Polish Strikers Hold Out for Higher Pay

Associated Press

Thousands of striking steelworkers on Wednesday rejected an offer of a big pay raise and held out for more money as Solidarity leader Lech Walesa called for nationwide pressure on authorities to improve the economy.

The strike, in its second day at the sprawling Lenin steel mill outside Krakow, was the biggest labor dispute in Poland since the 1981 crackdown on the now-outlawed Solidarity trade union, and it posed the sharpest challenge yet to government economic reform policies.

Another strike was threatened for Friday at the 18,000-worker Stalowa Wola heavy machinery plant in southeast Poland, and the government prepared to enter talks today with transit workers' representatives seeking higher pay.

In a mood of accelerating demands, striking steelworkers called on the government to double the $15 monthly pay boost announced recently in compensation for price increases. The steelworkers said the higher compensation should go to large groups of society, including industrial workers, retirees, teachers and health workers.

Strikers also demanded an immediate 50% raise on the average $105 paid monthly to the steel plant's 32,000 workers, turning down a management offer of $50 in phased-in raises this year.

The strike committee "firmly rejected" the offer that was broadcast over loudspeakers to the workers Wednesday in a bid to break the strike, said Jacek Kuron, a Solidarity adviser in Warsaw.

Organizers said 12,000 workers are on strike at the mill, with many staying at the site after their shifts. Government spokesman Jerzy Urban said the number was 2,000.

Wieslaw Mazurkiewicz, a member of a hastily established strike committee, said, "We are all decided to strike until our demands are fully met."

Outwardly, the plant appeared calm, with no banners and little activity.

Walesa lent his support to the strikers Wednesday in a statement issued from his home in the Baltic port city of Gdansk.

'Millions Are Waiting'

"Our union appeals to all living social forces . . . for the undertaking of united actions to put pressure on the authorities," he said. "Millions of people are waiting for restoration of the rights of their trade union, Solidarity."

The strike began Tuesday with 700 workers at the plant and then expanded. On Monday, 2,800 transit workers in the western city of Bydgoszcz staged an 11-hour strike and won hourly wage increases of 60%.

Galloping inflation in Poland has created widespread pressure for wage increases.

Prices in Poland shot up 42% in the first three months of 1988 as a result of a government economic program to reduce subsidies on many consumer items and make prices more realistic. Part of the increase was compensated for automatically, and the remainder was dependent on the profitability of enterprises.

Urban said city transit workers in Lodz, Torun and Grudziadz have requested raises in the wake of the Bydgoszcz settlement, and nationwide talks are planned with official transit union representatives today.

In his statement, read over the telephone by Solidarity national spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Walesa said Solidarity has been calling attention to the lack of improvement in the economy for months.

The head of the government-sanctioned union at the steel mill, Stanislaw Sitkowski, said many of his members are taking part in the strike, adding: "We do support these actions. . . . We are of the opinion that wages are too low."

Activists at Stalowa Wola in southeastern Poland were reported planning a strike for Friday. They want pay raises of $50 a month, plus reinstatement of two Solidarity leaders fired for leading a protest rally last week, said Ewa Kaberna, a Solidarity activist.

After the banning of Solidarity, the government organized an officially sanctioned trade union alliance, which claims 7 million members. At its height, Solidarity said it had 10 million members.

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