Farmers roll into Warsaw to press demand for a union of their own

Platoons of Polish farmers straode into Warsaw Tuesday hopeful that a court would allow them to form an independent union to fight for a "new deal" for private agriculture.

The Supreme Court postponed the decision on whether to legalize "Rural Solidarity," but the farmers remain staunch in their demands.

The small-holding farmers have already been promised better things as part of the wide-ranging program of social and political "renewal" pledged by the new leadership in its efforts to cool off the summer crisis.

Those pledges meant they would received mre money for some of their products -- an emergency step to improve the market situation. There was also foreshadowing of a move to divert more capital into agriculture, especially the private sector.

But most of the 3 million private farmers who cultivate 75 to 80 percent of Poland's arable land remain skeptical. Like other sectors of Polish working society, they had "heard it before."

They looked on while industrial workers in the hundreds of thousands -- and eventually millions -- rallied to the new Solidarity independent trade union movement. And they watched as the fledgling unionists appealed a lower court ruling that had held up their legal registration -- and won.

This was all they needed to begin organizing Rural Solidarity. Despite a show of official Communist Party opposition, it quickly received the backing of individual farmers from throughout the country.

In October a lower court rejected their application for registration. The case was to have been reheard by the Supreme Court in Warsaw Tuesday, with ample evidence that the farmers had built up enough support to play a major role in the reform movement.

The lower court had ruled against the union on the ground that its members, as private farmers, were self-employed and therefore not qualified for membership in a trade union. A compromise settlement was expected to emerge from the Supreme Court hearing (much as one had over the initial Solidarity charter).

The farmers are basing their appeal on a five-year-old convention of the Geneva-based international farmworkers organization which, they claim, specifically cover peasant farmers working their own land.

The Supreme Court adjourned the hearing, pending official translation of the internation convention. And there are indications this may offer a way around a problem that could cause the authorities more difficulty in one of its most vital crisis areas -- food supplies.

For a quarter of a century, Polish farmers have had it very good, compared with their collectivized brethren elsewhere in East Europe. They are, for all intents and purposes, "free" farmers. They can cooperate with the state farms and other official agricultural institutions to supply state markets or sell at better prices on the "free" market.

But they also have a strong case for demanding more. For years the regime has promised them more land and greater access to machinery and other farm inputs. But these aims have often been frustrated by hard-line local readers opposed to private farming at any price.

The consequent neglect and frustration of the private sector -- even though the state must depend on it for most the country's meat, dairy products, and other basic foodstuffs -- prove to be a decisive factor in the crisis that almost brought the country to an economic standstill in August.

The farmers want large cuts in the subsidies that keep big state farms going despite their constant losses. They also want more land.

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