The mood in the factory conference room was serious. Skipping pleasantries, the group quickly got down to business. A handful of management representatives sat at one end of a long table, literally backed into a corner by labor representatives who outnumbered them five to one.
The scene last week at Huta Warszawa, Warsaw's giant steelworks, was another in a regular series of confrontations between members of the factory's fledgling workers' self-management council and the plant administration. The meeting, and others at enterprises throughout Poland, are one of the legacies of the Solidarity period.
Introduction of the new councils is an important element of the drive by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to decentralize economic decision-making and incorporate workers into management. The councils have turned out to be less powerful than Solidarity might have wished, but are more of a force to reckon with than factory managers and some government ministers had advocated.
At this early stage, it is difficult to say just how much practical authority the workers' councils will be able to exercise. On paper, their power in many areas of plant direction is to be strong, and they are attempting to turn this power into reality.
"I would stress that what we're talking about is a new thing," said Andrzej Milkowski, 44, a mechanic at Huta Warszawa and the chairman of the council, in an interview. "What will come out of it, time will tell. Formally, we cannot be blocked; we have the rights. But there is a tendency by management to minimize our ability to control activities."
Several months before Poland's independent trade union movement was crushed in 1981, parliament enacted legislation obligating most factories to set up freely elected councils of labor representatives that would participate in management decisions.
Military rule suspended the councils for a while, but they are slowly reassuming their legal places. At Huta Warszawa, once a Solidarity stronghold, the council ranks among the most assertive, contentious and innovative in the country.
Last week, the top order of business concerned a reprimand dealt Zbigniew Jarzabek, a worker in the rolling mill department of the steelworks. About a month ago, Jarzabek was overheard castigating colleagues who had volunteered for an overtime shift during a wage dispute with management.
Poland's large factories have had difficulty lately attracting workers to replace those quitting. This has prompted factory managers to encourage overtime work.
Officials at Huta Warszawa viewed Jarzabek's action as a grievous attempt to disorganize work at the plant and placed a costly black mark on his personnel file.
But the workers' council suspected there was more behind the disciplining of Jarzabek, who is a council member. In a heated argument, they accused management of exaggerating the incident, suppressing freedom of speech and persecuting Jarzabek as a way of striking at the council.
Factory officials countered that they could not tolerate attempts to disrupt work schedules, especially given Poland's economic problems. They demanded to know who had given Jarzabek authority to try to discourage overtime shifts.
The discussion turned nasty and personal. The council chairman accused the chief of Jarzabek's department of trying to blame his department's poor performance on alleged agitators. Bristling, the manager vigorously defended his record.
After two hours of argument, the council passed a resolution calling for repeal of the reprimand. It was the 171st resolution adopted by the young board. While council resolutions normally are binding on the factory director, in this case the council told management it intended its condemnation of the reprimand only as an expression of opinion and would not press the matter further.
Not all the motions have been critical of management. Resolution 62 expressed gratitude for effective management of the steelworks in 1983.
But many of the council's actions -- accusing management, for instance, of overspending factory social funds on sports facilities or of favoring members of the official trade unions with coveted holiday trips to East Germany -- reflect pent-up worker-management tensions and a lack of mutual trust.
While the councils began with the blessing of Jaruzelski, the country's top leader, they still are having to fight to claim the powers granted them by law. In general, Poland's economic reform is stumbling over bureaucratic resistance, widespread skepticism and broken-down production and distribution systems.
"The councils were set up during a difficult period of political fighting," said Jozef Barecki, chairman of the parliamentary committee overseeing development of the self-management groups. "It is also the fourth time in the postwar period that Poland is trying out such reforms. Naturally, the bad experiences of the past and a lack of confidence in law and administration contribute to some difficulties and the cautious development of the councils."
By the government's count, 90 percent of Poland's enterprises have workers' councils. Some major sectors have been exempted -- including the railways, the postal and phone systems, banks and the national airline.
Ironically, one of the firms still lacking a council is the main government daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, whose editor in chief is Barecki. Saying he felt ashamed of this, Barecki explained that no council had yet been formed at the paper because workers were reluctant to take on responsibility for trying to improve its weak financial condition.
The councils have authority chiefly to approve annual production plans, name the factory director, apportion profits between investments and the plant social fund, decide on mergers or acquisitions and order investigations into factory operations.
The specific authority can vary from plant to plant. Sixty percent of the workers' councils, for example, have full authority to nominate and select factory directors; the other 40 percent are empowered only to veto nominations by the state.
Enterprise directors complain about exhausting, quarrelsome meetings with the council.
"Decisions must be made quickly, but council discussions last a long time," Tadeusz Konrad, Huta Warszawa's director, complained to a Polish interviewer recently. "I'm irritated by this. I cannot get used to it yet."
A number of Solidarity activists have let themselves be elected to the new bodies, hoping to shape them into effective instruments of control. Other former union leaders are withholding judgment and support for now.
At the Warsaw steelworks, 32 of the council's 37 members belonged to the now-outlawed Solidarity union. Three council members, including chairman Milkowski, served on the Solidarity steering committee at the plant.
One worry voiced by mechanic Milkowski and others is that the councils may become dominated by specialists, given the often technical, complex nature of decisions they are charged to make. Workers often lack the necessary background in economics and finance.
To help remedy this, the government is preparing instruction booklets for council members. Also, Barecki said, some thought is being given to lengthening the current two-year term of council members, so that representatives can build up experience on the job.
Notwithstanding their power and democratic character, the councils are not considered a substitute for independent trade unions in Poland. The council's function is largely one of economic oversight; a union's role is to advance the financial and social interests of employes.
But the trade unions sanctioned by the Communist government to replace Solidarity remain unpopular. Only 15 percent, for instance, of the 8,700 employes at Huta Warszawa have joined the plant's union. This puts added pressure on the council. "Lots of workers now come to us with problems that a union should handle," said Milkowski. "Because they elected us, we can't turn them away. But if a genuine union existed, we wouldn't have this situation."