Polish peasants won't take 'no' for an answer

It grew from a handful of peasant farmers in eastern Poland; today it shakes the whole land. It's the movement to set up an independent peasant farmers' union recognized by the Communist regime.

The private farmers first met in the village of Lisow in September 1978. There they started the peasant labor union that has become the major question mark hanging over the regime's efforts to revive its failing agriculture.

Two years later the farmers came to Warsaw and formed the founding committee of the independent agricultural labor unions. Today the movement has grown from a mere handful of backers to claim support of more than one-third of the 3.5 million individual landowners who produce 75 percent of this nation's food.

So far the government has given the farmers' demands for a union a flat "no." And the courts have rejected registration as a union on the ground the farmers are self-employed. They could form associations, it said, but not a union like Solidarity, the independent organization that Poland's 10 million industrial and white-collar workers won in last summer's strikes.

But a series of stubborn farmers' sit-ins since January have won a string of concessions that add up to a considerable departure from usual communist practice -- even in a communist state that had collectivized only 10 percent of the land before it abandoned the practice in 1957. The government's concessions include:

* A shift to equal distribution of financial aids, inputs, and resources between state and private sectors.

* Priority for individual farmers in acquiring more land and freedom to expand holdings up to 50 hectares (125 acres). In the rich farmland of western Poland, some may even be allowed to have 100 hectares.

* Modification of the plants producing farm machinery to provide the smaller tractors and tools required for small farms. Such factories traditionally have been geared to the needs of the vast state farms, which use larger equipment.

The present regime, in fact, has conceded almost everything the farmers have been demanding for years --except their trade union.

The Communist Party opposes the idea of a farmers' trade union because it sees the countryside as a political vacuum where the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is at its strongest and its own influence is minimal. It considers Rural Solidarity too great a potential political challenge, especially since the party as a whole is shaken by internal pressures for reform. But when one talks with party officials, one feels that is conventional dogma rather than a rational assessment of the issue.

Nevertheless, the power the Catholic Church has among the peasantry was obvious when farmers were occupying the former trade union headquarters in Rzeszow in January in an effort to force legalization of a local chapter of Rural Solidarity.

The farmers won a first-ever pledge of guaranteed title to land, to be backed by full legislative safeguards. The promised legislation is to remove any possibility that some future communist government might try again to "socialize" the countryside.

But the government also gave its own Agricultural Circles -- successors to a once-popular village institution -- a boost, with a far-reaching statute on "self-government." The intention, apparently, is to make them the conduit for credit and resources to the private sector.

There are 30,000 such Agricultural Circles. On paper, more than 2 million peasant farmers are members. But mismanagement, corruption, and manipulation by self-seeking officials have caused the farmers to lose confidence in those organizations in recent years.

"The circles are stifled by orders, documents, and bureaucratic stupidity," an individual pig-breeder told this writer on a recent farm tour, "and by officials and clerks who know nothing of agriculture. They do nothing for us."

The director of a huge state farm near Poznan railed at the size of his administrative staff. It was forced on him, he said, by "people who think paperwork more important than raising production."

But the Bydgoszcz incident that sparked this most recent threat of a general strike may have pushed things the farmers' way. It started with a demonstration by 100 farmers demanding new elections for the local circles. It ended with the police violence that roused national anger.

The subsequent concessions to Solidarity for calling off the strike include a government promise to "reconsider" legalizing the farmers' union.

The decline of agriculture because of increasing peasant discontent and frustration lay at the heart of the industrial unrest and economic breakdown that led to last year's outburst. Many party members believe there can be no peace nor cooperation between farmers and regime if their wish for a union is brushed aside.

One commented: "The government knows now it cannot do anything without the peasants. The peasants know there must be some organization for channeling resources to the private sector. But they insist on it being their own. Does the name really matter?"

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