Police and hospital workers were placed on alert Sunday as Polish consumers learned that the price of bread, cereals, sugar and other staple foods will rise by about 8%, effective today.
In apparent anticipation of protests, police patrols were stepped up in Warsaw and several other cities over the weekend, and hospital workers' leaves were canceled under the alert, Polish sources said.
In Gdansk, an estimated 2,000 people chanting "no more price hikes" staged a brief march near the Lenin Shipyard in that Baltic port, a traditional rallying point for protests, but observers said they dispersed peacefully.
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said that he is opposed to the price increases. But in an unusually cautious stance, he declined to elaborate, referring Western reporters to statements he made after much sharper price boosts were imposed a year ago.
Unlike last year, when increases averaging 38% on basic food prices were preceded by weeks of government-orchestrated public discussion in the official press, this year's smaller price increases were announced to the public late Saturday after most stores had closed for the weekend.
Rumors of the impending price boosts had swept Warsaw on Friday, bringing thousands of housewives out to stand in two-hour lines to buy sugar, flour and other non-perishables at lower prices.
"It may not seem like much, but a lot of people can't afford an extra 100 zlotys (63 cents) a week for food," one woman shopper said.
While the average Polish worker earns about 17,000 zlotys a month ($106), a typical family already spends 50% to 70% of its income on food. Rents have risen sharply in recent months, and transportation and utilities are due for substantial increases.
In announcing higher food prices, the official PAP news agency said retail prices will rise by no more than 9% this year and promised that this will be offset by an average wage increase of 13%.
In justifying the increases, the government said it is trying to reduce the burden of state subsidies for food and other necessities and bring retail prices closer in line with production costs. The government contends that if all remaining food subsidies were removed, prices would rise another 30%.
Abrupt and unannounced price increases have been the traditional spark for political upheaval in Poland, having triggered widespread unrest in 1956, 1970, 1976 and 1980. The authorities, however, appear to gauge the current mood as one of sour apathy and resignation, not volatile anger.