Hungary tiptoes behind Poland with own cautious reform program

Hungary, following gingerly in Poland's footsteps, has accelerated its plans for moving to a five-day workweek. Hungarians now working the triple-shift system -- a 44-hour week spread over six days -- will go over to the shortened week in July. The rest of the country's 4.5 million unionized labor force, office and shop workers included, will have it next year, a year ahead of the timetable set in the new five-year plan.

Hungary has been the only East European country to refrain from criticizing Poland's industrial unrest and the emergence of its independent union movement.

When events threatened to get out of hand, Hungary's leaders tactfully cautioned the Poles -- as they had done the Czechoslovak reformers in the "Prague spring" of 1968 -- against being too radical and repeating what the Hungarians see as their own "mistakes" prompting Soviet intervention in 1956.

Since then, the Hungarians have steadily developed their own prudent pattern of reform, particularly in labor relations. Their unions today are "autonomous." Although they are not independent in the Solidarity sense, they nonetheless have rights that no other unions in Eastern Europe enjoy.

Unions in Hungarian enterprises, for example, have extensive powers over management decisions on basic wage questions, annual leave, and allocation of housing. Some have a voice in hiring and firing.

They must be consulted about manager-director appointments and, though they may not veto a ministry nomination, if they have objections these are taken seriously into account.

From 19 unions in 1979 there were 281 factory-floor objections to management decisions, and all but 35 were upheld. Officials and union leaders complain, in fact, that workers still do not sufficiently use opportunities to take part in decisionmaking added some five years ago to the "new mechanism" reforms applied to the whole economy.

Unions must conform with the "national interest" central planning, but at enterprise level they have acquired considerable authority as "social partners" -- the standing promised Solidarity by the government here.

This year, the Hungarians are tackling the feather-bedding of failing enterprises and wage differentials. Each is a highly sensitive subject in the communist countries with their ideological but often seriously uneconomic commitment to full employment.

The minimum wage is being raised by 8 percent; maximums may go up by as much as 25 percent. This means a break with the once-rigid egalitarianism and is intended to reward those like miners working under heavy conditions, the qualified expert, and the skilled, conscientious worker.

Poland badly needs both reforms.The economists working on flexible improvements to management and planning frequently point to the changes made by the Hungarians as their own principal model. But, in the current troubled conditions, there is an extremely strong trend among Polish workers -- and in Solidarity itself -- toward retaining egalitarianism.

Even the Hungarians are cautious when it comes to closing or phasing out nonprofitable enterprises. "We have to look very carefully at the human factor before closing down a plant, even if it is turning out unsaleable goods," an official said.

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