Warsaw — In Solidarity's strongest challenge to the government since the great Baltic strikes a year ago, this city was brought almost to a standstill Monday. It was the first time that the union had pulled its members out of their workplaces and onto the streets of the capital in an open trial of strength with the communist leadership.
Until the past two weeks, when similar but smaller demonstrations have occurred in regional cities, Solidarity had made a point of keeping strikers within the confines of their factories and shipyards. The more moderate union leaders such as Lech Walesa had wanted to avoid risking any incidents that could have brought their members into direct conflict with the authorities.
This time, however, Solidarity organized a massive demonstration -- blocking thoroughfares with vehicles of all kinds and descriptions -- to protest the daily worsening food shortages. But the protest did not appear to arouse any particular enthusiasm among ordinary Poles, weary after weeks of queuing endlessly for each rare item of food.
"Do you think this demonstration will do any good?" I asked a woman standing in line in a bakery where some loaves had just shown up. And her reply seemed typical of the general mood.
"It won't bring any more supplies into the shops, but perhaps it will make our leaders sit up and think," she said.
"People are too tired," added a spritely pensioner sporting a miniature medal and two ribbons from World War I in his lapel. "Those drivers should be keeping those trams moving. After work people want to get home."
The union leadership decided to go ahead regardless of talks begun early Monday morning between the government and Solidarity's national committee headed by Walesa. In the late afternoon the talks were adjourned until Thursday when the government has undertaken to give a precise reply to the union's points.
The government team was headed by Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski, who negotiated the agreement with Walesa that at the last hour averted a nationwide strike over police brutality against union activists in the Bydgoszcz affair in March. And the lesson of Bydgoszcz was greatly in evidence Monday.
Despite the potentially explosive nature of this bold, direct show of union power, and the many vehicles involved in the demonstration, the police presence was remarkably low key.
Even at a main intersection, where two heavy traffic streams were, in fact, able to keep moving, only a score of ordinary militia were on hand. Where thoroughfares were blocked off, only a few police were lined across the entries to divert ordinary traffic to other routes.
The demonstrators' column was not allowed to enter the street leading past the Central Committee building (the Communist Party's national headquarters), the Sejm (parliament), and the Council of Ministers' building where the talks were going on.
Provincial party committees and government buildings had been special targets of workers' protest in 1970 and 1976, so it would not have been surprising to see police in strength at these points.
There were doubtless enough inside the courtyard around which the committee building stands and ample reserves out of sight in other parts of the city.
But in a three-hour walk around and through the blocked-off area this writer saw not more than a few score police all told. Moreover, they were carrying neither the pistol on the hip nor the short truncheon that are part of their customary gear. Riot police were not in evidence at all.
It was obvious government strategy to reply to Solidarity's challenge with a show of calm and good will toward the ordinary population and its wish to continue the "dialogue" with the union and avoid confrontation.
For the most part people wer either at work -- or going about their "normal" business. These days, that means bustling around the shops from queue to queue and waiting patiently in hopes of finding perhaps a little more butter and cheese, even some meat, in the shops.
The demonstration began about 10 a.m. from the square where the Town Hall stands and moved toward the city center.
It was a long column of small cars and taxis, backed up by scores of trucks, heavy municipal garbage units, even cement mixers and earth movers. They flew Polish flags and the air was rent with electronic horns wailing like an air-raid warning siren.
The plan was to join forces along the throughway past the government buildings with a column coming in from the opposite direction. But the police made this impossible, although they did not restrict pedestrian movement.
Warsaw's sidewalks are crowded at any time of day. At intersections where traffic blocks were most solid, onlookers gathered. But most people did not seem greatly concerned.
It was a hot, sultry day. Attesting to the human side of the gross neglect of the past few years, there are few ice-cream parlors or street vendors, so the queues at those few that were in business were enormous.
An elderly woman grumbled: "The people at the top are from the countryside. [Party chief Stanislaw Kania and other leading figures are of peasant background.] They should have been here in Warsaw during the war. Life was easier for them. They have no idea what shortages mean to people in the towns."