Poland's independent labor federaltion Solidarity broke off negotiations to settle a regional strike today and asked workers to prepare for a nationwide job action if the government tries to break the nine-day-old walkout in the industrialized south of the country.
Union leader Lech Walesa, in a move that may mark the start of a new and more serious crisis, called on 10 million Solidarity members to "occupy" their enterprises "if force is sued in Bielsko-Biala." About 200,000 strikers in that southern region have been demanding the replacement of local officials for alleged corruption and repression.
Solidarity called off the talks after Prime Minister Jozef Pinkowski refused to accept the resignation of the provincial governor, Jozef Latunek, and three of his deputies. The government said the resignations, offered last night in an effort to settle the strike, could only be considered in an atmosphere of "order and calm."
Perhaps the real motive for the government's action is that it cannot be seen to give in to constant pressure from Solidarity for the removal of unpopular local officials.
Last year about half of Poland's 49 provincial governors were replaced or forced out of office -- a process that alarmed both the Polish Communist Party apparatus and the country's Soviet Bloc Allies.
A Western Traveler arriving here from the south said the atmosphere in Bielsko-Biala was "very tense." A communique issues by strike headquarters urged workers to "increase food supplies and blankets."
Government-union talks are reported continuing at Rzeszow, in southeastern Poland, where farmers are demanding official recognition for their union.A Jelenia Gora, where strikes reportedly continue, talks between government and union officials have been resumed.
Both Solidrity and the government appear to have been maneuvered into a position where it is extremely difficult for either side to yield. The strike in Bielsko-Biala has been strongly criticized by other Solidarity branches but -- in the event of any trial of strength -- it is an axiom among the union's leaders that they must all stick together.
Walesa went to Bielsko-Biala earlier this week in an attempt to persuade the local Solidarity chapter to call off their strike following an agreement with the government over reduced working hours and improved access to the officially controled news media. Moderate by inclination, he has now adopted a millitant position.
In an appeal circulated to all union branches, Walesa called for workers to prepare a nationwide action of support for the strikers in the south. He said: "If force is used in Bielsko or communications with the region are broken, occupation strikes of Solidarity should be organized without putting forward any new demands."
The message said that "passive" methods of protest should be used in order to avoid provocation. Individual Solidarity branches were told only to accept instructions from Walesa personally by phone.
In a statement last week, the government threatened to take emergency measures to restore "normal life" in the country unless there was a respite from the wave of industrial unrest. At the time, however, the move was widely interpreted as a bargaining tactic and there is no evidence that the authorities are seriously contemplating the use of force.
Following the breakdown in talks today, the government delegation returned to Warsaw and no new date was set for the resumption of negotiations.
The strikers also protested against a new government decree restricting "striken pay." Following settlement of disputes, workers have usually received full pay for the the length of the strike. Now, however, strike pay will only amount to 50 percent of wages and will only be paid if the strike has been approved by Solidarity's national committee and announced in writing seven days in advance.
According to government figures, losses in the Bielsko-Biala region due to the strike have been running at 240 million zloties [8 million] a day.
The strike committee has issued a thick booklet accusing four local officials of misappropriating 15 million zloties [500,000] from official funds for the furnishing of houses.
Such accusations have, however, become fairly commonplace in Poland today. At the meeting of Solidarity's national committee last Sunday, a majority of speakers ae reliably understood to have opposed the decision of the Bielsko-Biala branch to resort to immediate strikes to push their case. But, under Solidarity's statutes, each union branch enjoys considerable autonomy.
The government's position is further complicated by the decision to call a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee next Monday. Hardliners could use the occasion to attack the conciliatory policies being pursued by the party leadership. Soviet bloc news media have already stepped up their campaign against Solidarity.