With its coal mines and steel mills, the sprawling city of Katowice in southern Poland is the country's industrial capital. The local newspaper editor, an old friend of Communist Party leader Edward Gierek, likes to boast: "The destiny of the Polish economy is decided here."
For this reason the news that 30,000 Silesian miners and steelworkers around Katowice have gone on strike represents a grave blow not just to Gierek personally, but also to the system under which Poland has been run for the last 10 years. Katowice was Gierek's old political stronghold -- and it was his dream to recreate Silesia's economic success story on a national scale.
Just what the so-called Katowice model consists of is a matter of some dispute. Its components, however, include an admiration of Western technology, a preference for strong central planning, and a concern for worker' standards of living. The price of all this has been tight labor displine and a relatively tough line against internal political dissent.
When Gierek was the local Communist Party chief, this mix proved very successful -- he was even nicknamed "the King of Silesia." A former miner himself, it was his popularity among Silesian workers that won him the national leadership in December 1970 after the fall of Wladyslaw Gomulka.
For the last decade, Polish political power has been held by what is popularly dubbed "the Silesian Mafia." Apart from Gierek, it included the former prime minister Edward Babiuch and several other senior officials, Gierek may still retain the top job, but -- as a result of this summer's labor unrest -- Silesia's political influence appears to have been decisvely broken."
The latest strikes may also represent the shattering of Silesia's claims to economic leadership, too. No longer is there any talk of the Katowice model being applied to other Polish regions. Instead, the Silesian strikers are demanding that they, too, benefit from "the Gdansk model" of independent trade unions.
The Polish leadership has always tried to take great care to insulate the Silesian miners from the country's economic difficulties. Compared with workers elsewhere, they are extremely well off. Supermarkets in the special residential areas built for miners are usually well stocked with meat, and there are special holiday camps and sporting facilities reserved for miners' families. Miners' pay is at least three times the national average.
When I visited a mine in the Katowice region several weeks ago, before the present strike began, the director told me that most of his time was spent helping miners with their personal problems. He said, for example, that he organized "campaigns" to supply miners' families with fresh fruit and vegetables from the countryside.
The miners rewarded Gierek with their continued political support. Even in previous periods of widespred labor strife in 1970 and 1976, the miners and steelworkers of Silesia remained at work. Now they, too, appear discontented.
The truth is that, even in Silesia, living standards have been adversely affected by Poland's economic crisis and its heavy debt to the West (mostly incurred through the import of Western technology). The residential areas where miners live may be well supplied, but waiting lines at stores in the center of Katowice are just as long as those in other parts of the country.
Furthermore, the miners have their special grievances that may complicate a strike settlement. They are reported to be demanding the abolition of a new shift system first introduced last year to ensure a continuous 24-hour operation.
Under the new system, which has now been applied to all Silesian mines, miners are divided into four brigades. In any one day, three work three eight-hour shifts while the fourth rests. Thus each miner works for six days and has two days off.
The authorities claim that the four-brigade system was intended to improve conditions of work and enable miners to plan their days off in advance. The critics -- and they include the local bishop -- claim that it does not operate to the miner's advantage since they are no longer guaranteed free Sundays and have less opportunity for overtime.
The system has also been cited as a contributing factor in recent serious mine accidents in which dozens of miners have died. With continuous mining it can sometimes be difficult to undertake proper maintenance and repairs.
But coal is Poland's principal export, and there is considerable pressure on the miners to produce as much as possible. Occupying 2.1 percent of Poland's land surface, the Katowice region accounts for 18 percent of its gross national product.
Up until recently, Katowice industrialists and economist argued that Poland's economic problems could only be solved through stronger labor discipline and more efficient planning. The fact that the strikes have spread to Upper Silesia, Poland's industrial showpiece, suggests that this strategy will now have to be radically reconsidered. The wishes of ordinary workers, and not just their physical needs, will have to be given higher priority.