There is a lot that Americans ought to be thinking about this Labor Day. One of them is Poland.
"Solidarity," confounding the conventional wisdom, has survived its first year and has just convened a national congress. The Soviets have fumed and hectored, but they have not sent troops in. For now, it looks as if their invasion is political, not military. They are, after all, at least as expert in subverting as in physcially occupying other countries, and we may expect intensified pressures aimed at dividing Solidarity and undermining its popular support.
Meanwhile, the Soviets have directed their other East European satellites to batten down the hatches, a signal that Poland may not be the only Warsaw Pact nation susceptible to the free trade union virus.
No one can rule out a Soviet resort to brute force, if their other tactics fail. The Western democracies should be prepared with an array of punishing economic and political measures, foreknowledge of which might be decisive in deterring the Soviets.
But preoccupation with a Soviet invasion leads to inertia or to purely negative and reactive policies, to be triggered by the Soviets at a time of their own choosing. What is needed is a policy that meets the present Soviet challenge by actively encouraging the democratic dynamic in Poland--now.
The members of the AFL-CIO have contributed a quarter of a million dollars to purchase office supplies and equipment specifically requested by Solidarity. We have provided copies of collective bargaining agreements, shop steward manuals and other technical information Solidarity has asked for. We have cooperated with church and other organizations planning food shipments to Poland.
Beyond this, Solidarity needs moral support from the West. But what, precisely, are we supporting?
Some people applaud Solidarity simply because they see it as presaging a breakup of the communist system. They are indifferent to the issue of workers' rights.
Others insist that the democratic movement in Poland was the result of d,etente or Western credits. According to one version, the strikes took place because Western banks pressed the Polish government to cut meat subsidies.
In fact, the strikes took place because the workers of Poland decided to assert their inherent rights as workers. Their demands transcended meat prices or other narrow economic matters. They created and demanded recognition of a free and independent union, in accordance with Convention 87 of the International Labor Organization, ratified by the Polish government.
Because they understood that a union cannot function in the absence of respect for human rights generally, they called for freedom of expression and worship, access to the media, an end to censorship--the panoply of freedoms embodied in our Bill of Rights.
They offered a profound lesson in the inseparability of trade union rights and human rights, of socioeconomic rights and civil-political rights. And, in the process, Solidarity became the vehicle of a broad national movement for democracy.
Their strike is "illegal." (How can workers strike against a "workers' state"?) But the abuse of law was not by the workers but by the government that imposed it. Beyond that, the profound question at stake is whether the issue of human freedom can be effectively unlinked from doctrinaire arguments about the ownership and control of the means of production.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower answered this question in a speech to an AFL convention nearly 30 years ago:
"The right of men to leave their jobs is a test of freedom. Hitler suppressed strikes. Stalin suppresses strikes. . . . But that suppresses freedom. There are some things worse, much worse, than strikes--one of them is the loss of freedom."
Respect for workers' rights is a mainstay of democracy. Strikes are inconvenient, and can almost always be avoided by tough, good-faith bargaining. But the right to strike is a test of freedom.
I commend Eisenhower's words to President Reagan on this Labor Day. By treating the air controllers' strike as a criminal offense instead of a labor dispute--because the controllers, like the workers in Gdansk, are employed by the government--he has only reaffirmed a proposition never regarded as in real dispute: that an elephant can crush a fly. By using the full weight of the government to destroy a small union, he has diminished the moral support that this nation owes the workers of Poland. He has given the Soviets a propaganda weapon.
Worse, he has failed a test of freedom.