COLUMN ONE : Poland's Furnace of Frustration : Three years after the revolution in Poland and Eastern Europe, thousands feel their lives hang in the balance. Like the Polish steelworkers, they are plunged into uncertainty.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sign above the grimy control booth shows that the mixture in the furnace is cooking at 650 degrees, still 1,000 degrees below its becoming steel and three or four hours from the point it can be poured. With a roar of compressed air, a fresh jolt of oil shoots into the furnace; a dragon's breath of flame spurts from the viewing holes in the three furnace doors, and a bright trickle of molten gravel drips from the center gate.

This is No. 3 Furnace at the Kosciuszko Steel Works. Because of recent renovations, it is cooler here than at No. 2 Furnace, just down the line, where workers hustle in the scorching heat to get ready for pouring.

Eugeniusz (Genek) Niescierowicz runs No. 3 Furnace. He checks its gauges inside the booth and takes a seat on the bench in front of it, hard hat down over his broad forehead, arms folded across the dirty flannel shirt that is the unofficial steelworkers' uniform.

Genek isn't sure the molten metal will be ready before his shift ends. But it's all right with him that the next crew may need to finish the job. However long the troubled, 2,800-employee Kosciuszko Steel Works stays open, he still will see enough steel poured to last a lifetime. In 32 years, he has seen far too much already.

"To be a steelworker . . . ," his voice trails off in the furnace's roar. The loader crane thrusts more scrap iron through one of the hoisted furnace doors, into the blast of flame and liquefying metal. "I can't imagine anyone loving this work! Ever!"

It has been three years since the anti-Communist revolution came to Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Back then, the Kosciuszko Steel Works employed 4,500 workers. Back in the 1960s, at the peak of its 190-year history, the mill meant a livelihood for 8,000 workers. Back then, there were seven furnaces here, all serviced by a coking plant and an ore-processing works--not to mention the "great furnaces" that now stand behind the yards in towering rusted majesty.

It has come to nothing, Genek says. It is falling apart, dissolving.

"I do think we've all been cheated," he says. "Cheated by (the trade union) Solidarity. Cheated by the people who run things, by the government, the ones with the power."

He is not alone--in Poland or in the rest of Eastern Europe. Today, thousands of people like Genek feel their lives hang in the balance, their families plunged into uncertainty.

Not many want to return to a totalitarian system. What they do want is security--and their plaintive voices have thrown governments and economic reform policies into confusion, consternation and division.

Workers such as Genek find their wages frozen, even as the cost of living has skyrocketed. Having worked at factory jobs for a lifetime, they now find their plants forced to sink or swim in the new market economy, bedeviled by layoffs and threatened bankruptcies.

In the old days, while these workers were never prosperous, their futures were at least secure. All that has gone.

Genek remembers the days of 1980-81, when Solidarity rose to play a crucial role in Poland's anti-Communist crusade. "It was beautiful, the thing that was born then," he says. "It was something we all waited for, something we all watched for. And now? Now everything gets worse and worse."

Still, there are few voices in Eastern Europe calling for communism's return. As Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin told the U.S. Congress recently--in a view that most Poles, Czechs, eastern Germans and Hungarians would echo--"We shall not let (communism) rise again in our land."

But for most people in these lands, the burst of optimism that flowered so suddenly three years ago has been tempered by reality--the realization that a generation, or more, will be required to catch up with the West; that politics, as played out by a new crew of post-Communist politicians, can be as manipulative and opportunistic as anything the Communists might have imagined.

There is new evidence that hard work and creativity will be rewarded. But there is also the depressing knowledge that inside connections or a well-placed bribe can lubricate the way to success.

There are goods in the shops, food in the markets, new cars on the streets. People dress better, look better and, at least on the surface, seem happier. But the blessings are not evenly spread, and there are not many people around who find it easy to remember that this new system--this "market economy," this "capitalism"--was never designed to spread its benefits equally.

And no sector in the Polish economy has taken the hit that heavy industry has in the last three years. Between 1989 and 1991, industrial output plunged by 40%, most of it accounted for in mining, steel production and the heavy-machine industries. Of the 2.1 million unemployed (11% of the work force), most come from these sectors.

There are 23 steel mills, or other metal-processing plants, in Poland. Virtually all are in trouble; even the massive Katowice Steel Works, not far from the Kosciuszko plant, loses money on much of its production. As a whole, the industry is operating at 60% of capacity.

