Though Solidarity was outlawed seven years ago, the labor union remains an important force in Poland.

So important that the Communist Party in Warsaw is merely recognizing reality by approving steps this week that could lead to the eventual re-legalization of the first independent trade union in Eastern Europe.But the move is an act not of good will but of necessity, brought on by inflation, shortages of consumer goods, impatient foreign creditors, and the realization that government reforms will go nowhere as long as Solidarity is illegal.

Moreover, though this about-face on the part of the regime in Warsaw represents a breakthrough in the direction of freedom, it is certainly a limited improvement. That's because the strings attached to the offer of legalization are so restrictive that the deal would be rejected out of hand by just about any other union elsewhere. The conditions include a two-year moratorium on strikes, a renunciation by Solidarity of funds from the U.S. government, and a declaration by the union that it is an "integral part of socialism." If Solidarity is forced to embrace an ideology and stripped of the right to strike, it will be more like a discussion club than a labor union.

But few, if any, unions elsewhere face such pervasive repression as there is in Eastern Europe. Besides, plenty of union-management contracts in the Free World include temporary no-strike clauses; the key word is "temporary." Consequently, another bit of western labor strategy seems appropriate to Solidarity's situation: accept half a loaf now, then keep pressing for more concessions later.

In short, limited, grudging concessions are better than none at all. If Solidarity is wise, it will accept a limited offer that amounts to being put on probation by Poland's jailers but keep striving to improve the union's status and scope of operation.