Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek ended a vacation in the Soviet Union today and flew to Poland, where spreading labor unrest appears to be developing into a major crisis for his government.
[In a hard-line speech on Polish television today, Premier Edward Babiuch said the high meat prices that have triggered more than 40 days of wildcat strikes would remain frozen until the fall harvest of 1981 and supplies in the markets would not be increased. He warned that "foes of people's Poland" were exploiting the strife to promote ideas "far removed from the strivings of the working class," news agencies reported.]
In a development that some diplomatic observers considered an indication of Soviet concern about the Polish unrest, the official news agency Tass announced last night that Warsaw Pack armies will hold maneuvers in East Germany and the adjacent Baltic area during the first half of September.
Tass said 40,000 troops, including amphibious forces, would take part in the war games. All Soviet Bloc countries are scheduled to participate with the exception of Romania, which will send only staff officers.
Eastern European sources reported that there is mounting concern about Poland's unrest but insisted that the Polish leadership will seek a political solution. The use of force, they said, is not being considered.
The Soviet and Eastern European media remained silent today about the Polish strife that has now spread from Warsaw to important industrial centers, including the large Gdansk shipyard on the Baltic Sea and textile at Lodz and Wroclaw.
Tass gave routine treatment to Gierek's departure, which came at the end of a two-week Crimean vacation. During his stay, he met with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.
Sources here said that all Eastern European governments are closely watching the Polish workers' strikes.
Similar unrest in 1970, also caused by a government decision to increase food prices, led to workers' riots and forced the removal of the party leadership. That upheaval brought Gierek to power.
Analysts here noted the editorial in today's issue of the Polish Communist Party newspaper, Tribuna Ludu, which called for calm and order and said the government does not "exclude discussion on the existing situation even in a sharp dispute."
This was taken as an indication that Gierek was prepared to negotiate with dissident workers, who are seeking free trade-union elections in addition to higher wages. Observers here believed that Gierek had discussed his options with his Soviet hosts.
The Polish difficulties come at a time when the world oil price increases are beginning to hit Eastern Europe with full force. Moreover, U.S.-Soviet tensions are expected to produce difficulties in East-West trade. The region is facing problems of declining growth rates, inflation, shortages of consumer goods and a huge debt to the West of nearly $50 billion.
Poland is the largest debtor in the Soviet Bloc. In 1979, it recorded a negative economic growth rate for the first time since World War II. Last Tuesday a consortium of West German banks agreed to provide credits of $672 million to help bail Poland out of its economic difficulties.
Since he took power in 1970, Gierek has been bedeviled by the issue of food prices. He had sought to keep prices low through subsidies, but that emptied the treasury. In 1976 his government attempted to boost meat prices to bring them closer to world levels. That prompted such an outcry that the government was compelled to cancel the hikes within hours.
Last February, Babiuch announced an austerity program that included reductions in subsidies for food and other staples and increases in many other prices. The current wave of labor unrest began last month when the government transferred more meats from cheap stores into so-called commercial specialty shops, resulting in higher prices.
As a result of the shift, inferior cuts of beef went from $1.33 to $2 per kilogram, which is 2.2 pounds. The average monthly wage in Poland is $167. In recent strikes, the government has given in and raised pay 10 to 15 percent.
Reuter news agency reported from Gdansk:
More than 50,000 workers were on strike in and around Poland's biggest shipbuilding yards in Gdansk today. A strike yesterday of 16,000 workers in the Lenin shipyard, the country's biggest complex, spread today to two other shipyards in the northern Polish port. Streetcar and bus drivers in Gdansk and the neighboring cities of Gdynia and Sopot were also on strike as were four factories supplying the shipyards.
About 10,000 of the 16,000 workers stayed in the Lenin yard overnight, posting their own guards at the gates, and they remained in total control of the yard today. The strikers said they wanted above all to talk with Premier Babiuch.
Poland's Roman Catholic Church leaders broke their silence on the labor unrest today when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski told pilgrims in the southern city of Czestochowa that the nation had been demanding "bread" in a tactful way. "Bread is the property of the whole nation," the Polish primate told 150,000 pilgrims who were celebrating the feast of the Assumption.
The cardinal also recalled Poland's victory against the Soviet Union in 1920 -- an anniversary that used to be celebrated on Aug. 15 before the communists came to power. Dissidents in Warsaw marked the anniversary, and last night 4,000 Poles marched through the capital to commemorate the victims of the war against the Soviet Union.