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Free Saturdays spark new Polish labor unrest

After a mismanaged confrontation that neither side wanted, it is still touch and go whether the Polish government and the free trade union Solidarity can reach a compromise on work-free Saturdays.

At this point Solidarity sounds willing to be flexible, but the government has repeated a hard line.

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Solidarity leader Lech Walesa suggested in a press conference Jan. 17 in Rome that Solidarity might moderate its demand for an immediate end to all saturday work. Later the same day, however, a deputy premier, Stanislaw Mach, in a radio broadcast, accused Solidarity of trying to blackmail the government.

Mr. Mach repeated that the government would withhold pay from workers who boycotted their jobs Jan. 10. He added, "Either we Poles manage to solve our economic problem or we shall sink into chaos."

For Solidarity the main issue is the workers' right to be consulted on matters affecting them. For the government the main issue is preventing the already disastrous economy from plummeting further. These two positions would never have escalated into a clash and strikes if the government had simply talked with Solidarity before announcing the Saturday schedule for January -- and if the more militant elements in Solidarity had not then retorted by demanding that all Saturdays be free immediately.

This hardening of positions did occur, however, and almost all major factories were shut down by absenteeism on the first declared work Saturday of the month, Jan. 10. Warsaw city officials then said they would deduct pay from transport workers who do not show up for the required number of working Saturdays in January -- and the capital's bus and tram drivers retaliated with an orderly, total strike for four hours on Jan. 16.

Government willingness to negotiate was indicated late Jan. 16 when Labor Minister Janusz Obodowski made a government offer to open high-level talks with Solidarity on a five-day, 40-hour week. The atmosphere of the talks -- due to open shortly after Mr. Walesa returns from Rome Jan. 19 -- has been soured by the Mach broadcast, however.

Originally the government promised an immediate cessation of Saturday work in only one of the three main agreements signed with various Solidarity representatives at the end of August and the beginning of September. The accord with the Manifest Lipcowy hard coal miners in Jastrzebie in the Katowice district provided for this. In the Gdansk and Szczecin agreements, however, the government promised only to work out and introduce ty the end of 1980 "a program of introducing all Saturdays as paid days off, or another means of regulating a shortened workweek."

As 1980 drew to a close the government rather surprisingly reverted to something of its pre-August habits of operation. It opened a "public" discussion on the Saturday issue in newspapers and encouraged everyone to take part, it seemed -- except for the most important participant, Solidarity. To Solidarity and to the workers -- who fully accept Solidarity as their legitimate spokesman -- this smacked of the old, party-orchestrated "discussion" in which ordinary citizens were ignored.

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Despite all the mistrust the government and Solidarity in the Warsaw region did agree that January would have only two free Saturdays, with arrangements for later months to be worked out. But then the government suddenly announced at the beginning of January, without prior consultation with Solidarity, that there would be three work-free Saturdays in the month.

The government thought Solidarity should be grateful for the extra free Saturday -- but the Warsaw branch of Solidarity was infuriated instead that the government had once again acted arbitrarily and snubbed the workers.

In the resulting pitch of emotion the national Solidarity leadership -- which generally has restrained its more militant rank and file -- could no longer resist its own militants. It declared that each of the three original agreements was valid for the whole country, and that the immediate cessation of all Saturday work stipulated in the Jastrzebie accord applied nationwide.

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