permit has now been granted.

For all Solidarity's weakness, it remains a crucial element of this new Polish political equation. Here in Nowa Huta, only its word can keep the peace. Just before signing the round-table agreement, Lech Walesa visited the Mistrzejowice Church and urged a packed house of workers to support him. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

``Walesa, well he was just wonderful,'' recalls Jerzy, a young steel mill worker. ``He showed us a different way of continuing, not just fighting but talking.''

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