Tens of thousands of workers Wednesday defied an appeal from Mikhail S. Gorbachev for a moratorium on protests and streamed from factories in the Byelorussian capital in a strike for higher pay.
"The Communist Party Drove Us Here," read one placard held by workers marching to Minsk's central Lenin Square. "Put Food from Chernobyl on the Government Table," read another sign."The people are waking up!" Sergei Klyuchko, a miner from Donetsk in the neighboring Ukraine, told the estimated 40,000 workers and others packed into the square at midday in a slight drizzle.
Organizers said 64 enterprises - including a gear plant, an electronics factory and tractor works - were on strike in the Minsk area. They did not say how many people were involved.
The walkout ignored an impassioned appeal from Gorbachev on national television Tuesday for a moratorium on strikes and demonstrations.
"We face the danger of economic collapse," the Soviet president said, citing stepped up challenges to Kremlin authority. He also proposed a simultaneous acceleration of the transition to a free-market system.
But Gorbachev's plan for salvaging the union of 15 increasingly fractious republics comes amid widespread pessimism about his ability to halt a demoralizing economic decline and his seriousness about fundamental democratic reform.
The action in Byelorussia, a western republic of 10.4 million people, followed a three-hour warning strike Tuesday.
The strike in Minsk was the biggest boost to the country's fledging independent labor movement since coal miners began a nationwide walkout on March 1 with economic and political demands.
The official Tass news agency Wednesday quoted Metallurgy Minister Serafim Kolpakov as saying the coal strike has caused the shutdown of 21 steel plants, is costing the country billions of dollars and could jeopardize millions of jobs in other industries.
Tass said Kolpakov proposed improvements in work and living conditions for steelworkers to keep them from joining the strike.
In his speech on Tuesday, Gorbachev urged acceptance of what he called "anti-crisis measures" in an address to the Federation Council, which consists of top national officials and the leaders of the 15 Soviet republics.
His proposals also included a stepped-up effort to conclude a new Union Treaty to hold the republics together by shifting some powers away from the Kremlin.
The package includes budget cuts, efforts to create commodity and finance exchanges and to make the ruble convertible in international markets, the agency said.