The establishment of new independent trade unions in Poland marks a major and historic step towards a more pluralistic form of communism.
As part of a carefully worded compromise with the government, Polish strikers along the Baltic Coast agreed formally to recognize the leading role of the Communist Party in the country's political life. But, while the foundations of Poland's one-party system have remained intact, the manner in which the system will function has undergone a profound change.
Never before has a Soviet Bloc country ceded the right to represent the working class to an independent organization. Even outside the bloc in Yugoslavia, with its unique system of workers' self-management, the trade unions have remained firmly under Communist Party control.
Poland's official Communist-dominated trade unions will still remain in existence, and cooperation is even envisaged between the two movements. But the ideological somersault with which the Polish authorities first rejected and then embraced the idea of independent "self-governing" unions is staggering, nonetheless.
Two weeks ago, when the interfactory strike committee was first formed in Gdansk to represent workers at about 20 factories, the government refused to talk to it. An official spokesman explained that the committee was "unrepresentative" of workers and that nothing would be done that might give it legitimacy.
As the strikes spread to more factories (about 500 in the Gdansk region alone) and the Polish economy suffered grave losses, the authorities changed their minds. A government commission set up to investigate workers' grievances held formal negotiations with the joint strike committee -- but still insisted that there could be no compromise on the crucial demand for "free" trade unions. Even as recently as three days ago, the official Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Ludu remained adamant that the labor movement could not be split.
The reason for the unprecedented concessions by the Polish Communist Party, which included the formal recognition of the right to strike, was that it was going to be virtually impossible to settle the strike in any other way. The workers insisted on a permanent guarantee that their interests would be represented and mistrusted official promises for the sweeping reform of trade unions.
Now that the independent unions have formally come into existence (they have even been promised their own headquarters on the outskirts of Gdansk) the practical problems begin of integrating them into the political system.The wording of the agreement between government and strikers suggests that there must be a marked decentralization of economic decision-making in Poland.
Like most other Soviet Bloc states, with the exception of Hungary, Poland still runs its economy according to the dictates of a five-year plan. The central planning commission has vast power in setting monthly and annual goals, which individual factories are expected to meet.
The agreement setting up the new unions stipulates that they will have the right to express their views on the division of national income between consumption and investment, on wages and prices policy, on investments and long-term economic planning. If the agreement is respected, that will automatically lead to a marked reduction in the powers of the planning commission.
Some observers here believe that the establishment of new trade unions represents a kind of "historic compromise," Polish style. The phrase "historic compromise" was originally coined in Italy to describe the sharing of power between Catholics and Communists. But the idea is equally applicable to Poland with its communist political system and overwhelmingly Catholic population.