The independent Polish trade union Solidarity today called a one-hour general strike for Wednesday in an attempt to reassert control over union activists angry about food shortages and police harassment. Wildcat strikes continued to spread today, with an estimated 250,000 workers walking off their jobs.
The announcement of a nationwide strike, the biggest protest action to be mounted by Solidarity since last March, coincided with a government decree involving the Army in local administration. The move was interpreted as part of a series of efforts by the new Communist Party leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, to strengthen his grip over Poland's unwieldy bureaucratic apparatus rather than a military takeover.
The decree, adopted at a meeting of the government presidium, said task forces made up of Army officers and soldiers would be sent throughout Poland with powers to investigate mismanagement and inefficiency, settle local disputes and strengthen obedience to law.
The State Department said that "time will tell" what the stepped-up Army involvement "will mean in practice." A spokesman said the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw reported that the atmosphere in that city was calm after Polish television announced the new Army role.
During recent months, the Army has been given many traditionally civilian functions, with the appointment of generals to key ministries, the formation of joint Army-police patrols in many cities and the drafting of soldiers to work in mines.
The increasing reliance on the Army is also no doubt intended to have a psychological effect at a time when both Solidarity and the communist authorities appear headed for another major trial of political strength. But there are no signs that Jaruzelski, who also holds the posts of prime minister and defense minister, has any immediate intention of using his troops to stifle industrial unrest by force.
Today's decision by Solidarity leaders to go ahead with a token general strike appeared designed to channel mounting frustrations of rank-and-file Solidarity members in an orderly direction. Wildcat strikes have multiplied throughout the country recently in response to deteriorating economic conditions and a sharpening political atmosphere.
A resolution passed overwhelmingly by Solidarity's policy-making national committee at the end of a two-day meeting demanded an end to police "reprisals" against the union and the establishment of a socio-economic council to supervise the government's handling of the economy. If these demands are not met by the end of the month, the committee said, an "active" strike would be declared in selected industries.
The idea of an active strike is a new weapon in Solidarity's arsenal of protest, which ranges from token factory stoppages right up to the ultimate deterrent, the all-out general strike and occupation of factories throughout Poland.
During an "active" strike, employes will work, but according to the instructions of their union officials rather than management.
The Solidarity resolution blamed what it described as Poland's present "disastrous economic situation" on errors committed by the Communist Party leadership. It said the government's handling of the crisis and its launching of a propaganda campaign against Solidarity had created "a state of danger" for the union and the people that could lead to national tragedy.
Concluding that there was a need to warn "the group of adventurers," the resolution said all factories throughout Poland would stop work for an hour at noon on Wednesday. It also called for a halt to all uncoordinated protests. At present strike alerts have been called in at least a dozen of Poland's 49 regions and today an estimated quarter of a million workers occupied their factories over local grievances.
The only previous strike on Wednesday's planned scale was in response to police violence in the northern town of Bydgoszcz last March. A four-hour warning strike on March 27 received massive support from the population and forced authorities to offer a compromise to Solidarity, thus averting an open-ended general strike.
This time the issues at stake are much more diffuse, including popular dissatisfaction at food shortages and price rises and police action against union officials and publications. About 200 Solidarity activists are believed to be awaiting trial on such charges as disturbing public order, violating the censorship law and slandering Poland's Soviet Bloc allies.
The degree of support for Wednesday's strike will be closely watched for any signs of a weakening in Solidarity's hold over the population. Government strategists have claimed that, while the party has not gained appreciably in public confidence, the union has lost some of its initial popularity.
The success of the strike also could affect the outcome of important sessions of the party's policy-making Central Committee and parliament scheduled for next week. Major shakeups in both the Politburo and the government are expected as Jaruzelski attempts to bring his own men into key positions.
The parliament is scheduled to debate a call by the Central Committee for a suspension of the right to strike.
Jerzy Urban, the government press spokesman, said today that some of Solidarity's regional branches were attempting to draw the government into a confrontation by provocations. Virtually the same accusation has been made by Solidarity against the authorities.
The government decree said extra measures had become essential in view of the breakdown of law and order and the threat of economic catastrophe this winter. It said task forces led by professional soldiers would be sent to towns and cities throughout Poland to support the civilian administration and act as a direct channel of communication with the central authorities.
"Their main aim is to prepare the country for winter, assure better transportation, fight waste and inefficiency and act against interruption in supplies. They will serve the citizens, accepting their complaints, alleviating human sacrifices and solving quarrels and local disputes," the statement said.
The groups, in cooperation with local government bodies, would also be responsible for "strengthening law obedience and controlling its implementation," it added.
[Polish television showed Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest 25 years ago this week, Reuter reported, and a commentator said Poles should remember that 30,000 people died in that uprising. The film, a Hungarian-made documentary, traced the course of Hungary's bloody attempt to shake off strict Stalinist rule.]