Women and children in the central Polish town of Kutno staged a "hunger march" today as the potentially explosive issue of inadequate food supplies again emerged to dominate politics here following last week's extraordinary Communist Party congress.
The peaceful Kutno demonstration was the first of a series planned in several major Polish cities -- including Lodz, Torun and Szczecin -- demonstrating the extent to which public patience has become strained as the government struggles to restore order to the food market and overcome a near-breakdown of the distribution system.
The nightmore facing the Communist authorities and the independent trade union federation Solidarity is that somewhere passions might get out of hand, discipline give way and blood be spilled for the first time since workers' protests erupted in Poland a year ago after a previous attempt to raise meat prices.
Food supplies are so depleted that shops are unable even to cover the already modest allocation of rations for meat, butter, sugar, grains and rice. In some cities, housewives are reported to be standing in line for up to 24 hours to buy their monthly meat ration.
[In Gdansk, 10,000 CARE fod packages were unloaded and an official of the internatio;nal relief agency said Poland's food shortages are "far worse" than in other industrialized nations and even some semi-developed nations, United Press International reported.]
Last week the government announced an average reduction of 20 percent in meat rations, with the result that most Poles will be entitled to buy only 3 kilos, or 6.6 pounds, of meat and poultry a month. The government also revealed details of possible price increases for food and detergents of up to 300 percent in some cases.
On four occasions since World War II, Poles have rioted or staged major strikes to protest food shortages or attempts to raise the price of meat. Food riots resulted in hundreds of casualties in 1956, 1970, and 1976 when workers burned down Communist Party buildings, clashed with police, and tore up railway lines. Last year's strikes were peaceful. But they were resolved when the authorities agreed to allow independent trade unions for the first time ever in a Communist state.
This time the workers are much better organized than before and, in Solidarity, have a union they trust to negotiate on their behalf. This itself is being viewed as a stabilizing factor; by channeling workers' grievances in an orderly direction, Solidarity can help to make their reaction more predictable. 4tEven so, there is a large element of uncertainty.
Most Poles realize the economic justification for increased prices since most foodstuffs are now sold at well below cost and, despite huge government subsidies, farmers have little incentive to increase production. But with an average income of only 6,000 zloties a month -- $200 at the artifically low official exchange rate -- price increase could mean enormous hardship.
Solidarity leaders have begun formulating their response to the government's proposals at a meeting in Gdansk. Describing food supplies as "catastrophic," they passed a resolution raising the possibility of strikes unless the government retracts its plan to cut rations.
[UPI also reported that government negotiators met with Solidarity officials Saturday for talks on the food shortage. A Solidarity official in Gdansk, who announced the talks, said the meeting was recessed without any word of progress nad was scheduled to resume Monday.]
"We do not accept the one-sided decisio;n on decreasing ration quotas. The union will be forced to take all measure to defend its members, including strikes," the resolution said.
It also called for local commissions to be set up by Solidarity to oversee production, storage and distribution of food. The government has been given three weeks to come up with its own plan for improving distribution.
The problem faced by Solidarity's leaders is that, unless they organize protests over food shortages themselves, there is a danger of local wildcat strikes and demonstrations. Telexes describing increased tension over the food issue have been flowing into the union's headquarters from all over the country.
At a raly in the northwestern port of Szczecin, for example, shipyard workers passed a resolution announcing a five-point list of conditions that had to be met before they would accept price increases. They described themselves and their families as "having reached our biological limits" because of the lack of food.
The demands included structural economic reform, provision of basic sanitary materials such as soaps and detergents, self-government of companies and radios and television programs for Solidarity.
The government has promised to hold consultations with the trade unions over planned price increases. By contrast, on previous occasions, the increases were implemented without prior notice.
Last year, for example, the first announcement of the increase in the price of meat was made on July 2, a day after it had already been introduced. Typical for the times, the news was disguised and appeared in the newspapers under the headline "Some Changes in the Meat Trade."
In a television interview, a relatively low-level official explained that the amount of meat available in the higher-price "commercial shops" was being expanded. The viewers were left to conlcude that the amount" available in the subsidized "normal" shops -- Poland has a two-tier retail system -- was being decreased.