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Workers cool to Poland's `official' unions

``Solidarity is history,'' says a senior official, referring to the now-banned independent Polish trade union. Maybe. But the unions that the government licensed to take its place have yet to catch up, in terms of hard-core worker support and credibility.

The Solidarity idea has yet to be eliminated from the consciousness of a host of Polish workers' minds.

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The new unions are not filling the vacuum it left, either numerically or politically. They claim 7 million members, or 60 percent of the labor force. Ten percent are pensioners, so the working membership of the unions is little more than 50 to 55 percent of Solidarity's peak. Moreover, though overtime inducements - with coal export in mind - have won over a bigger proportion of miners, the Solidarity heartland in the shipyards and steelyards is still reluctant to join.

Although Lech Walesa is back at work in the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk, where Solidarity was born, he is not a member of the yard's union organization, nor are some 40 percent of its 11,000 employees. The still-militant Nowa Huta steel mill at Krakow has three times the work force, but fewer than 40 percent of the workers are union members. In some other industrial plants, the figure is no more than 30 percent.

But the figures do not quite tell the whole story, since the new unions are less ``cooperative'' than the authorities intended them to be. Their fragmentation - under the union law - into some 133 national unions, including no fewer than 26,000 individual factory unions, militates against coordinated national action.

There is an increasing incipient urge, however, toward integration on economic issues, particularly food-price increases, an area of permanent Polish conflict. This government (like those before it) sees such hikes as the prerequisite for economic reform.

Union opposition over price rises are ``populist'' and delay reform, the authorities charge. The unions counter that increases are not the first essential. ``In our conditions,'' says national vice-chairman Romuald Sosnowski, ``it is putting the cart before the horse. We say: Make increased food production the starting point. The possibilities are already there.''

Recently, the union's economic advisers produced a report warning of renewed social conflict ahead if the government persisted in its policy of raising prices as the prequisite for reform.

The report was so candid that the censors blocked its publication in the public press. The unions thereupon circulated it countrywide through their own internal publications.

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Social inequalities, it warned, ``will once again fuel social awareness. ... [Above all], society needs a perspective of economic improvement.''

The Polish economy is at such a grave point that the government itself is beginning to see that its only hope is a different approach that might give Poles this sense of perspective. But how to do it?

There is one name that keeps Solidarity very much alive as a symbol, and whose exclusion from Poland's political picture largely explains why 40 percent of all workers remain aloof from the government and its unions.

That name is Lech Walesa.

Lately it has become increasingly clear that - even in government circles - there are those who begin to acknowledge that only he could provide the leadership that could change present worker apathy. The need is such that senior officials will now seriously discuss the idea that in the not-too-distant future Mr. Walesa could return as an ex-officio but credible workers' voice in a new effort to renew dialogue. And the government has little choice but to accept such dialogue if it is to win credibility.

Walesa himself has lately seemed to distance himself from radical courses. He declined to lead an opposition May Day parade in Gdansk. It does not mean his view of official policy has changed. Nor, however, has his frequently declared readiness to meet the authorities on an open agenda without preconditions on either side.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II is expected to meet very privately with Walesa in the basilica at Gdansk this evening, as part of his current tour of Poland. What passes between the two men might well concretely influence the shape of things ahead.

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