KAREL POLIVKA cuts a solid, sober figure, like most of his fellow Czech workers. Worker revolts and independent trade unions such as Poland's Solidarity didn't interest him. The Poles, he scorns, are lazy and look what happened to them - they endured grinding poverty. So he ignored politics and lived a life in this town west of Prague for small pleasures, the comfortable apartment, the yellow Skoda sedan.
But when a group of city slickers formed the Civic Forum opposition dedicated to overthrowing the country's hard-line communist rulers, the 48-year-old Polivka stepped into the front ranks. He led 2,300 other workers from the CKD factory (which makes heavy machinery, tractors, trams) out the front gate with a banner reading ``Along the Lenin Road to Socialism,'' across the highway, through the snow-covered fields in Kutna Hora's medieval town square. It was his first time out on strike.
``We never had strikes here before, because people were satisfied - and scared,'' Mr. Polivka explained. ``Now they aren't scared, and they realize they aren't satisfied, either.''
The workers' action late last month proved to be the crucial moment in Czechoslovakia's peaceful revolution. Although the Communists had begun to make important concessions before it took place, they still thought of Civic Forum as a fragile collection of intellectuals and students. When the workers went out - millions of them, in every part of the country - it was an overwhelming display of the breadth of Civic Forum's support. Not long afterward, Communist President Gustav Husak stepped down and the Communists accepted a nonparty majority in the new government.
``For the opposition, it was fantastic that workers became so active and politicized,'' recalls Jana Smidova, an opposition sympathizer. ``They understood so well the demands of Civic Forum, and they refused to be afraid.''
This newfound militance ended an era when Czech workers, along with their East German and Bulgarian comrades, combatted communism through subtle, private means. Instead of mounting a Polish-style frontal assault on the system, other East European workers slacked off. ``We pretend to work,'' the joke went, ``and they pretend to pay us.''
Czech workers, in particular, once were the pride of Europe. Before World War II, their workmanship produced a wide variety of sophisticated products - from world-famous Moser crystal to sleek Skoda automobiles rivaling Mercedes and BMWs. Now the Skoda cars and Moser crystal are considered cheap, obsolete, poor quality. In the West, they are sold at a discount.
This low quality and inefficiency does not result just from absurd mistakes in planning or too many bureaucrats. It comes from poor effort. A recent study showed that workers in many Czechoslovak industries waste up to 20 percent of their time on the job by arriving late, leaving early, and taking long breaks.
Their apathy stems more from disappointment with previous efforts at change than from satisfaction with the status quo. Almost alone among East European countries, Czechoslovakia boasted a large working class that sympathized with socialist ideas. The Czechoslovak Communist Party won almost 40 percent of the vote in the 1947 free elections.
The initial enthusiasm translated into a strong sense of working-class power. In 1953, workers in Plzen revolted against a sudden and sweeping currency reform that changed 50 old crowns overnight into one new crown. Hundreds of men from the Skoda auto works broke out of the plant, ramming the gate with a heavy truck and engaging in a running battle with the People's Militia.
At noon, however, many of the demonstrators went home to eat. Soldiers sealed off the main city square. Agents from the state security police checked the plants and began to round up the provocateurs. The short-lived revolt was crushed.
This failure made Czech workers wary of the cultural and social reawakening of the 1968 Prague Spring. Reform-minded Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek realized this apathy was dangerous. Conservatives within the party could try to mobilize the working class against economic reforms that might mean factory closures and wide pay differentials.
Accordingly, Mr. Dubcek decreed a worker self-management scheme. Directly elected ``Enterprise Councils'' were established with powers to supervise management and its financial strategy. After the Soviet invasion, these councils gained real authority, rallying to resist Warsaw Pact troops: Thousands of workers helped produce and transport protest literature, set up clandestine broadcasting networks, and subverted Soviet military supplies.
While Soviet tanks patrolled Prague streets, workers at the CKD factory gave shelter to Dubcek and his fellow reformers so that they could hold the 14th Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on the factory floor. Still, a true indigenous worker movement never emerged.
``After the invasion, we were demoralized,'' says worker Polivka. ``We lost our faith in communism, but we didn't find a faith in anything else.''
He himself joined the party in 1962 while completing military duty. ``The Army party organization defended common soldiers against officers,'' he explains. In 1968, he quit, disgusted with all forms of politics. ``We were scared - the police, the cadre officers, the personnel officers, they could fire us the minute we stepped out of line,'' he says.
Newfound courage came only last month with student demonstrations. Polivka was outraged by the police brutality against the youngsters. After seeing once-docile East Germans rise up against their repressive rulers, he decided to join the ``Civic Forum'' group in Kutna Hora.
When Civic Forum declared the general strike, Polivka helped form a strike committee in his factory. It called a meeting for 9 a.m. on the day of the strike. The official trade union tried at first to recuperate support by appearing to support Civic Forum's demands. Then it turned to scare tactics. To prevent the independent meeting, it printed posters announcing a meeting for 10 a.m. But the word got out and most of the workers came at the correct time.
``Today the workers are not separated from the intellectuals,'' Polivka says. ``I respect [playwright] Vaclav Havel as my leader, too.''
The great question is whether this new alliance can be maintained when the different class interests come forward. Civic Forum's new government has pledged to close aging money-losing heavy industries.
Polivka and other workers now say they will transform their independent strike committees into independent trade unions. These unions cannot be expected to stand idle while their members are put out of work. But Czech workers, remembering their prosperity under capitalism, may be ready to trade their security for a more prosperous future. Surprisingly, Polivka says he accepts the possibility of unemployment.
``I'm not scared'' of losing my job, he says confidently. ``People who like to work, people who are skilled - they will find work in the new Czechoslovakia.''