A wave of labor unrest in Poland this summer may have sown the seeds for the first effective independent trade union movement in the communist world.
This week the unrest for the first time spread to the important textile industry around the city of Lodz in western Poland where 10,000 workers began striking Tuesday. In Swidnik, in the southeast, 20,000 workers at a big helicopter factory yesterday staged their second strike in a month after management failed to fulfill a promise of a 15 percent pay rise.
With the strikes still continuing almost six weeks after being triggered by an increase in the price of meat, there are still widely conflicting opinions here as to who has gained most: government or workers. For the first time in many years, the government appears to have succeeded in raising meat prices substantially -- thus reducing heavy state subsidies -- without being forced to revoke its decision in the face of workers' protests.
On the other hand, in order to maintain industrial peace, the authorities have had to negotiate new wage contracts with the freely chosen representatives of workers. It is still much too early to predict the demise of the official communist-dominated trade unions but, in the view of many observers here, the collective bargaining taking place in many Polish factories could set important new precedents for the future.
So far according to the dissident Workers Defense Committee, which has emerged as the main source of information on the unrest, strikes have taken place in at least 140 different factories throughout Poland since meat prices were raised July 1. The real figure could be even higher since the dissidents' committee does not hear about some strikes and management has preempted some strikes by granting a pay rise of its own accord.
During the last two years, scattered attempts have been made in Poland and other communist countries to form so-called "free" trade unions. But, despite considerable publicity in the West so far there has been little evidence that they have gained significant support from the workers themselves or played much of a role in wage bargaining.
But, as a result of the latest labor unrest, unofficials workers' representative groups have been set up in factories throughout Poland. In negotiations with management one of the main demands has been that there should be no "victimization" of strike leaders.
Thus, although it is true that the present strikes were touched off by a meat price rise, the issues at stake go much further. The real cause of the present unrest is that life for the average Pole has been getting steadily more difficult over the last few years despite some gains after workers' riots in 1970 and 1976. More time now is spent each day standing in line for basic necessities, and the shops offer less to buy.
Promises by the government headed by Communist Party Secretary Edward Gierek for "consultations" and "dialogue" with the Polish citizens have not been fulfilled. The meat price increase was originially disguised as a transfer of meat from subsidized to commercial shops -- and announced by a relatively minor official a day after it had been implemented.
The government's tactics for dealing with the strikes have differed markedly from those employed during previous rounds of labor unrest. On those occasions the strikes were crushed by force, but officials were compelled to revoke previously announced price increases.
A grim reminder of what happened after the 1970 riots on the Baltic coast is provided by a group photograph of strike leaders in the Szczecin shipyards. iAccording to the dissidents' spokesman, Jacek Kuron, of the dozen or so people in the portrait none is still employed in the shipyard.
Pointing to the different figures, Kuron tells their personal histories: "They were dispersed, destroyed and blackmailed. One strike leader emigrated another was said to have committed suicide, a third was prosecuted for the rape of a prostitute."
Today, however, the authorities would find it much more difficult to take similar action against strike leaders, if that is their intention. Although this time no rioting has been reported, or even outward signs of confrontation, since most of the strikes have taken place inside plant buildings, many more factories have been affected by the unrest.
Forms of organization have varied, according to Kuron, but two "models" of independent worker representation are discernible. One is illustrated by railway workers in the eastern city of Lublin who demanded and were promised new trade union elections. At the elections, which will take place in the near future, it is likely that the officially approved representatives will be replaced by the leaders of last month's strike.
The second model is illustrated by the giant tractor plant at Ursus near Warsaw, where management has tacitly accepted the existence of unofficial workers' commissions with whom it negotiates instead of the head of the official union. The Ursus plant was one of the first to go on strike in early July, winning pay increases of around 10 percent.
Many Polish observers, however, caution against exaggerating the significance of the government's conciliatory new approach to workers' demands. sIt is aruged that while the communist authorities are willing to be flexible over tactics, they remain determined to maintain full control of all aspects of Polish life.
A senior official of Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church saw the development as one step on a long road to political pluralism. He commented: "It has taken us 10 years to get from workers' revolt to still limited worker-management negotiations. I think it will get to the full establishment of an independent trade union movement -- but we'll get there in the end."