WASHINGTON — IT was the kind of welcome a shipyard electrician could only have dreamed about. When Poland's Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, came to the United States this week for a seven-day, four-city tour, he met the president, was feted by Congress, and picked up at least two awards. But the most meaningful moment of his first days in Washington, D.C., did not emerge at those traditional seats of power. It came in a crowded convention hall of labor union delegates.
``The time has come to thank you, to thank you for your solidarity with Solidarity,'' Mr. Walesa told the biennial convention of the AFL-CIO Tuesday. ``One easily finds friends when one is successful. But when one is in trouble, there is suddenly hardly anybody to be seen.''
That was Walesa's way of singling out Western labor unions, in particular the AFL-CIO, for its crucial help during Solidarity's darkest days. It is a story that has not been fully told - and a striking example of how Western labor movements have been able at times to expand their political agenda beyond immediate national economic concerns.
``I think this is one of the major success stories of the AFL-CIO and gives it political and moral support'' says Thomas Kochan, industrial relations professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's management school.
Since 1981, the AFL-CIO and several US unions have contributed some $500,000 directly to Solidarity. Another $3.7 million was channeled through the labor federation's Free Trade Union Institute, whose funds came from special congressional appropriations, and from the National Endowment for Democracy, a private grant-making body funded by Congress.
Most of the money went to buy printing equipment to print and distribute publications, and to cover various transportation costs. Such support was badly needed. The Polish government confiscated all of the union's funds and property when it declared martial law on Dec. 13, 1981.
A month later, a Solidarity activist from Gdansk, Jerzy Milewski, made contact with the AFL-CIO and a few months after that, established a Solidarity office in Brussels through which money and goods could be smuggled in.
Some of the equipment donated by US labor allowed Solidarity to interrupt government programming with pirate messages, such as ``Solidarity lives.''
Public messages of support from the AFL-CIO also played a role, keeping pressure on the government and buoying the spirits of the union's ranks. Other Western unions and international labor bodies played an important role, too.
But US-Polish ties were particularly strong. Solidarity sold underground stamps depicting its logo over Europe and the AFL-CIO over the US. ``I don't believe I could have done much in those difficult times without the assistance of brother Kirkland,'' Walesa said of AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland.
There was considerable irony as the East bloc's most famous labor leader embraced on the airport tarmac the leader of the free world's largest trade union movement. By abandoning the Communist slogan ``workers of the world, unite!'' union movements are in fact forging more and stronger international links. It was left to Kazimieras Uoka, a Lithuanian dissident who spoke to the AFL-CIO convention this week, to suggest a better slogan for the East bloc: ``Workers of the world, forgive us!''
The increasing international links between unions take on added importance today as businesses globalize their operations, and unions must try to keep up. But the union links are limited because their political internationalism is matched by their economic nationalism.
At the United Auto Workers, for example, ``by and large they have not been able to work closely with any effective results with unions in countries where they have been hurt the most,'' says Charles Craypo, an economics professor at Notre Dame University. Thus the union's ties to Japanese and Korean unions have not amounted to much. What is more, ``Central and Eastern Europe could be tomorrow's Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.''
Jeff Faux, president of a labor-supported think tank here called the Economic Policy Institute, goes even further. ``We are going to quite quickly lose more influence in the world. And we need to reconstitute the American economy,'' he says. Western European unions may be headed toward greater internatonalism as their nations integrate, but the US labor movement will turn inward.