Transportation was paralyzed and most industries and public services shut down here today as Argentine labor unions staged their first successful general strike against the military government.
Independent Argentine news services reported late today that the 24-hour strike, called by all three of the nation's labor federations, had been 90 percent successful. Government officials did not dispute the estimate and made no effort to halt the strike which called for a return to democracy and reforms to alleviate the economic crisis.
Backed for the first time in 6 1/2 years of military rule by moderate labor leaders, striking workers shut down Buenos Aires' commuter trains, buses and subways, and most factories, stores, theaters and restaurants. Mail delivery was suspended and telephone services were limited.
Transportation and business were similarly affected in all of Argentina's other important cities and towns, news services and labor officials said.
The strike, which came at a time of severe economic difficulty for Argentina's 28 million people, was the first in a series of major protests planned for this month by opposition leaders. The mobilization by labor unions, political parties and human rights groups follows their rejection last month of negotiations with the military over a "covenant" governing Argentina's return to democracy.
While reacting quietly to today's strike, military leaders have sharply attacked the opposition activities, and in particular have warned of the "destabilizing effect" of a planned "march for democracy" next week expected to draw 100,000 people to the capital.
Opposition leaders have said they hope their campaign will speed up the armed forces' withdrawal from power, now scheduled for March 1984, and preempt any coup attempts by hard-line sectors opposing a return to democracy.
Both labor and political leaders also concede that the large protests are now necessary to preserve their political credibility among an increasingly restless Argentine public. In recent weeks, disturbances have erupted in Buenos Aires suburbs and at public events like soccer matches, and opposition leaders have grown increasingly concerned that they are losing control over widespread antimilitary sentiment.
"We are not doing anything more than communicating the disquiet" of the rank and file to the government, labor leader Saul Ulbaldini said in a radio broadcast this morning.
Today's strike was first called last week by the leadership of the General Confederation of Labor-Arzopardo, one of two rival national union groupings. It was the first carried through by the Arzopardo group, which in the past has opposed strikes in favor of quiet negotiations with military leaders.
The Arzopardo announcement prompted the more radical General Confederation of Labor-Brazil, which takes its name from the street where its headquarters are located, to schedule its own strike for today. That announcement was followed by a third strike called by a group of independent unions not associated with either of the two main groups, which are closely tied to Argentina's populist Peronist political movement.
The moderate Arzopardo leadership issued demands focusing on economic themes such as salary increases and programs to increase employment. But the more hard-line leadership of the other Peronist union, which has sponsored several other protests this fall, added demands for an immediate democratic government and a military response to charges of human rights violations.
Both unions quietly accommodated the weak military government of retired Gen. Reynaldo Bignone by scheduling no public gatherings or marches today and by withholding endorsement of the mass demonstration next week called by political parties.
As a result, reaction to the strike was mild. "As long as there are not disorders and things are maintained within a certain order, this is normal and we should accept it," Interior Minister Llamil Reston told reporters this afternoon.