For more than a year now Polish authorities have gritted their teeth and accepted strikes by Polish students and workers. But the sit-in of 300 cadets at a firefighters' academy in Warsaw clearly pushed the regime beyond the threshold of tolerance. Hundreds of Polish troops and police stormed the academy and dislodged the cadets in what is described as the largest use of force against Solidarity since the free trade union movement was formed.
Doubtless Polish party leader Wojciech Jaruzelski would have preferred to avoid such a confrontation, which tends to heighten public tensions and play into the hands of union radicals. But, inasmuch as firefighters are a paramilitary force and the academy is in the military school system, it was probably felt that a demonstration of force was necessary if the party and government were to preserve their position with Warsaw Pact allies and hardliners at home. It is not inconceivable that, having broken the cadet sit-in, General Jaruzelski may later proceed to meet some of the student demands in order to calm the situation and conciliate public opinion.
Whether this means that the regime intends to get tougher with the union in general remains to be seen. The communist party has been making noises about asking Parliament to ban strikes, marches, and other forms of protest in order to end Poland's labor turmoil. Such sounds are ominous. But they may be designed more as a warning to the union than as a serious threat. The right to strike, after all, was part and parcel of last year's agreement in Gdansk between the government and Solidarity. On the face of it, it would be politically foolhardy for the party to rescind the right that lies at the very heart of independent trade unionism. Such a move risks isolating the regime even more.
However, even while the three main forces in Poland - the ruling party, Solidarity, and the Roman Catholic Church - continue to grope for a workable political structure, there is evidence that the Polish people themselves have grown weary of the endless confrontations. Polls show that 24 percent of Solidarity members would welcome a suspension of the right to strike. Some union leaders are said to see the strike weapon as less and less useful.
In any case, the storming of the Warsaw academy is but the latest reminder that Poland continues to walk a tightrope as it overturns the old order and establishes the new. Revolutions are not made in a day and it may be a long while before the present chaos begins to resolve itself. But the outside world cannot but wonder when the Poles will begin pulling together.