The national congress of Poland's independent trade union Solidarity today heard calls for a price freeze and a token nationwide strike to protest a doubling in cigarette prices.
As the second stage of the congress went into its 11th day, there were some surprises in elections to the union's policy-making National Consultative Committee. Some close aides of union leader Lech Walesa failed to win election to the committee after the first two ballots and appeared unlikely to make it on the third and final ballot either.
It was the third day running that debate at the congress was dominated by the emotive cigarette issue since the weekend announcement of a price hike. Several moderate Solidarity leaders, including Walesa, attempted to defuse the dispute and were criticized for "softness."
So far, delegates have considered and rejected at least 15 resolutions for various forms of protest action including a general strike. Today, Karol Modzelewski, a delegate from Wroclaw, proposed calling for a price freeze on all consumer goods and a nationwide warning strike of between 15 minutes and one hour.
Solidarity has agreed to price increases on previous occasions provided the government pays compensation in the form of higher family allowances to maintain the living standards of low- and middle-income groups. While such an operation partially offsets the economic value of the increases, it is argued that it does help to restore some order to Poland's chaotic price structure.
Following the government's decree, the price of a pack of 20 of the cheapest brand of cigarettes was doubled from six zloties to 12 (40 cents).
Most Solidarity delegates appear convinced that the price increases were part of a carefully planned provocation designed either to force the union onto the defensive or divert its attention from discussion of its program. It is also feared that a major confrontation now could strengthen the position of the hard-line faction in the ruling Communist Party leadership prior to an important meeting of the policy-making Central Committee.
Despite these fears, a majority at the congress clearly feels the need to react strongly to the price hikes if only to prevent a similar "provocation" in the future. Government officials have angrily rejected the conspiracy theory, arguing that economic reasons alone motivated the increases.
The likely casualties in elections to the union's National Consultative Committee include Walesa's top adviser, Bronislaw Geremek, who is widely regarded as a moderate. Delegates said he had little chance of winning one of the five places still vacant.
A well-known medieval historian who studied at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Geremek appears to have fallen victim to the rank-and-file's unhappiness with the role of intellectuals in the union. Delegates argued that the experts have exerted improper influence over decision making at crucial moments.
Also unlikely to be elected was Bogdan Lis, one of the original strike leaders in Gdansk last year. His reputation suffered as a result of his handling of talks with the government two months ago in which he is said to have agreed in advance to increases in the price of cigarettes, alcohol, and other luxury goods without compensation.