Poles Sourly Accept Another Food Price Boost : 'The Mood in the Shops Is Very Dark; We've Been Cheated Again,' One Says

Times Staff Writer

For the third time in three years, the cost of food in Poland has suddenly gone up sharply, but Poles appear to be swallowing the government's latest dose of harsh economic medicine in a mood of sour resignation.

On Monday, the price of bread was raised 30%, sugar went up by nearly half and flour and rice now cost 41% more than they did last week.

The only cheering news is that the government has lifted the rationing it imposed on flour and most grain products in 1981, although most people were already able to buy all they needed.

Overall, the price of 10 basic food items went up by an average of 35%. The cost of coal and electricity will go up in April, followed by a third set of price increases affecting meat and butter, among other items, in June.

'Cheated Again'

"The mood in the shops is very dark," said a Warsaw woman carrying several loaves of bread from a privately operated bakery. "We've been cheated again."

But she added, "It will take time for people to figure out what this will do to their budgets."

Food price rises have been the traditional spark of popular unrest in postwar Poland, igniting accumulated resentment among workers in 1970, 1976 and 1980. This time, as in the past two years, the government of Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski appears to have finessed its political opposition and avoided significant protests.

Through the state-controlled press and television, the government devoted a month to "social consultations" with the public, arguing the need for higher prices to ease the burden on the state budget caused by massive food subsidies and to bring prices in line with production costs.

Agreed to Reconsider

Then, three days before the deadline of a 15-minute, nationwide protest strike called by Solidarity, the outlawed trade union, the government agreed to rethink its proposals.

The new official trade union movement, which the government hopes will supplant Solidarity, had also criticized the proposals, and it was to this criticism--not Solidarity's--that the government said it was responding.

Claiming a tactical victory, Solidarity called off its strike, only to have the government introduce the same increases it had proposed, although they were spread out in three doses over four months rather than all at once. The authorities have also pledged to cushion the blow by raising the lowest pensions and some family benefits, but few people seem to believe this will help very much.

The Polish people were deceived once again, Lech Walesa, the Solidarity founder, told Western reporters by telephone from his home in Gdansk. "This was manipulation."

Walesa said he will support and even join any protests that take place, but he stopped short of calling for a revival of the canceled strike.

"One cannot ask for some immediate reaction, because work crews have to digest them (the increases)," Walesa said. "Responsible Solidarity people must ponder what to do with this."

Caught Off Guard

Like the woman shopper in Warsaw, Walesa said the government's abrupt reversal of its retreat caught people off guard.

"Many people were surprised and unprepared, and they have to check to see if they have enough money to get by," he said. "This process will not be short, and we'll wait peacefully for events to develop."

Although Walesa had called off the threatened strike 36 hours in advance, the government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, nevertheless later portrayed it as a "failure." Contending that relatively few workers had gotten word of the cancellation, Urban said the general absence of factory protests meant that workers simply did not respond to Solidarity's call, a claim the outlawed union disputes.

Asked at a news conference how the higher prices will affect consumers, Urban said they will remove a total of 125 billion zlotys ($905 million) from their pockets. If so, this will put a sizable dent in the state's 138-billion-zloty budget deficit and offset nearly half the 302 billion zlotys ($2.2 billion) now spent on food subsidies each year.

At the same time, Urban insisted, the new food prices will raise the overall cost of living this year by only 3%. He acknowledged that this low estimate is a figure that "public opinion will not believe," and some observers agreed that his conclusions were difficult to accept.

Less Impact Seen

During its month of "social consultations" with the public, the government said the same higher food prices, if introduced all at once, would remove 185 billion zlotys from consumers' pockets and raise the cost of living by 9%. Now, it expects to realize two-thirds of that gain with only one-third the impact on the cost of living.

In a detailed analysis of the Polish economy issued last week through the underground press, Solidarity said it is doubtful that Polish consumers could bear the added burden of higher food costs.

Since 1982, when the government raised food prices 150% "under the shield of martial law," the overall cost of living has grown 420% while real income has fallen 24%, Solidarity said, describing this as "a situation unique in Europe."

While there is little evidence of real hunger in Poland, many Poles are eating less than they would like to eat. Relying on official figures, Solidarity said that per capita food consumption has fallen 15% since 1979, now that a typical family spends half or more of its income on food.

Rationing Administrators

At the same time, the analysis said, the state bureaucracy has grown fat, with a 29% increase over the last four years in government employment, much of it due to a huge corps of workers hired to administer the food rationing system.

The official trade unions, which rejected all three of the government's proposed price increase plans as likely to lower the standard of living, have not commented publicly on the new prices. But Urban said party and government officials were meeting with the union leaders and that he could not discount the possibility that there would be "a few more bitter words" exchanged.

Opinion is divided in Poland over the genuineness of the trade unions' criticism of the higher prices.

Many Poles write it off as part of a charade designed to enhance the unions' credibility with the public. However, some thoughtful intellectuals, by no means sympathetic with the Jaruzelski government, suspect that the two-year-old unions have become infected with a mild form of the same virus of independence and populism that made Solidarity so troublesome for the government.

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