The gates of the textile factory here are plastered with banners proclaiming the word strajk (Polish for "strike"), flowers, and pictures of Poland's patron saint, the Black Madonna. Inside there is a makeshift altar at which the Zyrardow strikers, who have been occupying their factories for two weeks now, attend a daily mass.
Superficially, it is like an eerie flashback to the strikes in the Baltic city of Gdansk in August 1980 that gave birth to the independent Solidarity trade union. In fact, the contrast between the two events is marked -- and a reflection of some of the changes that have taken place in Poland during the past 14 months.
In Gdansk, there was an atmosphere of euphoria and hope as workers found strength in unity and suddenly discovered they were able to challenge the repressive power of the Communist government. Here there is a sense of despair in the face of Poland's continuing political stalemate and tragic economic plight.
While the shipyard workers of Gdansk fought for the ideals of freedom and justice, the textile workers of Zyrardow are struggling for enough to eat. Their 16-point list of demands is headed by a call for the honoring of ration cards that entitle them to barely adequate supplies of meat, grain, detergents and sugar.
The conflict in Zyrardow, a town of about 40,000 people 35 miles southwest of Warsaw, is typical of the local wildcat strikes that have mushroomed across Poland during the past month. Both Solidarity's national leadership and the Communist authorities are urgently seeking to defuse these protests. But there is always the risk of an uncontrolled explosion of anger.
Zyrardow, however, is unusual since most of the 12,000 strikers here are women. It is they who provide the bulk of the labor force for the town's textile mills while their husbands commute to Warsaw for better paid jobs in car or tractor plants. It is the women, too, who have borne the brunt of the economic crisis by being forced to spend an average of five to six hours a day standing in line in addition to their full-time jobs.
One of the strikers, Krystyna (she was afraid to give her surname), invited a visitor on a shopping tour of Zyrardow, which is named after a French industrialist, Philippe de Girard, who built the first textile factory here 150 years ago. A philanthropist who believed in looking after his workers, de Girard is also remembered for having built two churches, a cultural center and several schools.
The word "shopping" expedition turned out to be a cruel misnomer.
The tour began at the gates of the textile factory where some elderly women had gathered to sing hymns. Tears came to their eyes as they joined in a slow, melancholic chant appealing for the Virgin Mary's protection from the tribulations of life. The flowers on the gates had long since wilted and most of the women were clutching empty shopping bags.
The first line was outside a newspaper kiosk. Normally this would mean cigarettes but on this occasion it was for a rare delivery of shaving cream. Krystyna, who earns the equivalent of $120 a month for piecework, explained that soap had been impossible to buy in Zyrardow for more than two months.
The next shop along May 1 Street was for baby clothes. At noon it was still shut and there was a line of 20 people waiting patiently outside.
"They've been standing there since 6 o'clock this morning. There's a rumor that something's going to turn up, but nobody knows what," Krystyna said.
Next door was a shoe shop. There were few customers and equally few shoes. Krystyna asked the salesgirl when winter shoes might be in stock. The girl shrugged lazily as if it were a stupid question: "We don't know; our wholesalers are closed for inventory."
A shop with electrical appliances in the window was across the road. The assistant said there was a three-year waiting list for refrigerators and washing machines. Some food mixers, however, were available immediately, for the equivalent of two weeks' pay.
"Lightbulbs?" asked Krystyna hopefully.
"Perhaps tomorrow -- only colored ones at present," the assistant replied.
The meat shop was closed. In order to cut consumption, every town in Poland is obliged to declare one day a week "meatless." In Zyrardow's case, it makes little difference. The last time Krystyna was able to buy meat from a state shop was two weeks ago when she waited in line for 28 hours -- from 6 a.m. one day until 10 a.m. the next.
Asked what she intended to give her husband and two children for dinner that evening, she said, "Tomato soup and potato pancakes. Polish women are pretty ingenious, you know. We can make something out of virtually nothing."
Like many other housewives, Krystyna is forced to buy meat on the black market. But the prices are outrageous. A pound of pork bought from a private farmer costs around $5 against the official price of 80 cents.
Krystyna said she and her husband, a retired doctor, had a joint monthly income equivalent to about $250. The increasing reliance on the black market means that practically all of it goes for food.
A major grievance of Zyrardow residents is that, despite its industrial traditions, their town is treated as belonging to an agricultural region. This has meant less food supplies, on the reasoning that the countryside is able to look after itself. In fact, Zyrardow families have few rural connections.
What makes matters worse is that ration cards are restricted to a specific region, so Krystyna is unable to use hers in Warsaw where shops are relatively well stocked. Despite all the hours she stands in line, most months she is able to buy only a quarter of the meat and butter to which she is entitled.
So catastrophic is the supply situation that it has even become difficult to buy the textiles for which Zyrardow is famous. Outside Stefanka, a linen shop, there was a line of about 100 people. Towels were out, but some women emerged triumphantly clutching sheets.
Around the corner in Partisan Street, the queue for gasoline began. There were several hundred cars in it, most of them empty since there was no gasoline to be pumped.
"They've been there since yesterday," said Krystyna. "We have a car but we don't bother to get it tanked any more. It takes too much time."
One commodity of which there is no shortage in Zyrardow is political slogans. They are plastered to the red brick facades of the textile factory and other prominent buildings in the town. A union slogan reads: "Solidarity -- the guarantee of reform."
Next to it, a party banner proclaims: "We want to live better, so let's work better."
On some buildings, posters have been stuck up showing an empty plate with a twisted knife and fork. Intended as a smear on Solidarity, the caption reads: "This is the result of strikes and anarchy."
For Krystyna, it all has a kind of faded irrelevance. There is little point working when there is nothing to buy. At least while she is on strike, she can spend her time scouring the shops.
Despite the deteriorating living conditions, Krystyna does not blame Solidarity. The cause, she says, lies in the failures of the centrally planned economy and a topsy-turvy pricing system by which it costs as much to buy an egg as a bus ticket from Zyrardow to Warsaw.
Solidarity activists insist that Poland's Communist authorities cannot hope to end industrial unrest unless they gain popular trust. Party officials reply that, without the public's support, their measures to overcome the country's economic crisis are in vain.
It is a vicious circle and, seen from Zyrardow, there is no obvious way out.