The government and Solidarity began negotiations Monday on a wide range of economic, social and political reforms, including re-legalization of the banned union.
It was the first official contact between the state and Solidarity since the Polish leadership imposed martial law in 1981, a step that led to the outlawing of the labor union.Polish television began a live broadcast showing representatives of the government, the Communist Party, the official trade unions and the Roman Catholic Church entered a large hall in the Neo-classical palace of the Council of Ministers.
The officials were led by Interior Secretary Czeslaw Kiszczak, who first approached Walesa informally last August about reconciliation talks.
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and his team of 24 negotiators were greeted by a crowd of 2,000 to 4,000 gathered in a freezing rain chanting, "Solidarity," and "Lech, don't give in."
"I have hope," he said simply as he entered the building, where Kiszczak personally greeted each member of the delegation as they ascended a flight of stairs into the hall.
Delayed by the crowd, Walesa and his team entered the hall 15 minutes late. He wore a navy-blue suit with his familiar pins - Solidarity and Our Lady of Czestochowa, the patron saint of Poland - on his lapel.
"We were brought together here by the sense of responsibility for the future of our motherland," Kiszczak said in his opening speech. "We are all responsible for the future of Poland."
Following a break Tuesday, the group will divide into subject teams to tackle such issues as the conditions for re-legalization of Solidarity, more open elections and economic reform.
As the talks began, there were clear indications Solidarity and the Polish leadership under Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski had different priorities.
The government and the party hope to forge a political alliance with what is called the "constructive opposition" that will include election of opposition candidates to the Sejm, or parliament, and support of stringent government economic reforms.
The electoral reform, which Solidarity is expected to reluctantly endorse, will give the system a measure of the legitimacy it has sought with the Polish population since the communist takeover during World War II.
Solidarity's first agenda item, on the other hand, is its own revival. The government has insisted that Solidarity will not be allowed the influence it held during the unrest of 1980-81 when it was legal and the union is expected to agree to some restrictions. Solidarity was banned Oct. 8, 1982.
Poland is saddled with a $38 billion foreign debt, obsolete and inefficient industries and high inflation. The deteriorating standard of living set off two waves of labor unrest last year by workers demanding higher wages and revival of Solidarity.
The concerns were addressed by an interview on Polish radio with a man identified as a young communist worker:
"Living conditions of young people are very difficult," he said. "We are witnessing a crisis of authority, market shortages, housing problems, but we allow a situation in which there is not hope for the future.
"We badly need some authority," he said. "I hope the round table talks will mend this situation."