Trade unions in agriculture examined

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Agriculture, which employs more than 4 million people (nearly a third of all those in employment), constitutes an important segment of the Polish economy and labour market. Despite this, organisations assembling agricultural workers are not directly represented in national social dialogue institutions, though this has not prevented them from repeatedly demonstrating their power to mobilise protests. This article examines the development of agricultural and farmers' unions and the situation as of summer 2004.

A considerable proportion of the Polish population - almost 15 million people, or 38% of the total - lives in rural areas. Agriculture remains an important sector of the national economy, with more than 4 million people (almost a third of those in employment) holding jobs in agriculture or forestry. At the same time, agriculture is a sector that has been hit relatively hard by the political and economic reforms of recent years, and the country’s transformation was especially painful for small-scale farmers.

Prior to 1989, Polish agriculture was unique in the eastern bloc due to the fact that, while the country operated a command economy, much of the agricultural sector remained in private hands. While a number of vast, state-owned agricultural operations were grouped together (in Państwowe Gospodarstwa Rolne, PGR), attempts at collectivisation of Polish agriculture generally met with failure. As a result, at the beginning of economic reform, many pundits looked to agriculture with considerable hope, expecting this bastion of private property to lead the way in adapting to new market realities. These hopes proved unfounded. Furthermore, the heritage of the former state-owned collective farms has engendered a serious social problem, according to some experts, with their former workers and their families beginning to coalesce into what some see as a new Polish 'underclass'.

Trade unions and other organisations

At present, there are a dozen or so unions operating within Poland’s agricultural sector. The most important are: the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity of Individual Farmers (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Rolników Indywidualnych Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność RI); the National Union of Farmers and Farming Clubs and Organisations (Krajowy Związek Rolników, Kółek i Organizacji Rolniczych, KZRKiOR); and the Self Defence Agriculture Trade Union (Związek Zawodowy Rolnictwa 'Samoobrona', 'Samoobrona'). These three bodies are not directly represented in Poland's various social dialogue institutions (PL0210106F). The two national trade union confederations, the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy 'Solidarność', NSZZ Solidarność) and the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ), also incorporate structures which represent agriculture workers, but their position is not as strong as that of the first three organisations named.

The history of NSZZ Solidarność RI dates back to 1980, when an independent union movement was stirring among farmers at the same time as discontented elements in the Gdansk shipyards and other industrial operations were protesting and laying the foundations of the Solidarność trade union. The farmers’ Solidarność RI was officially registered in 1981 and Jan Kułaj took the position of chair. Following the imposition of martial law in December 1981, Solidarność RI - much like the other newly established independent unions - was 'delegalised'. It was reactivated in 1989 under the leadership of Józef Ślisz, and some of its members went into activities of a strictly political character, distancing themselves from trade union affairs. NSZZ Solidarność RI maintained its organisational independence from NSZZ Solidarność. During the 1990s, more radical elements came to the fore within NSZZ Solidarność RI, and the union entered a number of tactical alliances with other farmers’ organisations. NSZZ Solidarność RI is presently led by Roman Wierzbicki. According to the union, its membership currently stands at some 400,000 members, although it is unclear how many of this number keep up with their regular contributions to the organisation.

KZRKiOR is the strongest social and occupational organisation of farmers in terms of numbers. It draws on the heritage of the 'agricultural club' movement, with traditions going back for over a century. The agricultural clubs were self-help organisations for the rural population, working towards the educational and economic betterment of their members. The agricultural clubs movement underwent a period of particularly intensive growth after the Second World War, and it was at this time that it began to evolve in the direction of advocating the occupational interests of farmers. The union has been able to weather the political and economic upheaval since 1989, and it remains a potent force in the Polish countryside. It is presently led by Władysław Serafin. The strength of the union relies largely on its robust field structures which, according to KZRKiOR itself, comprise over 22,000 agricultural clubs with an aggregate membership in excess of 1 million people - the vast majority of whom, over 800,000, are women assembled in the Rural Homemakers’ Clubs, (Koła Gospodyń Wiejskich)). KZRKiOR also encompasses 48 regional farmers’ unions, almost 1,000 agricultural club cooperatives, and 1,700 communal farmers’ unions.

The third agricultural union is that affiliated to Self Defence (Samoobrona), a populist political party led by Andrzej Lepper. Formally, the union is an autonomous entity, distinct from the political party bearing the same name. In practice, however, both groups draw on the same infrastructure and the same membership base, the latter being quite difficult to quantify. In chronological terms, the emergence of the union preceded the establishment of the party. Self Defence first achieved prominence in the early 1990s by way of the disorderly public demonstrations it staged, many of them allegedly involving criminal offences (such as assault of local officials and removing them from their places of work in wheelbarrows). A significant improvement of the twin Self Defence structures’ standing came under the government led by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek (1997-2001), a time during which the two other main agricultural unions also gained influence. Self Defence was able to translate its growing presence into success at the general elections in 2001, when a number of its representatives won seats in the lower chamber of parliament.

