The strike at Gdansk's Lenin Shipyard in northern Poland, which expanded yesterday to include 7,500 workers, presents the most disturbing threat yet for the communist regime. The Lenin yard was Solidarity's birthplace in the turbulent August of 1980. The quiet, unyielding sit-in there, during a fortnight of negotiation between the embryo union and the government, sparked a ``prairie fire'' of strike action in all the Baltic ports. Twice, in fact, in 1970 and again in 1980, the whole region has erupted with such unanimity and force as to topple the Communist Party leader of the day.
It must be the present leadership's gravest concern that with a continued Gdansk stoppage, events might take a similar course.
The scene at the yard this week was strikingly reminiscent of 1980.
Marshals wearing Solidarity's old red and white armbands guarded the entrances. And from the walls flapped banners and slogans, calling for the ``unbanning'' of the union.
Lech Walesa, leader of the outlawed Solidarity, told strikers at the Gdansk shipyard yesterday:
``We won't get more bread through strikes. But I believe the only possible way to put Poland on the road to reform, the only answer, must be a decisive protest.''
He did not elaborate on the forms further protest should take. But when workers bombarded him with questions about the prospect of negotiations with management at the yard over pay, he said: ``We have time. We are patient. Nothing is pressing us. Let us wait.''
Sympathizers pressed against the closed main gate to hand through flowers until police pushed them back, though apparently without the violence used against May Day demonstrators the day before.
Solidarity itself seemed to have been taken by surprise by the first of the strikes - at Bydgoszcz - which was led by the government-approved unions and was quickly settled by a big pay increase.
Solidarity can no longer bring people out onto the streets or halt industry at large any more than the government can make an effective appeal for restraint in the interests of the economy or convince people its reform package is for real.
It is not easy for Solidarity to coordinate nationally through an executive commission whose members are scattered throughout the country. The detention Monday of seven of its leading members seems clearly intended to forestall any further coordination of protest.
But the failure of the public to rally to Mr. Walesa's call for a ``day of action'' can also be attributed to the sheer resignation with which most Poles regard the country's continued economic stagnation.
``People are much too tired for a repeat of 1980 and '81,'' says a Warsaw official acquaintance, a one-time Solidarity enthusiast and still a reformer. ``As for reform, it has come to mean nothing but ever higher prices.''
But the government is finding it no easier to reassure ordinary, underpaid Poles and ward off a more explosive political situation.
In his May day address, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski said the past was ``outlived and beyond recall,'' but ``the new is being too slowly born.''
The Polish leader warned that excessive pay demands could prompt a new collapse of the market. Yet, in their concern to stop the strikes spreading, the authorities granted hefty pay raisesregardless of the danger of increased inflation.
``There is only one way out of the present impasse,'' said one longtime observer of the Polish scene in a telephone conversation with Warsaw this week. ``And that is for Jaruzelski and Walesa to meet and talk.''
For more than a year, some members of the government have favored such a meeting. Walesa has consistently - for all the occasional rhetoric - signaled readiness for talks without pre-conditions. But, as recently as last week, government spokesman was still dismissing Walesa as a figure from ``old folklore'' who ``says one thing on day, and something else another.''
One of Walesa's former political advisers, Bronislaw Geremek, suggested recently that, in view of the nation's sense of hopelessness and frustration, it was time for an ``anticrisis pact'' between Solidarity and the authorities. The latter, he said, is aware of the need for sweeping changes, yet seems unable sufficiently to free themselves of the martial law psychology to give them effect. Though it was published by the pro-government Patriotic Renewal Movement, the party's theoretical journal quickly dismissed the suggestion.