The seven-week strike wave that is costing debt-ridden Poland millions of dollars a day is making East-bloc history: The Communist leadership is not only openly acknowledging the fact of strikes. With even greater candor it is also admitting for all to read and hear that the official, party-dominated unions are mostly to blame.
The unions had "let the workers down," said a statement issued with quite unprecedented honesty by the official Polish news agency. And this, it conceded , was a major contributory factor prompting the unrest that has brought economic and industrial life along the Baltic coast to a costly standstill.
By the government's own admission shops are running short of supplies, people are panic-buying, and gasoline is scarce. "The supply situation is getting worse," said the official news agency PAP. "Only bread and milk are getting through."
Officials also concede that ships are standing idle in Polish ports as a result of the week-long strike that has put more than 200,000 workers in the north out of work. Disruptions have now spread to the south.
In a dramatic reversal of policy the official news media have begun to inform the public of the full extent of the crisis, and warning of the consequences. They carried the implied hint that force might have to be used to put down the worker revolt. In an attempt to put down labor unrest, at least 14 leaders of dissident organizations have been arrested, including Jacek Kuron of the Committee for Social Self-Defense. Mr. Kuron has played a leading role in informing the foreign press of the strikes.
It is also the first time since the strikes erupted in early July that the word "strikes" has been seen in print. Until a week ago events had scarcely been memtioned at all.
That they are front-page news and subjects for mid-evening TV times has a dual purpose.
One is an endeavor to show that the government really "cares" and to weaken the position of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee, which is claiming now to speak with full authority for 270 striking plants and the entire work force in the Baltic region. The committee is pushing for free and independent trade unions.
The government insists the committee is not truly representative of the workers and refuses to meet with it. Instead it is trying to fragment the opposition by offering negotiation on a factory pattern with individual pay deals as the inducement.
At the same time, the government has removed Deputy Prime Minister Tadeusz Pyka from his post as head of a government mission to deal with the strikes.
Both sides at this juncture seem to be digging in for a long struggle. Officials are adamant in stating there is no question of any use of police or military strength to break the strike movement.
The government seems to be playing for time. But for both sides it is a "Catch-22" situation that can go on almost indefinitely -- assuming the continued exclusion of force -- until regime leaders find a new sort of language for talking to the workers and of slowing some sign that they are responsible for a quite evidently nationwide feeling that only basic reforms both within the economy and within the labor union structure could bring it to an end.
The other media objective is to win the general Polish public, with newspapers and television commentators presenting sombre pictures of what the dislocation of local life begins to mean in terms of hardship for ordinary people and in terms of crisis for the nation at large.
"Every working hour lost," said the party newspaper Trybuna Ludu, "makes wage incrreases, better market supplies, and a general improvement more difficult."
At least 63 ships of different flags are already waiting outside Gdansk and Gdynia to take on or unload cargo at loss costs per ship of up to $12,000 daily.
One is a vessel with 130,000 tons of crude oil. Another is full of lemons, which presumably helps explain why top tourist hotels here are unable to serve them with the breakfast tea.
With the great westerly port of Szczecin now strikebound as well, the pileup is going to become much greater if the government cannot make its attempted breakthrough quickly.
Yet to the visitor who has just arrived here, life has all the appearance, momentarily, of midsummer normality.
Only when you have exchanged the first few words with people are you reminded of the one topic of talk -- the swelling, menacing cloud to the north.
The Warsaw airport is busy with international tourist arrivals, many from the West. But city traffic is light because, as unsual, half of Warsaw is vacationing on the coast or on the Mazurian lakes.
But these initial impressions are deceptive as far as the rest of the country is concerned.
At the latest count, no fewer than 270 shipyards and factories, most of them on the Baltic coast in the north, are out.
My taxi driver from the airport summed it up. His working collegues are among the relatively "far cats" of Polish urban society these days. He is "private," the taxi his own, not one of the municipal fleet. And Polish taximen plying places where the Westeners are do much of their business in hard currency.
Well off or not, however, his sumpathies were with the workers and for the strike situation he had only one word: "Catastrophe! For all of Poland."
And then he went on to say what so many Poles, including economists and experts, some of them party members, are saying quite openly:
That not only is it the government's mishandling of the economy for many years that has brought Poland to this present disastrous plight, but that even now the government is showing itself singularly inept and out of touch with public feeling in its efforts to persuade the strikers to go back to work.
Though the regime still tries to confine the issues to the pay packet and promises to pay greater attention to grievances generally, the strike committee is standing by its political demands.
a group of Polish intellectuals have come out with a plea to both government and workers to negotiate seriously. An other group including nearly 150 scientists, journalists, industrial experts, and churchmen (51 of the laymen being party members) has compiled a study telling the government, in effect, how "we might pull through."
The message the government is getting is that this is possible only on the basis of reforms and greater freedom all round for parliament as well as the unions. Critics of the government argue that this is still possible within the existing system and its alliance with the communist bloc. Quite a few in the Communist Party are saying this with increasing force.
Apart from the breast-beating about past mistakes and the need now for correction, there is considerable discussion about assuming responsibility.
In an article in this Friday's issue of the influential weekly Polityka Byits , editor Mieczyslaw Rakowski seems almost to point an accusing finger at Poland's Communist Party leader Edward Gierek even though the writer says the party chief went "halfway" to meet the strikers' demands.
Mr. Rakowsko, a member of the party committee, also approves Mr. Gierek's setting of the limits beyond which the stability of the country would be endangered. "But, if strikes do occur," he writes, "then something or someone" is wrong. It indicates, he says, "a lack of understanding between the leadership and a large section of the working class, and it is essential to establish clearly and accurately where and why understanding was lacking."
The breakdown of the early rapport between Mr. Gierek and the Polish people generally has been seen for a long time as the mainspring of the growing unrest
There are those who see as "trapped" in the success story of the early 1970s and, rather like his predecessor, Wladyslaw Gomulka, reluctant to accept reform as a way out of new difficulties.
If, in fact, others are moving in that direction the "important changes" being foreshadowed for an apparently imminent Central Committee plenum may reach further than most observers at this stage might anticipate.