The leader of Polish workers' movement today called for a temporary halt to the spread of strikes throughout the country to allow negotiators time to work out a compromise on the key issue of free trade unions.

"People need food," said Lech Walesa in a dramatic appeal to his fellow workers. "Poland can only last for a few more days under these conditions . . . If we don't get results in three to four days, then let the strikes spread."

But, he said. "We are not for the widening of a strike that might push the country to the verge of collapse."

Walesa made his appeal in a statement read to delegates from more than 500 factories gathered in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk. It was supposed to have been broadcast over the state radio and television but authorities later reneged, apparently fearing it would give workers the impression that Walesa held the trump card in the crisis.

His appeal followed warnings by both the government and the Roman Catholic Church of possible casastrophe in the event of any further escalation of the strikes. In the latest such warning, an official government spokesman told foreign reporters today that the number of strikes is "rising like an avalanche" and that the government now is convinced they are being led by "antisocialist and extremist elements."

"The present situation cannot go on much longer. The situation is very serious," the spokesman said.

In the last few days, what is virtually a general strike along the Baltic Coast has sparked sympathy strikes in cities such as Wroclaw, Krakow, Lodz and Poznan.

But Walesa's statement also highlighted the growing urgency of reaching a settlement soon. While several suggestions for a compromise have been floated by a mixed commission of experts representing both government and strikers in Gdansk. The outcome still hangs on securing formal Communist Party approval for the proposed changes.

[The strikes today broke off talks with the government until agreement could be reached on the controversial issue of trade unions independent of the Communist Party, Reuter reported. More than an hour after talks in Gdansk were scheduled to begin, a member of the interfactory strike committee announced there would be no meeting because the government had not worked out its proposal on union independence.]

The problem faced by the joint worker-government commission is to find a formula that keeps Poland's one-party communist system intact yet at the same time enables workers to feel that their interests are represented by a truly independent organization.

Despite the government shakeup at the weekend, there are still signs of significant differences of opinion within the Communist Party over the extent of the concessions to be granted to the strikers. The official Polish information agency Interpress was today compelled to deny formally rumors sweeping Warsaw that Communist Party Leader Edward Gierek would be replaced shortly by Stefan Olszowski, the rising star of the Politburo upon whom the reformers' hopes are pinned.

The fact that a large segment of the Polish leadership is not reconciled to the idea of independent trade unions was reflected in a hard-like editorial in today's edition of Trybuna Ludu, the official Communist Party newspaper. iThe paper described the demand for independent trade unions as "a cover for antisocialist activity."

"This demand is aimed at breaking up the unity of the Polish workers and introducing anarchy into social life. We cannot allow it to happen," the paper said.

Trybuna Ludu's uncompromising rejection of independent unions contrasted sharply with suggestions from the strikers' side in Gdansk that a compromise on the issue might be in the offering. It also conflicted with the calm and reasonable approach adopted by the government commission headed by Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Jagielski to investigate the strikers' demands.

In a communique today, the government commission appeared to suggest a two-stage timetable for reforming the present trade unions, which it sharply criticized as unrepresentative of the workers. In the first stage, the existing unions should be filled by free elections with new activists, including the leaders of the present strike. In the second, more long-term stage, the structure of the unions itself should be completely changed, it said.

The Jagielski commission also answered the strikers' other demands in the communique, which was published in full in all Polish newspapers. Some demands it rejected, others it accepted. But it did both through the use of well-grounded arguments and the publication of new, previously censored, details about Poland's immense economic problems.

On the demand for the abolition of censorship, the commission agreed that much more open public debate was required on the causes of Poland's present crisis. It said in the future censorship would be limited to state and military secrets, hostile propaganda against the communist government and pornography.

It is clear that various ideas have been floated in the mixed committee of experts in an attempt to reach a compromise on the issue of independent trade unions. Under one such suggestion, the new unions would still recognize the leading role of the Communist Party and not be allowed to affiliate with any international trade union movement. In other words, their activities would be confined to bargaining for immediate economic grievances.

Amid the rumors and counterrumors, it is impossible to establish how close this proposal is to becoming an agreement, or even from which side it originally emanated. The detailed discussions are being held behind closed doors in a small subcommittee of six experts representing both sides.

While many ideas have been formulated, none has yet been put to the crucial test of seeing whether they are acceptable both to the entire interfactory strike committee, representing about 500 factories, and the Communist Party.

The mixing committee is made up of experts appointed by the government and strikers. By a quirk of fate, several of the experts on opposing sides are great friends.

One of the government representatives, for example is Josef Pajelska, a brilliant economist dismissed 18 months ago for his reformist ideas but brought back after last Sunday's Central Committee meeting. On the other side is his old colleague, Tadeusz Kowalik, an economist who gave lectures to the dissident "flying university" which meets in private homes.

It is among these people that the compromise proposals are now being discussed. An important role is also being played by a group of independent Catholic intellectuals who have been advising strike leaders.

This evening, Jagielski appeared on the television news to outline the conclusions reached by his commission. He said the government wanted to meet the strikers' demands, but there were limits beyond which they could not go.