There is a political stalemate in Poland between the regime and the people and a policy stalemate in the West over what to do about it. In these circumstances, an odd duck of a United Nations agency known as the International Labor Organization gets awfully interesting.

The ILO is that rare U.N. agency with a mass constituency--workers--and with considerable prestige in much of the world, although it is little known here. It owes its strength to the equal and direct role that workers, along with employer representatives and government officials, play in it. Americans appreciate the ILO for being one of the few U.N. agencies to have survived the political wars with its procedural fairness intact. The communist countries appreciate it as the single grouping in which all workers of the world do in fact unite.

The ILO has a special relevance in Poland arising from the fact that its Polish constituency, the work force, is the critical element in the national political mix. The pre-Solidarity government of Poland ratified the key ILO "conventions" (agreed international standards) on freedom of association and on collective bargaining. Solidarity invoked these conventions to secure recognition. But even since martial law was imposed 15 months ago, Warsaw has acknowledged the ILO's competence to seek respect for its standards--the regime has argued, unconvincingly, that its new labor arrangements meet them.

At the recent meeting of its governing body in Geneva, the ILO came down hard on Poland. For months the organization had been pursuing the regime for its labor practices, aware that too hard a pursuit could lead to a Polish withdrawal ending ILO influence but alert to the need to enforce its standards. As a result of intense debate between and within many delegations, including the American, the ILO had granted the Poles two delays to answer its queries.

At Geneva in March, the Poles for the first time stayed home, raising the question of whether they might let their membership lapse; they are already in default on dues. The ILO responded by giving them until April 15 to respond. If they do not, a prosecutorial "commission of inquiry"--by ILO criteria a harsh sanction --will be established. The vote was 46 (including the Third World) to 4 (three Soviet votes plus Cuba).

The question now is this: what's in it for Wojciech Jaruzelski to get back into the good graces of the ILO? He needs worker support to get Poland moving again, but he does not want to appear to be yielding prestige or power. Presumably, he does not look forward to the isolation and ignominy that would come from being outside the ILO pale. Nor can he relish the further trouble he would have in explaining to Poland's workers why he broke with a familiar organization devoted to securing their rights. But he would no doubt accept these costs, or the Soviet Union would compel him to, if the authority of his regime were at stake.

We come now to the consideration that leads the Americans closest to the ILO to wonder whether Jaruzelski might decide to work with the ILO after all. Poland remains a failing place, and no rescue is imaginable without some real support for the regime in the work place--support that official compliance with ILO standards might well earn.

According to the AFL-CIO, which speaks for American workers in the ILO, Jaruzelski could if he chose start restoring worker rights even within the terms of his existing labor legislation. A range of knowledgeable Americans asks if he might not respond sooner to the balanced, legalistic recommendations of a respected international body than, say, to the challenges of a Western government regarded as hostile.

The Labor Department traditionally fields the official American delegates to the ILO; these delegates are guided in the Polish policy aspect by the State Department, whose secretary is a former secretary of labor with, fortunately, excellent AFL-CIO contacts and his own continuing interest in the ILO. At ILO meetings, the American delegates have been appropriately tough on Polish labor violations. But they have given the Polish regime credit on the occasions when some credit has been due in order to gain some credibility with the Poles and in any event to maintain a united front with other delegations. The American delegates state--and reliable witnesses affirm--that their interest is not simply to make propaganda but to steer the Poles toward cooperation.

Overall the outlook in Poland is bleak. But the ILO's current proceedings and standard procedures provide some sort of window of opportunity: for Solidarity, for the Jaruzelski regime and for Poland.