Snuggling into the foothills of southern Poland's Tatra Mountains, this sleepy little town is the sort of place a tourist could drive through without really noticing. Christmas decorations stay up in the streets and restaurants well into February and Communist Party slogans plastered on walls have a kind of faded irrelevance.
Not much has happed here in the past -- nor is much likely to happen here in the future. But, for one fleeting moment in history, the people of Bielsko-Biala feel themselves at the center of national and internatinal attention. They are making the most of it.
A general strike in the region is now in its 10th day. About 200,000 workers, demanding the replacement of allegedly corrupt local officials, have been staging sit-in protests at their factories. Yesterday negotiations with the government broke down when the premier refused to accept the resignation of the provincial governor and three assistants.
The leader of Poland's independent Solidarity union federation, Lech Walesa, arrived here earlier this week in an attempt to persuade the strikers to go back to work. He met with little success, so instead is trying to channel their grievances in an orderly direction.
Relaxed and smiling, he sits in a local textile factory that serves as strike headquarters, puffing a new pipe, cracking jokes, and autographing copies of Solidarity's statutes for strike committee members.
In the rest of Poland, a storm of industrial unrest was largely dispersed last week following agreement between Solidarity and the government on shorter working hours and improved access to the media. But here in BIELSKO-Biala, local protests over curruption have gathered such force that it now seems impossible to end them without fresh government concessions.
The strikers are well-organized. An ingenious communications system, based on a telephone hookup, broadcasts strike information, speeches, and even the entire negotiations with government officials.
About 80 factories out of roughly 110 on strike are linked to the system and relay everything by loudspeaker. By dialing the telephone company, which is staffed by Solidarity members, anyone can listen in on the strike.
The reasons why all this should be happening in Bielsko-Biala are complex.
Certainly the allegations against the officials of misappropriating funds, building luxurious private villas, and favoritism are common enough in Poland these days. Local officials accuse the strike leaders of personal, even political, ambition. The strikers say the government's attitude to their grievances has been intransigent and insulting.
Another explanation, suggested by Solidarity activists in Warsaw opposed to the strike on tactical grounds, is that the union's local leaders lack political sense. The workers' moral indignation is justified, so this argument runs, but they should realize it is impossible to achieve everything overnight. Walesa remarked before leaving for Bielsko-Biala, "If corruption is the issue, then the whole of Poland would be on strike."
The strike has a momentum of its own. Western journalists visiting strike headquarters are besieged by workers requesting autographs. When I identified myself as from The Washington Post, a Solidarity official commented approvingly: "Ah, the Watergate boys have arrived, there's plenty for you to investigate down here."
Foreign reporters are summoned to the hall where the strike committee is meeting. A press conference, we are informed, will be broadcast live throughout the town. Walesa jokes: "There could be some other people listening as well on other channels."
Walesa takes his usual half-flippant, half-serious approach to the questions. Explaining the reasons for the strike, he says: "The officials whose resignation we are demanding did not look after the workers' interests. They weren't public servants at all, but social parasites."
Among the officials accused by Solidarity of abuse of authority are the local police chief, the provincial governor, the Communist Party secretary and their deputies. Allegations range from building villas at public expense and tax evasion to distributing priority coupons for the purchase of cars as favors or bribes. Many millions of dollars are said to be involved.
Asked whether he personally was in favor of strike action in such cases, Walesa replies: "We will learn a lesson from this strike . . . there are various ways of reaching your destination. This is the most direct way. Sometimes the straightest way is also the best way, sometimes it is not."
By comparison with the exuberance at strike headquarters, the mood at the provincial governor's office seems despondent. Outside in the street is a large banner reading, "There is a time for renewal -- and a time for work." Inside, the deputy governor, Antoni Urbaniec, who is accused by the strikers of misappropriating a house for his own use, admits that in the past there have been "mistakes."
Asked if he could categorically deny the charge that local officials had used their positions for personal gain, he replies: "This has not been proved."
The strikers, he said, were young and impatient. The local authorities had tried their utmost to cooperate with Solidarity, providing of the union with office space and even a car. He accused the local Solidarity branch of calling the strike without waiting for the results of an official investigation into the corruption charges.
Other union branches today responded to Walesa's appeal for solidarity with the Bielsko-Biala workers if the government attempts to break the strike by force. Some branches threatened to stage strikes of their own unless the government settles the dispute swiftly.