Much of its old output was geared for the former Soviet Union and the rest of the East Bloc. But the Soviet market for these goods largely evaporated in 1991, when the orders simply stopped coming. Factories have been forced to find new markets for products that are generally inferior to their Western European counterparts.

And that ever-elusive patron--the Western joint-venture partner--inevitably suggests streamlining, modernization and a reduced work force, all painful steps. The money for modernization is rarely available, and reducing the work force has its own severe social cost.

A signboard near the executive offices at the Kosciuszko plant proclaims, "190 years of tradition is a guarantee of the quality of our products." But the air of gradual decline cannot be escaped.

Once the men and women who worked here represented the Communist industrial ideal, their sturdy, romanticized likenesses set in bas-relief on buildings in the capital. Statues in their honor showed them with shirt-sleeves rolled up over muscular forearms, goggles on hard hats, tongs in hand.

And, once upon a time, their concerns (or so they were told) were uppermost in the minds of the politicians, the Communist Party, the doctrine of the socialist system--it was all for them, the workers.

Last year, the Kosciuszko Steel Works squeezed out a narrow profit, about $7 million, says Wladyslaw Parzoch, the plant's technical director. This year, though, the plant is showing a loss for the first four months of operation. Since 1989, he says, the decline in employees has been gradual: "We're proud to say we've had no mass layoffs."

He hopes the end to the decline is in sight. But that will depend on the plant's ability to secure a loan and retool so it can take steel from other plants and reprocess it into rails and other railroad-based products.

It is under orders from the district environmental authorities to clean up the tons of sulfur dioxide it spews into the air or shut down its furnaces by 1995. Parzoch says the plant has come up with its own plan to phase out the last three furnaces sometime next year but that it all depends on the so-far-elusive financing.

In the meantime, vast areas of the old mill stand idle, in a mantle of rust and dun-colored dust, silent except for the echoes that sound from the far end of the mill where Genek Niescierowicz and his co-workers still tend the furnaces and pour the steel.

They are full of complaints and weariness with their lives now.

These are not empty gripes.

Consider these hard truths about the life of Genek Niescierowicz (pronounced Nes-chi-roh-vich): Apart from two years in the army, he has worked the blast furnaces at the Kosciuszko plant since he was 16 years old--32 years of eight-hour shifts. He has been injured and burned. Like most veteran steelworkers, he has high blood pressure, varicose veins from the heat and the lifting, and "God only knows" what shape his lungs are in.

His monthly pay is $126.

Genek's friend Alex Dabrowski, 33 years in the mill, barrel-shaped and stubble-cheeked, sits next to him, listening, and then chimes in, "You think you've hit bottom, but then you just keep on sinking."

Even as the men offer these observations, the pace of activity in their department picks up. The molten material in Genek's furnace approaches 1,000 degrees.

A crane operator, his blue-tinted furnace glasses attached to the bill of an incongruous golfing cap, feeds tons of pig iron and scrap metal into the inferno, while Genek pushes the buttons to lift and lower the furnace doors.

Down the line, the crew on No. 2 is ready to empty the furnace, the big scoreboard temperature sign showing 1,650 degrees. A management representative is guiding visitors through the area, and one of Genek's work mates, a wiry steelworker with a face reddened from heat, comes up to the boss.

"Hey, you!" he shouts in the boss's face, "Why don't you tell them what we earn here? Huh? Tell 'em!"

The management man is Marian Truchan. The secretaries in the offices call him, invariably, "Engineer Truchan." But out here, on the floor, such respect is fleeting. Truchan says nothing and grins sheepishly while the steelworker stalks off behind the furnace, where the sluice gate is just opening and some trouble is becoming apparent.

"Somebody made a mistake," Truchan says. He is watching the steel pouring through a spout into a 180-ton bucket waiting below the furnace.

The same steelworker who just shouted at him is now bending over the trough, amid sparks and sputtering molten steel, ramming a steel rod through the opening, trying to dislodge some blockage. He wears fat, heat-resistant gloves, his goggles down, hard hat low over his face.

The blockage won't move and he thrusts at the passageway with one arm and shields his face with the other. The steelworkers say that working over the pouring steel is like working three weeks in three minutes; the one steelworker retreats, and another takes over.

