Polish authorities today arrested 14 leading dissidents in an apparent attempt to stifle information about the wave of strikes that has continued to spread, crippling Poland's northern Baltic ports and creating the most serious crisis in the Soviet Bloc in a decade.
Among those arrested in police raids on homes here was Jacek Kuron, spokesman for the dissident Workers' Defense Committee that has emerged as a key link between the strikers and the outside world. For the last seven weeks of labor unrest, Kuron and his supporters have been permitted to operate relatively freely and have provided detailed information about the strikers to foreign journalists.
Both strikers and authorities hardened their positions today. Strike leaders claiming to represent more than 100,000 workers forbade their followers from negotiating directly with Communist authorities, and the authorities continued to refuse to recognize the workers' integrated strike committees, which are made up of representatives of several industries. Officials complain the integrated committees are composed of "antisocialist elements."
[In Rome, Pope John Paul II broke his silence on the strife in his homeland, telling pilgrims, "We here in Rome are united with our fellow Poles." singing a patriotic hymn and offering prayers in Polish news agencies reported.]
Other leading dissidents arrested today were Adam Michnik, who helped found Poland's dissident "Flying University," Jan Cycinski and Josef Sreniowski. It is expected they will be held for at least 48 hours. The editor of the dissidents' newspaper, The Worker, Jan Lytinski, was detained several days ago.
The Worker's Defense Committee was formed after a similar but more limited wave of labor disputes in 1976 to help defend workers put on trial for their strike activities. Lately, the dissidents have helped formulate the demands for sweeping political reforms pressed by strikers at Gdansk and other Baltic ports.
The strikes, which are already affecting more than 250 factories in the Gdansk region, have spread along the coast and -- in an alarming development for Poland's communist rulers -- to the industrial heartland in the south of the country. Integrated strike committees modeled on the one at Gdansk have been set up in the ports of Szczecin near the East German border and Elblag near the Soviet Union.
The real reason for the government's refusal to deal with the committees is that it would be tantamount to recognizing an independent trade-union movement -- an ideologically unacceptable phenomenon for a communist country. In a remark that goes to the core of the present crisis, the head of the official trade unions, Jan Szydlak, is reported to have told local workers: "The authorities do not intend to give up their power or to share it with anyone else."
Szydlak, who is a member of the ruling Politburo and was appointed trade union chief last February, is in Gdansk seeking to contact individual groups of workers over the head of the strike committee. According to Gdansk radio, he has so far met with representatives of 17 factories and forwarded some of their demands to the central authorities in Warsaw for consideration.
A strike committee leader, Florian Wiesniewski, described the government's attempts to divide the workers as "a capitalist policy." Another delegate blamed government obduracy for the spread of the strike. "Without free trade unions, strikes are the only way in which we can bargain with the authorities," he said.
It is clear that the government strategy of attempting to isolate the integrated committee, which has its headquarters in the giant Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, will take some time before it can succeed. Even optimistic government officials believe that it will be at least a week before the present wave of strikes begins to die out.
[The official news agency RAP began an unprecedented drive to gather support for the government position with a 2,000 word dispatch on the strike, Reuter news agency reported. In its first mention of the strike, RAP painted a grim picture of the effects of the labor shutdown and reported that the unrest costs debt-ridden Poland millions of dollars a day.]
Meanwhile, the labor unrest reached other cities. In Szczecin, an important port, over 30 plants were affected, including the important Warsky Shipyards. There was some panic buying in the town by housewives and local radio stations appealed to the population not to hoard food supplies or other basic items.
Near Krakow, in southern Poland, workers interrupted production at the huge steel mills in Nowa Huta -- one of the country's industrial showpieces. This, together with a brief strike at a coalmine near the town of Katowice, is an ominous sign for Poland's Communist Party leader Edward Gierek, who owes his own political support to the working class in the south.
Gierek spent his early political career in Katowice and the miners and steel workers of Silesia are both well paid and well looked after by Polish standards. Special residential areas have been built for the miners and the authorities take care to see that local shops are always well stocked with meat and fresh vegetables difficult to find in the rest of the country.
In Gdansk itself, the general strike has crippled virtually all economic activity. Food is reported to be rotting in the holds of ships blocked in the harbor.
Despite all the inconvenience, public opinion has remained on the side of the strikers. Leaflets signed by the mayor of Gdansk were scattered over the city by a light airplane today, appealing for an end to the strikes. Shortly afterward, printers at the plant that produced the leaflet walked out as well.
Security remained unobtrusive. Worker delegates reported that some of their cars had been halted for traffic checks as they drove between their plants and strike headquarters. In several incidents, they were ordered to stop flying the red and white Polish flag, which is being used as a symbol for the strikers.
Rumors of both Soviet and Polish troop movements abound. Some observers interpreted the rumors as a psychological pressure tactic aimed at spreading anxiety and confusion among the workers.
[Agence France-Presse reported that no Soviet tanks, troops or planes were sighted today in the border areas of northeast Poland. In early afternoon, reportrs were startled by a report from a German wire service that an SOS message from a Polish radio ham operator had been picked up in West Berlin, saying Soviet forces had crossed the border at 6 a.m. But when the reporters reached the border they found no evidence of Sovet troops.]
Some strikers in Gdansk tried to fraternize with the police and reported that individually some were sympathetic to their cause. At an airfield outside Gdansk, workers accosted militamen with the accusation: "You have been sent here in order to shoot us."
Meanwhile in Warsaw, high-level consultations were continuing, with senior officials being constantly called to the Communitst Party's Central Committee building. Preparations are believed to be under way for an emergency meeting of the Central Committee, the country's supreme policy-making body, to take a stand on the crisis.
At his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul read two popular prayers in Polish asking the Blessed Virgin to protect Poland. The prayers also asked for continuina liberty for the Polish church and for peace, security, and liberation from every ill for the country. Numerous Polish flags dotted the crowd of 20,000.
["These prayers by themselves say how much we here in Rome are united with our fellow Poles and with the church in particular," the pope said.]