A GRIM little quip is making the rounds, an attempt at trans-Atlantic irony intended in a general way to humble Americans and in a specific way to put down those of us who have been sympathetic to the government's side in the air controllers' strike. Isn't it odd, it is said, meaning isn't it hypocritical, that the mass of workers in Poland are being hailed for standing up to the government-- even breaking the law --while here in the United States a particular group of workers is being harshly punished for taking precisely the same stand? Who's free, after all?

Let us attempt to pierce the fog. In both countries workers are asserting a right to strike against the government. But there the similarities end. The government Polish workers are striking against is one whose legitimacy is under heavy chal lenge, and for good reason: notwithstanding recent changes, it remains a government chosen largely by a small and self-selected segment of the people. The laws this government attempts to enforce are still seen, accurately, as the policy choices of a minority enforced by the threat of military intervention by the troops of an outside power. Polish workers have been striking to create a labor union, to gain acceptance of the very idea of one, and to create some measure of political freedom and choice.

By contrast, the government the American air controllers are striking against is one whose legitimacy is completely well-founded and accepted, and again for good reason: it is a government chosen in free and fair elections by the whole American people. The laws this government attempts to enforce are seen, accurately, as a reflection of the national will and the work of an elected national legislature. The air controllers are a special group whose members 1) work for the government and 2) formally surrendered their right to strike as a condition of employment. If they were merely having some sort of argument with the government, that would be one thing. That happens daily, hundreds or thousands of times. But the air controllers are not merely having an argument, they are breaking a law in a democratic country where the rule of law prevails.

There is just enough superficial resemblance between the American and Polish situations to make some Americans hang their heads at the thought that things are actually freer in Poland. It may help to be Polish in 1981 to understand how absurd that suggestion is.