Some farmers and unions -- not always friends -- join forces

When the chips are down, the cooperative spirit comes alive. So it is with two groups of different American workers who normally have little reason to join forces. But because farmers and labor unions are losing influence and suffering economic hardship, some members of each group are trying to form political alliances.

``We are convinced the political system is the name of the ballgame,'' says Charlie Pearl, president of the Central Missouri Labor Council. His organization is trying to organize farmer and labor voters by congressional districts to elect jointly supported candidates.

``Can you imagine the kind of influence and political clout we would have -- not only in . . . state capitals but also in Washington, D.C., -- if we had an active farm-labor alliance in each congressional district?'' he asks.

Signs of alliance, which seem to be limited to protest farm organizations, are springing up in the Midwest. And even the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., is beginning to read the message:

In Iowa, the United Automobile Workers have joined a farm unity coalition and are helping recruit new farmers. UAW president Owen Bieber, in a speech to the National Farmers Union last month, said the UAW would ``walk the halls of Congress'' with farm representatives to get appropriate farm policies.

In St. Louis last month, representatives of several farm protest groups and labor organizations agreed to a draft bill that in effect would raise current commodity prices and not allow them to fall below a certain level.

After reaching an agreement last fall, the Central Missouri Labor Council is helping the American Agriculture Movement Inc. press two pieces of legislation in Missouri -- a floor on prices for farm products and a form of a farm-foreclosure moratorium.

The executive council of the AFL-CIO is looking at the proposals drafted in St. Louis and could support some version of them at its May meeting, says Murray Seeger, a federation spokesman. ``There's no ideological difference'' between the two groups, he adds, only technicalities to iron out.

Such an alliance would not bring farmers into the labor movement, farm and union leaders caution.

``We're not talking about unionizing farmers,'' says Wayne Cryts, president of the Missouri American Agriculture Movement. ``We're talking about an alliance that will work together.''

Farm and labor leaders admit they have a long way to go to overcome the historical dislike between rural farmers and the traditionally urban unions.

Historically, farmer-labor alliances have been ``short-lived and mostly ineffective,'' says Wayne Rasmussen, historian for the US Department of Agriculture. In the 1920s, for example, a farmer-labor party was set up but never developed much strength in national politics, although it became strong in North Dakota and Minnesota, he says.

These kinds of alliances spring up especially during hard times.

``I wouldn't be surprised to see that whole movement pick up this year,'' Mr. Rasmussen says. But once prosperity returns, ``there's such a diversity of need that there's very little to bring them together except opposition to huge interests,'' such as corporations, he says.

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