Sometime next week Poland's Supreme Court is to rule on the bid by the country's private farmers to form their own union. The verdict will determine just how long the breathing space won by the latest compromise with the independent workers' union Solidarity might last. Tensions were lowered but not removed by the Jan. 31 agreement over working hours.
Only a decision allowing peasant freeholders to form their own union can calm them the way the registration of Solidarity itself calmed the nationwide industrial unrest last November.
"Rural Solidarity" is one of three farmers' movements in the country. Communist Party leader Stanislaw Kania has come to out so strongly against all three that it may be difficult for him to back off. Yet it seems clear he has no option but to accept them, provided they give a formal disavowal of politics as Solidarity did last fall.
If he does not, an adverse court judgment will almost certainly provoke another crisis. For Solidarity has pledged full support for all three farmers' movements and proposed liaison for future urban and rural union activity.
If any further reminder was needed of the strength and resolution behind Solidarity, January provided it. Each day brought a fresh crop of warning strikes, sit-ins, and stoppages. Up and down the country, industrial plants came to a standstill. Factories that did continue working announced themselves ready to strike.
Issues were broadly the same everywhere: impatience at the slow implementation of the initial strike settlements, support for the farmers, demands for an end of foot-dragging by regional authorities.
Last year's unrest started off on bread-and-butter issues: pay, rising prices , food shortages. Wages have since been hiked 16 percent and social benefits 30 percent for 1981, and basic prices controlled. Food shortages have been slightly alleviated.
But these are old issues. "We are not striking about the state of the market now," a Solidarity official commented. Nor was that the complaint behind last month's strikes, or the mood that persists despite the compromise, which dealt only with "free Saturdays" and a 40-hour week.
Now there are deeper issues that Solidarity perceives as vital to its very existence. Apart from the procrastination over the promised laws on labor relations, including the right to strike and reduced censorship, the union had become more and more embittered by what it saw as the government's halfheartedness on consultation.
"They call us 'partners,'" a spokesman said, "yet they didn't bother to consult about Saturday working, for example, until we forced them."
What happened last month was very much a test of wills. The party had apparently decided to try a tougher line -- and Solidarity responded in the only way it could.
For both it was a novel situation. East-bloc governments are not accustomed to negotiating with independent unions; Solidarity is the first of its breed.
"We have to gain experience," Lech Walesa, its leader, admits. "We have to learn to negotiate." But not all of his associates on the union's national committee think as he does.
On the government side, even the best-intentioned officials still have much to learn. It is not easy for a regime accustomed for three decades to making all decisions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to switch, overnight, to genuine consultation with the people.
Even party chief Stanislaw Kania shows himself uneasy about "political" trends and people within Solidarity. Many lower down in the party apparatus view the union with open displeasure or outright hostility. To them the dispute over "free Saturdays" must have seemed a good opportunity to undermine the union.
Thus Solidarity says it "had no option but to meet pressure with pressure." Its resolve obviously succeeded.
Many Poles are tired of strikes and appreciate the immensity of the government's economic difficulties. But there is no sign that the public has lost sympathy with the union over the stand it took on its right to be consulted and informed.
However hard it is pressed by critics elsewhere in the East bloc, the regime cannot go back on its pledges.Solidarity is too strong. It is not only unique in the communist world. No government anywhere in the world is faced with such a single, mass national union of this kind backed by the spontaneous goodwill of virtually a whole nation.
Poles themselves are having to adjust to something new, even strange, in their lives. At the local level, elections for union governing committees are crowded, lively affairs with confused arguments about procedures and just who may be nominated. But the essence of the thing is there, taking root.
A reporter asked two women workes in one enterprise election how it compared with past elections. "Well," they said, "last year the management gave us a list of candidates; now we have democracy and people put up the names themselves."
The fateful question for the government is how far this new democracy can "safely" be allowed to go. The answer perhaps lies most with Solidarity.
[Reuters news agency reports that East Germany is describing the situation in Poland as catastrophic and has accused Solidarity of working openly toward overthrowing the communist system. In the sharpest East German attack yet on the Polish labor movement, the official ADN news agency said Solidarity was close to bringing about the collapse of the economy.]
[In Moscow, the Soviet news agency Tass said in a report from Warsaw Feb. 2 that the Polish working class was expecting the authorities to take action to repel "counterrevolution" in view of the serious situ ation in Poland.]