SOLIDARITY'S spectacular climb to power in Poland is due to the exceptional courage of tens of thousands of unsung working men and women. They risked their lives, jobs and homes by working in the once-illegal trade-union underground. Yet they might not have stymied the Communist Party's effort to destroy Solidarity without the material and moral support they received from American unions. The 18 months of Solidarity's open existence in 1980-81 generated a great deal of enthusiasm among American workers. The Polish union embodied everything that is best in trade unionism -- the fight for worker dignity, the defense of democratic values, a concern for the poor and a commitment to mass action for peaceful change. It was natural that many American workers would be galvanized by the struggle of the Polish unionists. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid for Poland poured into the AFL-CIO headquarters, as did dozens of offers of printing equipment and technical assistance. Providing such assistance to democratic trade unions has been a longstanding AFL-CIO practice. This policy is deeply rooted in the principle of international labor solidarity. We provided assistance to German trade unionists hounded by the Nazis in the period before World War II, and after the war we assisted German union leaders in building what today is Western Europe's largest trade union movement. And in the mid-1970s, when the fascist regimes of Spain and Portugal fell, we assisted democratic trade unions in their competition with pro-Moscow Communist rivals. The AFL-CIO's assistance to Solidarity had, of course, caught the attention of Poland's Communist authorities. Our material support to the union was used for badly needed printing presses, mimeographs, telexes and other equipment that could only be purchased for hard-to-come-by Western currency. Even before martial law, this open assistance was denounced by the authorities as "direct intervention" in Poland's internal affairs and part of a U.S. plot to destabilize Poland. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland was prevented from traveling to Poland for the union's first national congress in September 1981 -- the only Western trade union leader so honored. Immediately after martial law was declared on Dec. 13, 1981, Kirkland, his assistant Tom Kahn and international-affairs director Irving Brown made a commitment to assist the union in every possible way. The centerpiece of that strategy was a decision to provide assistance only to the Solidarity trade-union movement, despite the merits of other non-union opposition groups. Moreover, they were prepared to provide such assistance over the long haul. In January 1982, I was lucky enough to meet a man who would play a decisive role in the U.S.-Solidarity relationship. Jerzy Milewski, a leading Solidarity activist from Gdansk, and a scientist by training, was in the United States for a conference on lasers the day martial law was proclaimed. I was then working for the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a civil rights organization supported by the AFL-CIO, and was able to put Milewski in contact with the labor federation. Communications with Poland had been broken, tanks were in the streets, thousands of his compatriots had been detained and some workers murdered, but he was surprisingly optimistic. Milewski felt that Solidarity would resurface and that he would be back in the country within two years. Within months, Milewski had established the equivalent of a Solidarity embassy in Brussels. He also had entered into what was to become a close working relationship with the AFL-CIO and other trade unions in the West. In the years ahead, Milewski's Brussels office was to become the official voice of Solidarity in the West. But even more significantly, it was through this bureau that the AFL-CIO would channel assistance to the Solidarity movement in its time of greatest need. By the middle of 1982, hundreds of underground Solidarity groups were functioning. Scores of underground newspapers and bulletins began to appear -- almost immediately posing a challenge to the state- controlled media, where uniformed military officers anchored the nightly TV newscasts. Solidarity's groups were decentralized, but they were united by their fealty to union chairman Lech Walesa and their loyalty to the union's underground executive arm, the Temporary Coordinating Council (TKK). In the years that followed, an elaborate network of assistance and communications operated out of various locations in Western Europe. Scores of couriers traveled to and from Poland with new requests for assistance and with inside information on how the underground was working. The needs of this gradually widening opposition were diverse. Martial law had brought with it the confiscation of all the union's property, the seizure of all its funds and the closing of its offices. American trade-union funds and millions of dollars from the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, grant-making body funded by Congress that supports democratic movements throughout the world, were channeled through the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute. The money underwrote shipments of scores of printing presses, dozens of computers, hundreds of mimeograph machines, thousands of gallons of printer's ink, hundreds of thousands of stencils, video cameras and radio broadcasting equipment. In addition, funds helped the families of imprisoned trade-union activists and defrayed the huge fines that the Polish authorities were levelling against anyone caught with clandestine union literature. Throughout its time underground, Solidarity was also raising funds from its members. Over a million Polish workers were contributing monthly dues to the union's factory and regional structures to help pay the salaries of an estimated 70,000 activists of the underground. By 1985, it was clear that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's plan to deliver a crippling blow to the opposition had failed. There were now over 400 underground periodicals appearing regularly in Poland, some in editions as large as 30,000. Thousands of books and pamphlets were being issued each year in editions that numbered in the thousands. Children's comic books retold classic Polish legends with Jaruzelski as the villain, communism as the red dragon, and Lech Walesa as the heroic knight. Alternative video documentary companies produced popular documentaries seen by millions of viewers in church halls and in homes. Most spectacularly, using equipment provided by American labor, Radio Solidarity frequently made bold breaks into the authorities' radio programming, sending out messages of hope to the broad masses: "Solidarity lives." The slogan caught on. Over the years, the struggle ebbed and flowed. In the first few years after martial law, imprisonment was the preferred form of oppression. Later, with the Polish government pressed by the need for Western economic aid, the style of repression changed -- Solidarity activists faced heavy fines, the confiscation of automobiles and eviction from their homes. The union, too, would adopt new tactics. From across the sea, we