Other organisations with a significant presence in rural communities include the Volunteer Fire Brigades (Ochotnicza Straż Pożarna, OSP) network and the agricultural chambers.

Attitudes and actions

Farmers comprise a social group which, from the very outset of the reform process, did not hesitate actively to protest against those aspects of government policy that they viewed as contravening the interests of rural Poland. These protests have had something of a cyclical element to them, with the first wave occurring in the 1989-1993 period (during which a total of 112 farmers’ protests was recorded). Initially, these various demonstrations were directed against the 'shock therapy' economic reforms of the time, which soon brought a breakdown in sales of agricultural produce. The farmers began to demand guaranteed minimum prices for their products. Many became caught up in a spiral of debt, when loans taken out in the final years of the command economy suddenly became subject to interest at new rates, adjusted to take account of runaway inflation. In a distortion of the usual relations between left and right, and old and new, which is fairly typical of Polish politics, the protests against the country’s first non-communist cabinets were spearheaded by NSZZ Solidarność RI. Already at that time, the farmers' organisations demonstrated that, when the collective interest of the agricultural community warrants it, they are capable of forging alliances which override historical differences (ie collaboration between NSZZ Solidarność RI and the agricultural clubs). It was at this time that the blockading of public roads gained much popularity among farmers as a means of expressing dissatisfaction and of pressuring the government, and for years roadblocks remained the favoured formula for farmers' demonstrations. In 1991, employees of the defunct state-owned farming collectives around the country staged a large-scale strike.

Early 1992 saw the emergence of Self Defence, a new farmers’ organisation which remained apart from its predecessors, dismissing them as being embroiled in dubious inter-relationships with the ruling establishment. The first peak of Self Defence’s mobilisation arrived in the summer of 1992, when 'strike forces' of farmers led by the union’s activists set out from various parts of the country with the declared objective of converging on the capital (they were dispersed by the police before they actually reached Warsaw). As the 1990s wore on, the mood in the countryside became calmer, thanks to an improvement of the overall economic situation as well as to softer government policies - at that time, the Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL), the successor of a rural organisation tracing its roots to the early 20th century, was a junior partner in the government.

The next wave of farmers' protests occurred in 1998 and 1999. This new outbreak of farmer militancy was caused by a combination of internal factors (institutional reforms of the state launched by a new government) and external ones (a sharp drop in produce exports to Russian markets). Most of the demands voiced by the demonstrating farmers were of an economic nature - eg barriers against food imports, and guarantees of the profitability of farming and animal husbandry through an intervention buying system. The blockades of highways and of border crossings familiar from previous farmers' campaigns were augmented with a new tactic - dumping trainloads of foreign grain being brought into the country by rail. Marian Zagórny, one of the NSZZ Solidarność RI leaders, became a familiar face in the national media because of such operations, and the radical elements within his union came to the fore. While all three major farmers' unions cooperated during this round of protests, Self Defence was consistently pursuing a parallel track of political activity, remaking itself into a populist group embracing frustrated and disenfranchised people from all social groups. Self Defence expressed this newfound party identity by increasingly accentuating differences separating it from the other two farmers’ unions, and when NSZZ Solidarność RI and KZRKiOR reached a compromise agreement with the government, Self Defence initially withheld its endorsement and only joined the pact several months later, when the fighting mood among the farmers began to wane.

Subsequent victories for Self Defence, which secured a strong presence in parliament after the elections of 2001 and continued to capitalise on this success over the next few years, sealed the shift in its internal dynamic; the farmers’ union was now clearly 'playing second fiddle' to the political party. Attempts at setting off a new wave of protests in the summer of 2002 were not successful, but 2003 brought several dozen demonstrations. The demands of the farmers were now centred on perceived problems with European integration and with globalisation. The immediate triggers for action, meanwhile, were usually of a more day-to-day economic nature. Simmering protests, and the hint that these can be either stopped or unleashed with unmitigated force, represent an additional bargaining point for farmers in negotiations over minimum prices for farm produce.

Over 2003-4, all debates about agriculture have centred on Poland’s accession to the European Union and its implications, especially as regards direct subsidies. The strong scepticism originally displayed by the farmers was eventually overcome, not without the involvement of the farmers’ unions. It might be suggested that, seeing as more than 80% of eligible farmers have completed the requisite paperwork and applied for EU subsidies, maybe their fear of Europe was not as deep as it may have appeared.


Polish agriculture has undergone profound transformations over the past 15 years. During this time, there emerged among Polish farmers several groups with divergent, if not contradictory interests. A small proportion of the most prosperous farmers view European integration as a business opportunity. This opportunity, however, will remain an abstraction for most of the subsistence farmers; in their case, EU subsidies will be little more than a welfare cheque. Thus, frustration and the potential for unrest that it breeds will not disappear from the Polish countryside. Apart from modernisation in the purely technological aspect, another challenge will be posed in motivating farmers to commit themselves to social dialogue; in this way, it is to be hoped, they can gain a forum for the constructive advocacy of their interests, with street protests becoming a less attractive option. (Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH])

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