Then another steelworker comes with a tool to blow oxygen into the hole to try to break through, to let the molten steel out, while behind him other men move rapidly in the smoke and noise and heat to back him up.

There are shouts, curses, orders flying. One man backs away and another takes over, the relieved steelworker moving away from the blinding heat of the spout with his face scarlet and sweat glistening in the creases of his face.

One heavy man has one trouser leg nearly ripped off by a steel rod someone is carrying. Finally, the blockage breaks loose--perhaps a chunk of fire brick dislodged from the furnace lining--and a fresh cascade of steel gushes from the furnace, onto the top of one bucket and into the overflow of another.

The men appear, for a few minutes afterward, like a defensive unit of a football team at the end of an unsuccessful goal-line stand.

"Damn!" says one of them. "The doctor says I shouldn't be doing this anymore."

He is not saying this lightly; he is old enough to have been here 25 or 30 years, and he looks exhausted. The steelworker with the torn pants, another heavyset veteran, is sitting on the bench in front of the control booth, elbows on his knees, head down, sweat dripping from his face onto the dust.

The crane is already reloading the furnace, another cycle beginning.

Genek has his own hands full now, a gravel barrier at the center door of No. 3 Furnace having been breached; a load of molten gravel pours forth into a spill bucket on the floor below. He and Dabrowski toss shovel after shovel of gravel through the chute to cool down the mixture.

"That wasn't supposed to happen either," Genek says.

It is the last heavy work of the day for him. The steel won't be ready until an hour after the afternoon shift comes on. His replacement arrives, five minutes early, and Genek goes over the work sheets with him and then heads for the locker room to shower and head home.

He lives only eight blocks away.

"Follow the smoke," he says. "Where it comes down, that's where I live." Emerging from the workers' entrance, wearing a striped T-shirt and slacks, his hair wet from the showers, Genek seems to lose some of the relaxed manner and air of easy command he has in the mill. He walks through the street, past the beer bars where dozens of steelworkers are drinking, and sees the grime everywhere and uncertainty at every turn.

He does not smile much.

His wife, for one thing, is in the hospital with a thyroid condition, and he must go see her. The doctors, he says, are talking about an operation. They say that if they are going to operate, they should do it now, before the cost goes up. The medical care, so far, is free. "But who knows what will happen?" he wonders.

He knows of all the talk about shutting down the furnaces. "I've been here a long time," he says, "so if they close the furnaces, they'll move me somewhere else."

He wants to get another job but says he has no idea of where to look.

"I'm worn-out goods now," he says. "Who would take me on?"

And he is trapped, he says, in another way. His apartment, three small rooms where he and his wife and two teen-age children live, is owned by the factory. "If I quit, I lose the apartment," he says. "If they get rid of me, they're obligated to find me another one."

The apartment, a block of prefab modules, dark gray walls with dim, decaying stairways, is not free. The rent, along with utilities, costs him 800,000 zlotys a month, more than 40% of his pay. "My wife earns the same as I do, working in a flower shop," he says. "Thank God for that, or we would be in trouble."

Next door to the apartment building there is a set of garden plots, a cherished possession for urban dwellers, a place to dig in the earth, to plant flowers or a patch of lettuce. "No," he says, "I don't have one, and I never will have one."

They're rare now, and expensive. Such a thing would be a dream to him. His idea of a holiday now, he says, is to drive 20 miles to a forest outside of town, take a picnic and walk in the woods. Even the factory's vacation camps have gotten too expensive, something that apparently only the executives can afford.

"I wasn't for the Communists," he says. He has made coffee and sits at the table in his narrow living room, tapping a spoon on the edge of the cup. He says he likes to describe himself as "not a Communist, not a democrat, but a free man."

But he sees that whatever the system is, it does not seem to have been designed to make men like him free. It does not take a great intellectual leap, he knows, to realize that Poland, indeed, may have too many steel mills, too many that, like Huta Kosciuszko ("a museum"), are too old and produce steel that, in fact, may not be very good.

He knows all that, knows that somehow all this may be part of a process that, someday, will lead to something better.

It's just that none of it seems to involve him.

"It's hard to talk about systems," he says. "I don't care about systems. I didn't care about the Communists; they didn't bother me. We are simple people, and we care about whether the government works for the people or for itself. All I know is, the level of my life is deteriorating, significantly.

"We were never well off, and we will probably never be until the end."

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