followed the travails of the underground, despairing when the leading figure in the clandestine TKK -- Warsaw Solidarity leader Zbigniew Bujak -- was captured after more than five years on the run; rejoicing when hundreds of thousands of Poles turned the papal visit of June 1987 into mass demonstrations for the union; scrambling to find funds for printing presses, computers and stencils when these were seized by the authorities. We had been drawn into the daily drama of Poland's struggle. Much of the story of that struggle and our role in it will have to be told another day. After all, there is still the danger of reversal, and the Ministry of the Interior remains in the hands of the Communists. But it can be said that as American trade unionists, accustomed to working in a free society, regular contact with an underground trade-union movement exposed us to a very different reality: Adam Michnik, now the editor of the Solidarity daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was incarcerated with a fellow activist, an architect named Czeslaw Bielecki. In their cell, the two would debate the essays of Poland's sharpest and most popular underground writer -- Maciej Poleski, all the while speculating on his real identity. Only years later did Michnik learn that Poleski was the pseudonym of his redoubtable cellmate. That same Bielecki remained hidden for years in the underground, while at the same time running his own highly profitable architectural firm and registering it with the authorities. He designed buildings and sustained his family in this way until his arrest in 1985. Together with tales of derring-do, we came to learn the lexicon of the Polish underground: Konspira, conspiracy, the term favored by underground activists to describe their work; sprzet, equipment; gryps, a secret message. One prominent underground activist instructed us on the importance of discretion and secrecy. Holding up one finger, he said: "If this many know, only one knows." Holding up two fingers, he declared: "If this many know, then eleven know." Holding up three digits, he instructed: "And if this many people know, then one hundred eleven know." In September 1986, Jaruzelski proclaimed a major amnesty that released most imprisoned underground activists. In return, the United States lifted many of the sanctions against Poland. The AFL-CIO had been a leading proponent of sanctions and we remained skeptical of removing all of them too soon, or for too little in return. But more significantly, there was now a palpable change of sentiments in Washington. Polish affairs experts and opinion-makers were beginning to speak of a "post-Solidarity" Poland. I recall having a rather heated public exchange with a leading California-based scholar, who had argued that Solidarity was no longer a factor. "Only young people are still part of the underground. And even among them protests are going out of fashion," her argument went. Policy-makers, too, were beginning to retreat from an absolute commitment to Solidarity's relegalization. Wouldn't it be enough to accept the formula of "trade union pluralism?" AFL-CIO officials began to be asked. But through our network of contacts in Poland, we had a glimpse of a different situation. We knew that tens of thousands of people were risking everything for the trade union fight. And we were confident that Solidarity not only was surviving but had shown remarkable resiliency and strong public support. We stood firm and, at the request of the Brussels Solidarity office, began lobbying to increase assistance to the union. Congress voted $1 million through the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute that year and followed it with $1 million in 1988. By 1987, Solidarity was looking for ways to function above ground. It designated some U.S. assistance for medical aid to Poland. Such assistance was channeled through the International Rescue Committee to the union's still-illegal Social Foundation to buy ambulances, diagnostic equipment and medicines. The idea worked. Even the Polish police didn't dare stop the flow of medical aid to a country facing a health-care crisis. At public ceremonies in several cities, discomfited local party leaders stood stone-faced alongside pro-Solidarity clergy and union leaders next to spanking new ambulances adorned with the "Solidarnosc" logo. All the while, the Polish economy continued to unravel. Strikes erupted in May and again in August of 1988. And with each successive wave of labor unrest, the workers of Poland raised the identical slogan: "Nie ma wolnosci bez Solidarnosci" ("There's no freedom without Solidarity"). In the months that followed, more and more visiting Solidarity leaders (now free to travel here, although the AFL-CIO continued to be refused visas to Poland) began to tell us that they would soon strike an accord with the authorities that would result in the union's relegalization. There followed in rapid succession the April 7 "round-table" agreement between Solidarity and the authorities which led to the restructuring of the government, the parliamentary elections with Solidarity's stunning victory, and last Thursday's formation of the first Soviet bloc non-communist government. Today, we watch events unfold with unrestrained joy and admiration. Formerly hounded underground printers are organizing Solidarity's aboveground publishing activities. Former radio pirates are now elected members of Poland's parliament, the Sejm. Writers for the clandestine press have become editors and reporters for Poland's new independent newspapers. Emissaries from the clandestine union leadership are today senators in the Solidarity-controlled upper house. There's a lesson in all this. The 1980s in Poland have proven to be a successful laboratory in democracy-building. Through persistence and loyalty, American unions have stood proudly with a democratic movement that has worked peacefully to transform a Communist society. And while everything has been won by the sweat and toil of the Polish workers alone, the AFL-CIO is proud that Solidarity's leader Lech Walesa has singled us out for being there when his union needed help. But the struggle in Poland is far from over. Now we must help Solidarity rebuild its union structures, prepare for a big role in the mass media and develop the skills necessary to function as a labor organization in a setting of economic disruption and mounting worker indifference. Toward this end, a number of AFL-CIO affiliates have already begun building union-to-union assistance programs in such areas as labor education, occupational safety and health and organizing. Democratic change in Poland will not last if it is the lone example -- a political aberration. Our challenge, therefore, is to respond in different settings and under different conditions to the emerging free trade unions in Hungary and, after July's wave of miners strikes, in the Soviet Union itself. This week, however, we watch as the men and women we've known from afar for so many years begin to shape their nation's future. Adrian Karatnycky directs research and publications for the AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs and coordinates its East European programs.