AFTER SEVEN WEEKS of widening agitation, the Polish strikes now reach far beyond the food prices over which they originally began. In contrast with the last great wave of strikes, nearly 10 years ago, the strikers this time have begun to push forward a wide range of explicitly political demands. The most notable among them raises the possibility of a labor movement independent of the Communist Party.
A decade ago, the government was able to buy out the strikers with larger food subsidies. That may not be possible this time -- necessarily a matter of deep anxiety not only within the Polish government, which is in effect the branch office of a larger enterprise, but also at the head office to the east. The head office has a special sensitivity to Polish disturbances, not only for the obvious geographical reasons, but also because Poland's economy is highly similar to Russia's.
The Eastern European countries have not been able to insulate themselves from the West's inflation, and the most dangerous manifestation of that failure is always in food pricing. Poland's rulers must have known they risked serious trouble when they raised meat prices. But to continue the subsidies that kept the prices low was evidently becoming intolerably expensive. Poland is having great trouble raising industrial production, and national income recently has been falling. Over the years, Poland has borrowed heavily from the West in order to keep investing, and now debt service alone takes more than two-thirds of Poland's hard-currency earnings. These imbalances are expressed, for the citizen, by the endemic shortages of consumer goods -- above all, of food. There could hardly be a more poignant measure of the burden on daily life than the report that the typical Polish woman spends two hours and 10 minutes every day standing in line.
Poland is not a poor country. As these things are conventionally measured, its production per capita is higher than Spain's or Ireland's, ranking just a shade below Italy's. But the branch-office mentality is not well suited to a time of rapid change in the economic structure.
The consequences of these strikes will hardly be limited to Poland. The 1970 upheaval, as Dan Morgan has pointed out, led the Soviet government to review the whole bloc's food supply and to commence massive purchases of grain from the United States. Because of their invasion of Afghanistan and the American reaction to it, that avenue will not be open to the Soviets this time. There is no grain shortage at present in Eastern Europe. But neither is there any quick or easy way to expand grain supplies and, through them, meat production.
The Polish strikers make it clear that they are aware of the danger of overt Soviet intervention and are going to some lengths to avoid provoking it. But matters seem to have gone too far to be handled by the branch office. The outcome now depends on the Russian reaction.