Poland's communist authorities, in a major reversal, today recognized the independent strike committee that has coordinated the 10-day walkout of 150,000 workers in Gdansk. Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski met there tonight with the committee's negotiators.
Jagielski, Communist Party chief Edward Gierek's chief negotiator, was received in utter silence, according to reports from the shipyard in Gdansk, while the workers erupted in cheers when their committee leader, Lech Walsea, entered the assembly hall.
The two sides met for 2 1/2 hours, news agencies reported from Gdansk. A communique issued afterward said both sides agreed to meet again, but no time was set, the Associated Press reported. Workers' leaders said the strike would continue.
[The often heated discussions were carried by loudspeakers to about 5,000 strikers milling around the shipyard entrance.]
[At one point, it appeared that the talks might collapse when Walesa accused the government of breaking a pledge made earlier today to restore normal communications in the area. Jagielski said he could not personally order opening of the telephone and telex lines but that he would pursue the matter.]
The deputy premier, in another seemingly conciliatory move, said, "I understand our trade unions don't suit the workers, that the workers should have more influence," the AP reported.
[Referring to demands for pay raises and more meat, he said economic arrangements would be made, "but this takes time," the AP dispatch said.]
The decision to meet with the unauthorized committee apparently came at a special session today of the Communist Party Politburo after an informal meeting last night involving Jagielski and three committee members.
Recognition of the committee is an important concession. The government earlier described it as led by "antisocialist forces" seeking to exploit the labor unrest for political ends.
At the Lenin Shipyard, Poland's biggest and the center of the strike activities in Gdansk, the government's decision to recognize the strike committee was hailed as a victory by the strikers, and there was a sense that an end was in sight to the most widespread bout of labor unrest in Poland since World War II.
The significance of the government's concession is considerable even if much hard bargaining still remains before the strikers agree to return to work. It means that the Polish Communist Party, in recognizing the integrated strike committee as a negotiating partner on behalf of the workers, has accepted the principle of free collective bargaining for the first time in any communist country. The committee comprises representatives from numerous plants.
Whether this precedent will carry over into creation of permanent unions independent of the state remains to be negotiated.
There were scenes of jubilation and emotion at the Lenin yard when the government decision was announced. Thousands of strikers joined in singing the Polish national anthem. One worker commented, "We'll be back to work by Monday."
But the unofficial leader of the strike committee, Walesa, was more cautious. He told a mass meeting inside the yard: "We have won one victory. cNow we have to prepare for a further battle."
At Communist Party headquarters in Warsaw, the Politburo met in emergency session throughout the day to decide what concessions could be granted. Diplomatic sources said the Soviet Union appeared to be prepared to allow the Polish leadership some leeway in introducing changes, as long as they did not threaten the framework of existing institutions.
Officials said a meeting of the policy-making Central Committee would be held within the next few days, but discussions continue on the details of an overall reform program. Many observers expect high-level personnel changes to be announced at that meeting. It is not clear what will be the fate of party leader Gierek, who came to power following a round of labor unrest in 1970.
Even if Gierek is not replaced, Polish analysts believe he will be forced to share his authority with other members of the leadership. Some politicians known for their support of reformist trends in the past may be promoted or brought back from exile.
One figure suggested frequently recently for inclusion in the top leadership is Stefan Olszowski, who was dropped from the Politburo earlier this year and sent to East Germany as ambassador.
All week, the Polish authorities had refused to do anything that would amount to recognition of the existence of the joint strike committee, which was set up last Sunday as a reflection of workers' distrust of the official state unions.
The official strategy was to try to wear down and divide the strikers, insisting that negotiations could only be conducted with individual strike committees in separate factories -- not the broader integrated groupings.
The unity of the workers on strike held firm, however, and the authorities blinked first.
No precise figures on the damage to Poland's already battered economy have been issued, but at least 70 ships are blocked in Gdansk port alone waiting to be unloaded.
Earlier this week, Gdansk was officially reported to be losing $10 million a day because of the strike while daily losses at the port of Szezecin, near the East German border, were in the region of $3 million a day.
Szczecin produced the first hint of a change in the government's hard-line attention, negotiations began quietly on Thursday at the Warsky Shipyard between senior officials and representatives of a strike committee representing some 50 factories.
In Gdansk, scene of the first strikes on the Baltic coast, both sides set preconditions for the talks. The strikers wanted full communications restored with other parts of the country. The government asked that bus and transport services be returned to normal as a gesture of the workers' good faith.
The main sticking point could come over the strikers' insistence on free or independent trade unions. The Polish authorities will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to agree formally to this demand since they fear it might undermine the structure of a communist-dominated, one-party state.
At the negotiations in Szezecin, government representatives said they could agree to reform of the official trade unions, but not to the establishment of new ones. Similarly, they agreed that censorship regulations could be modified but not lifted altogether.
In Gdansk, the agreement to talk came last night at the meeting between Jagielski and three representatives of the joint strike committee. The deputy premier was reported to have adopted a cordial and conciliatory approach -- smoking nervously throughout the one-hour meeting as the strikers' representatives sipped mineral water.
After the meeting at a "neutral" villa on the outskirts of the city, strike leaders were jubilant. As they drove back to the Lenin Shipyard, they sounded the horn of their car and shouted, "victory, victory."
Meanwhile, in Warsaw, dissidents arrested on Wednesday were moved from one police station to another, thus enabling the authorities to extend the 48-hour limit for detention without charge. Those detained include Jacek Kuron, spokesman for the Workers' Defense Committee, which has played a key role in providing information about the strikes.
There has been a noticeable change in official propaganda the last two days. The Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Ludu carried a vicious attack on some of the leaders of the strike yesterday, describing them as extremely irresponsible people trying to create a climate of terror under the cover of slogans of workers' solidarity.
The commentary described the demand for "free" trade unions as "an attempt to create institutional and political bridgeheads of decisively anti-socialist character among the workers."
Today's editorial was much milder and included criticism of the official trade unions, described as "docile in its dealings with management." This change in tone coincided with the change in government tactics.
Over the last few weeks, strikes have spread all along the Baltic coast and reached as far south as Krakow, where government officials today confirmed there was still a partial strike in progress at the nearby Nova Huta steel plant.