With 15 cows, a horse and 20 acres of arable land, 52-year-old Waldyslaw Drozbik is a typical Polish peasant. But for the last month, he has exchanged his usually placid rural life style for the politics of protest, joining hundreds of other farmers occupying an administrative building in this southeastern Polish city.
Monday, with peasants from all over the country, he travels to Warsaw to lobby the Supreme Court to grant legal recognition to an independent farmers' union. At the same time, token strikes of support for Rural Solidarity, as the union calls itself, will be held in selected factories throughout Poland.
Now that agreement has been reached with industrial workers on shorter working hours and greater access to the news media, the grievances of Poland's 3.5 million peasants represent the major outstanding dispute between the new independent unions and communist authorities. Communist Party leaders have strongly opposed the extension of Solidarity to the countryside -- but there is still a chance that the Supreme Court will eventually find a face-saving compromise acceptable to both sides.
Drozbik and his friends are prepared for a long wait. At their heavily guarded headquarters, an ornate three-story building that used to belong to the official railway union, they have stored up enough food to last a month, including a slaughtered cow in the basement.
The peasants are well-organized. More than 70 of them, including Drozbik, have been living in the building since taking it over Jan. 3 to publicize their cause. Thousands more farmers, delegated by their local Rural Solidarity branches, have come to Rzeszow for two- or three-day shifts.
Guards are posted around the building 24 hours a day to watch for any sign of unusual police activity. An alarm system has been rigged up to local factories, and the protesters say that if there were any attempt to end the occupation by force, it would immediately be resisted by workers.
So far, however, the government appears content to let the protest take its course -- although two similar sit-ins elsewhere have been broken up by police.
The scene inside the building is a strange mixture of farmers' convention, religious festival and student sit-in. Ruddy-faced men in rubber boots sit around smoking or playing cards in a room dominated by a huge cross, a portrait of Pope John Paul II, and a picture of the Black Madonna of Czestechowa, "the queen of Poland." Slumbering fingers lie in sleeping bags on the floor.
Around the walls there are slogans -- "End Bureaucracy in the Countryside" is one -- and antigovernment cartoons. Discipline is strict: Several peasants caught trying to smuggle alcohol into the building have been sent back to their farms. Anybody wanting to leave or enter the building must get a pass signed by a member of the 15-member strike committee.
The protesters have a fervent belief in the justice of their cause. As one elderly farmer remarked: "I came here because I feel this is a decisive moment in Poland's history. Never before in my lifetime have we been given such an opportunity of solving the country's problems. I don't want my grandchildren to say I missed this chance."
A grievance common to virtually all private peasants, who own almost 80 percent of Poland's agricultural land, is that essential supplies are diverted to less productive state farms. Ordinary farmers without Communist Party connections face a constant struggle to get hold of basic materials such as fertilizer, seeds, animal feed, coal or spare parts for machinery.
An agricultural economist involved in the Rzeszow protest explained: "Farmers in Poland spend only 25 percent of their working time on the land. The rest is taken up looking for supplies."
Of the 61 demands drawn up by the peasants, one of the most important is for reform of the topsy-turvy price system. The need for this is best illustrated by the example of a liter of milk, which is sold in shops for 2.90 zlotys (less than 10 cents). The government purchases the milk at 8 zlotys but, according to Rural Solidarity, the cost of production to the private peasant is around 15 zlotys.
On an inefficient state farm, meanwhile, the cost of producing a liter of milk can be up to 35 zlotys.
With such a price structure, one wonders why peasants like Drozbik bother to produce milk at all. The answer is complex, but explains a lot about the way Polish agriculture is organized.
Drozbik says he is obliged to sell a certain amount of milk and other produce to the state to qualify for scarce agricultural supplies. He does not think about the deal in normal commercial terms. To make a profit, he sells other produce such as potatoes privately on the black market.
But he certainly has no incentive to increase milk production.
For its part, the government now recognizes the logic of many of the peasants' grievances. Its present tactics appear to be to meet as many of them as possible, while seeking to divert attention from the number one demand -- an independent union for farmers.
The Rzeszow peasants, however, insist that without an organization such as Rural Solidarity to fight for their interests they will have no permanent guarantee of the government's good faith. The authorities have proposed strengthening the old cooperatives, or "agricultural circles," but many peasants mistrust these as instruments of bureaucratic control.
The peasants' struggle is being supported by industrial workers, partly out of sympathy and partly for hardheaded economic reasons. As one of the leaders of the industrial union federation Solidarity involved in the Rzeszow negotiations, Bogdan Lis, remarked: "If the farmers don't produce, then we in the cities won't have anything to eat. Food shortages hit the workers first of all."
This rare show of unity between countryside and town is remarkable because traditionally their interests have been opposed. Peasants naturally want food prices to be as high as possible, while city dwellers want cheap food.
The peasants supporting Rural Solidarity have ruled out the idea of an agricultural strike. In return, according to Lis, they can ask the workers of Solidarity to strike on their behalf if they see fit.
The chances are that next Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing will not take a definitive stand on the issue of Rural Solidarity's registration. Last week the peasants formed a single union out of three different ones -- and this may give the court an excuse to further delay registration.