'Self-managed' workers go for profits

Yugoslavia's long practice of worker ''self-management'' - a model used in other developing countries - now faces a demand to make profits. Being in the board room of a Yugoslav enterprise with ''workers' self-management'' is not easy.

Not long ago the writer visited the newest and tallest all-purpose store in this city - everything from motorcars to a basement food center with a tank full of live fish.

It was election day and 900 workers were voting for their director.

The result was certain, for there was only one candidate - the young man who had just done his first three-year stint. ''It's a hot seat,'' he said, ''few people fancy it.''

Up in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, the boss of the country's biggest electronic enterprise has just been returned for a second term. ''Then I'll go back to my old job - research,'' he said, with a happy, anticipatory smile.

Being elected manager, of course, means more pay - but not all that much. Those chosen have been ''vetted'' by the workers' council. The latter are largely content to let experts decide on qualification.

Their main concern is to make sure candidates are people close enough to the workers and able to get on with them. Generally, it seemed to work.

During a visit to factories and other enterprises on a recent World Bank tour , I had the strong impression both of able managers as well as of real worker-employee involvement in decisionmaking - not merely in physical working conditions and normal amenities but in management and production planning.

For years, Belgrade's Hotel Moskva in which I always stayed has struck me as an excellent example of self-management in action, with a genuine upstairs-downstairs sense of awareness of mutual interest - from reception to porters, from chambermaids to waiters and waitresses in the restaurants - in maintaining high standards of service.

In recent years, however, Yugoslavia's economic recession, aggravated by what was happening in the world at large, has presented self-management with new challenges.

The unusual method of working began, in fact, 30 years ago following then-President Tito's break with Moscow. Yugoslav communists had talked about it during the war, even at times when survival was very much in doubt. It was opposition to Stalin which finally nudged them into it and experimental workers' councils were set up in a Dalmatian cement factory in 1949.

A year later the federal assembly passed a ponderously named ''basic law of state economic enterprises and higher economic associations by working collectives.'' It was, Tito said, a reflection of ''our socialist reality'' by which he meant something different from and superior to the Soviet Union's.

Armed with their law, Yugoslav workers and managers quickly perceived that, given theoretical independence, it was not so difficult to put it into practice, often times faster than a party center had reckoned with.

For a time party bureaucrats who lost out in ''destalinization'' of Yugoslavia contrived to create niches for themselves in this new order. There was a growing problem of how to ensure good management in the interests of efficiency but to do so in a democratic way.

Gradually, however, the new flexibility took root. Greater responsibilities were given to maturing workers' councils and professionals - rather than party management - which opened the way to economic common sense. Elsewhere in the communist world, only Hungary tried such an approach.

In 1965 the Yugoslavs carried through more reforms. They brought in a wide range of market disciplines and put curbs on the frequent decrees from the center which frustrated keen management. They took more financial support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and heeded the advice of these two institutions.

Self-management now meant really competing for business, real cost efficiency , and other meaningful steps toward something quite new - a form of ''market socialism'' of infinitely more significance than Nikita Khrushchev's ''goulash communism'' which had raised visions of consumerism without any concession to modern economic realities.

The 1960s were years of boom in Western Europe. And boom for Yugoslavs too - until the mid-'70s, when world recession changed everything for everybody.

Self-management has moved on to ''govern'' not only factories but services, including government. But five years of a weak economy has put the system under notice - as one economist commented - to ''move with the times.'' The more party-minded are urging some return to central ''administrative'' measures for the sake of national interests.

The opposite view, and the most likely to prevail, is that the market economy must be carried further. There are hints, moreover, of a return of ''liberal'' economists who had been eclipsed by political crackdowns of the '70s.

Self-management, as it stands, according to one expert, is providing a featherbed for inefficient enterprises and ''nationalizing'' the profits of the efficient.

With inflation and unemployment both seemingly out of control and with sudden shortages of everyday commodities - which the Yugoslavs have not known for 25 years - the government has ordered a review of the whole economy.

Changes are ahead and, among them, a further and freer mandate for self-managed enterprises to get on with the job to produce at a profit, to produce competitively, and to react as they see fit for themselves to the demands both of the home market and the best export markets.

In other words, they are going to be left to handle their own profits their own way - and to get on, or get out.

It is a bold vision. But, it they want encouragement and justification, the new reformers have only to look at Eastern Europe, and to the present worst example of what the old centralism finally did to Poland.

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