In the first sign of East European anxiety that Poland's labor unrest could spread, Hungary's Communist leadership is now moving to give greater aughority to the existing trade unions and assign them what one official called "the role of the loyal opposition."
The need for stronger trade unions is described here as "the most important" lesson drawn from the Polish labor and political unrest. Senior officials here see stronger unions "opposing" various levels of government within the existing system. In case of deadlocks, however, the Communist Party's Central Committee would act as the ultimate arbiter.
The Hungarian plan appears designed to preempt the type of free trade union drive that has turned Polish politics on its head. It is, nevertheless, a significant innovation since it would formally recognize conflicts of interest in a supposedly classless society that thus far has denied their existence.
These officials said that such an evolution responds to the needs of Hungary's society, but they also hinted that the Hungarian model offers a way for other East European nations to deal with the prospect of increased labor difficulties in the 1980s.
Jozsef Timmer, international secretary of the Hungarian National Trade Union Council, ruled out the notion of free trade unions by saying that unions here are already "autonomous" and also have legal rights to protect workers' interests.
But, he said in an interview, these rights must be "strengthened" and trade union officials at the local level 'must be encouraged to enter into conflicts" with state managers and local authorities.
In a separate background interview, a ranking member of the Hungarian Central Committee echoed those views. He said a broad discussion is discussion is under way here on "what lessons we can draw from the Polish events." He added that Communist parties have to recognize the existence of conflicts of interests since "one cannot build socialism without tensions and conflicts."
The unusually frank conversations about the protracted Polish labor and political unrest suggested that Budapest is trying to devise a course of action that would preclude the sort of labor trouble that has sent shock waves through Eastern Europe and put an entirely different complexion on trade unions in the regime.
Polish government concessions to the striking workers, especially the promise of independent trade unions, are seen by East European as a threat to the monopoly of communist control.
What the Hungarian officials appear to propose is the use of existing union structure to inject an element of pluralism and diffuse social tensions without endangering the party's preeminent role.
While not challenging the primary position of the ruling Communist Party, the idea that such differences need to be reconciled or diffused runs counter to Marxist doctrine on a unified party and social structure.
The Hungarians also advance the concept of pluralism interests for societies whose Marxist-Leninist ideology denies the possibility of different interests between workers and the Communist Party.
However, the Hungarian plans come at a time when the Polish crisis is entering a new phase, which senior officials here expect to last for a long time. A solution in Poland will be possible, another ranking Central Committee member said in an interview, only if "both the Western and socialist worlds" show patience and understanding.
"The status of Poland is very uncertain," he said. "The greatest danger is one of outside intervention. But we believe this deep and serious political crisis should be solved by political means."
The official continued: "The Polish situation clearly provides a good propaganda argument to be used against the Soviet Union and its allies. But we hope that the United States would not succumb to this temptation because it would be seen here as an interference with military implications that could pose concrete dangers to the security of the Warsaw Pact."
The two Central Committeed officials offered the following analysis of Poland's crisis:
In 1956, they said, both Poland and Hungary underwent major political crisis. "We had to call in Russian tanks to crush the counterrevolution. There was bloodshed in Hungary and a complete polarization of the society. But we made a decisive break with the past.
"The Poles were lucky then -- there was no bloodshed in Poland and Wladyslaw Gomulka managed to create a compromise and consolidate the party's position. But the compromise was full of contradictions and left Poland a divided society.
"It was based on an understanding with the powerful [Polish Roman Catholic] church. At the church's insistence, Gomulka stopped collectivization of agriculture. The peasantry remained the basis of the church's strength.
"There was another fundamental incongruity. The state-run economy and industry retained the old centralized planning system while the agriculture remains based on inefficient small private holdings [about 80 percent of Polish agriculture is in private hands]. As a result Poland could not feed itself, while the rigid planned economy could not take into account changes in the world.
"We have had repeated [waves] of Poles coming here to buy food, clothes, and other consumer goods. Constant shortages and economic mismanagement prevented Poland from achieving a higher standard of living and led to successive labor unrest."
When Edward Gierek swept to power following the 1970 labor riots, the officials said, he "did not dare" attack the agricultural question or the church. "Instead he tried to get around it by building up Poland's industrial capacity and using Western credits for that purpose.
"It was a reasonable plan at the time. Gierek's tragedy was the change in the world economic conditions after the sharp increase in energy cost," they added.
The officials said that, as a result of current difficulties, Poland is "an even more divided society and there is not immediate solution for its problems."
Although they insist that Hungary had not intention of telling the Poles how to resolve their difficulties, the officials hinted that the Hungarian model could provide a way out for the beleaguered government in Warsaw.
In this context, the new Hungarian assertiveness about the need for stronger trade unions is in part designed to forestall any drive here for independent unions. But it is also a logical extension of reforms that have created a relatively high degree of social and economic stability here and brought the government of Janos Kadar the kind of public appearance unknown to the rest of the Eastern Europe.
Diplomats here speculated that the Hungarians, who have been frequently critisized by their partners in Eastern Europe, see the current situation not only as a vindication of their policies but also as an opportunity to push other East Europeans toward meaningful reforms.
"The Polish events, of course, will have an impact outside Poland," Timmer said. "But we should not be afraid of it. Corrections have to be made in advance, notlike in Poland" where the government and trade unions lost the confidence of the workers.
Timmer conceded that there were occasional strikes in Hungary, but he insisted that a mechanism exists for solving disputes between the government and the trade Union Council, which represents an overwhelming majority of Hungary's 4.5 million workers.
If the conflicts cannot be resolved, he said -- as was the case of a government attempt to raise rents in public housing that was vigorously opposed by the unions -- the matter is decided by the Central Committee.
But Timmer was clearly not satisfied with the authority enjoyed by local trade union organizations. "We have recently given shop stewards greater authority and we want to encourage the workers to take advantage of their rights, he said.
"There is a favorable political climate now to broaden our activity," he added.
Diplomatic observers here said that the free trade union movement in Poland may prove to be a political watershed in Europe not so much because it is likely to spread but because it may force to the surface new and more pragmatic ways of dealing with social and labor problems.
The Hungarians appear to be taking the lead in making cautious adjustments.
The government has ordered cutbacks of personnel, representation, official travel and other privileges enjoyed by the elite. The aim was to demonstrate that the sacrifices were expected not only from the population but also from the governing bureaucracy.
Hungary's development, Timmer said, "demands that the trade unions play the role of the loyal opposition. Otherwise you have turmoil. The most important conclusion drawn from the Polish events is just that."