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Solidarity Threatens Polish Government In Bid to Boost Wages

THE last 10 months of relative political stability in Poland may soon come to an end.

The Polish government, led by Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka, faces a vote of no confidence in the Sejm (parliament). It was introduced late Wednesday by the Solidarity trade union, which also called for a strike by transport workers today in Warsaw. The strike is expected to bring the capital to a standstill.

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There is no guarantee that the Suchocka government can survive the vote, which at the earliest can take place on May 27. The government, a fragile coalition of several parties, has no majority in the Sejm, itself a fractious collection of over 20 parties.

Solidarity's complaint is the poor state of public-sector wages, which are considerably lower than the private sector's and have not kept up with the rising cost of living. The union seeks increased wages for teachers and health workers who went on strike in early May.

But after the union refused to accept the government's compromise of early parliamentary elections, an idea supported by the government's political opponents, talks broke down on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Suchocka has emphasized that there simply is no money for wage increases in the austere federal budget, worked out in agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

"For 40 years of Communism, there was a conviction among society that money is available, although the money was without any real value. People still have this habit, but the government is not willing - and the budget does not allow - for the printing of money with no value," the prime minister said in a May 4 interview with the Monitor.

The Suchocka government, the fourth in Poland in as many years, has survived two major strikes and pushed through significant reform legislation. It is described by many as Poland's first taste of political stability since introduction of democracy.

If Suchocka and her Cabinet fall, it is hard to predict exactly what will become of Polish economic reforms. Some analysts believe the economic fundamentals of Poland are now in place and cannot be rolled back - though perhaps further reforms could be delayed.

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They point out that almost 60 percent of working Poles have jobs in the private sector, which turns out nearly half the country's gross domestic product. Broad economic reforms have been maintained, despite the succession of Polish governments.

Meanwhile, Poland became the first post-Communist country to emerge from recession last year when industrial production rose by 4 percent.

One long-time observer in Warsaw, however, says the progress of Polish economic reform is not "inevitable." He rules out a return to Communist days, but warns that a new Polish government could turn protectionist.

Andrzej Wroblewski, editor of the banking journal Gazeta Bankowa, says it's not impossible that a new government could bend to wage demands and crank up the money supply. This would ignite inflation, scare off foreign investment, and "ruin both the private economy and the state sector," he says.

Still, Mr. Wroblewski expresses cautious optimism. "Even though the government may collapse, I still don't believe a new one will give up everything in a panic."

The unique thing about this move to topple the government is that it does not necessarily have a broad base among Poles. Despite 14 percent unemployment, over 75 percent of the population has confidence in Suchocka, although they are far less sure of her Cabinet, public opinion surveys say.

"The government has a political problem that's worse than its social problem," says the observer. "It stems from the Sejm being a divided, diffuse body."

Part of Suchocka's political problem is the Solidarity trade union, which has evolved from a broad-based labor movement favoring democracy and economic reform to a tough trade union rooted in the declining, rust-belt industries.

"There is a competition among Solidarity leaders as to who can be the most radical," Wroblewski explains.

At factories, trade unions don't wield much power these days. "Our role is pretty much limited to social services," says Marek Swidzinskj, Solidarity leader at the Dywilan carpet factory in Lodz, one of Poland's most economically depressed cities.

"Our demands could be much larger," says Mr. Swidzinskj, "but we know that management can't fulfill them, so our demands are limited."

On regional and national levels, though, Solidarity still has the power to call a nationwide strike and apply considerable pressure to the government. It is this clout that adds to Suchocka's vulnerability.

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