An 11-day general strike in this southern Polish province ended today after Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church for the first time took a direct mediating role in the government-union negotiations and assumed the role of "moral guarantor" of an agreement they reached.
The strike of about 200,000 workers in the industrial Bielsko-Biala region was formally declared over at dawn after all-night talks in which the communist government bowed to union demands for the dismissal of allegedly corrupt top provincial officials.
Church bells rang all over the province to mark the end of a protest that was threatening to spread nationwide.
At strike headquarters on the outskirts of town, an impromptu altar was set up in the committee hall where workers were awakened shortly after bedding down in sleeping bags for the night. A thanksgiving mass was said by the secretary of the Polish Episcopate, Bishop Bronislaw Dabrowski, who accompanied the government delegation from Warsaw.
Dabrowski, who was deeply involved in the final stages of the negotiations, revealed that progress of the strike had been followed closely by Pope John Paul II who was born in the nearby town of Wadowice.
In an emotional address, the bishop said he had been phoned several times by the pope -- "our pride and joy" -- anxious for news about his native region.
The successful outcome to the talks followed secret telephone contacts in Warsaw between the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, and Premier Jozef Pinkowski. Only two days ago, Pinkowski refused to accept the resignations of the provincial governor and his assistants, saying that such a step could only be considered in an "atmosphere of peace and order."
It is known that at several previous crucial stages of the Polish crisis, church leaders have played an important intermediary part in backstage negotiations between the government and the independent trade union Solidarity. But this is the first time that a high-ranking bishop has formally "guaranteed" an agreement between the two sides and participated in negotiations.
The church's role in the present dispute reflects the fact that it is the one institution in Poland trusted by both communist authorities and workers. At times of tension, when neither side has confidence in the other's promises, the church's political influence naturally increases.
In a speech relayed by telephone hookup to factories throughout the region, Bishop Dabrowski described himself as "the godfather of the agreements" signed in Bielsko-Biala. He added that Cardinal Wyszynski would be meeting in Warsaw Saturday with representatives of peasants seeking to set up their own independent union.
"So you can see how engaged we are in this process. The church is involved together with the people," Dabrowski said.
Under today's settlement, the government agreed to the removal of half a dozen local officials accused by Solidarity of using their positions to amass private wealth. The officials include the provincial governor and his three deputies, and the mayor and deputy mayor of Bielsko-Biala.
On his appointment, the new governor will be instructed to take disciplinary action in a series of abuses including tax evasion, misappropriation of official funds, and building and furnishing private villas at public expense. Solidarity agreed that one deputy governor should remain in office for a transitional period "to ensure continuity."
So far around half of Poland's 49 provincial governors have been dismissed on the grounds of either incompetence or corruption. Recently the communist authorities have tried to resist demands for the removal of any more unpopular local officials -- but in the case of Bielsko-Biala the pressure simply became too strong to withstand.
The government faced the alternative of using force to crush the strike (which would undoubtedly have triggered off protests throughout Poland) or giving in.
The peaceful settlement of the dispute will help improve the social atmosphere prior to an important meeting next Monday of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Last week government and unions reached a compromise on lowering working hours and improving Solidarity's access to the mass media.
An interesting role in Bielsko-Biala was played by Solidarity's leader Lech Walesa, who is known to have been privately opposed to the strike on tactical grounds. After arriving in the town, he attempted to take over leadership of the strike by making vaguely militant statements while carrying on secret negotiations behind the scenes.
It was Walesa who approached the church, asking Dabrowski to try to break the deadlock with the authorities. At the same time he brought the crisis to a head by threatening to escalate the strikes nationwide if the government resorted to force.
Following the settlement, Walesa drove to the southwestern town of Jelenia Gora, where workers have threatened to strike over similar corruption issues next Monday. Talks to settle that dispute are already under way.
The tactics of the Bielsko-Biala Solidarity branch were sharply criticized today by government negotiators, including Jan Szczepanski, a widely respected sociologist close to both party and church leaders.
"I find it very sad that a great social movement which could accomplish great things should be sidetracked into small issues. By pursuing petty officials, it risks losing sight of its primary objectives," he said.
Local Solidarity members, however, were both jubilant and unrepentant. As one remarked: "There is corruption everywhere, of course -- but down here it was brazen. They didn't even try to hide it. This is a great victory for Poland."