Congresses of workers: a way to avert Polish strife?

Workers' congresses are the vehicle by which Chinese leaders hope to promote democracy on the workshop floor and avoid the turbulence that has racked Poland.

"What is going on in Poland should be a lesson to us," said an editor at the Workers Daily, organ of China's government-backed trade unions. "If we do things the right way, we will avoid a Polish-type situation. If we do not, we may find ourselves in the same fix as the Poles."

One obvious answer is to encourage more democracy in trade unions. The Chinese say they are doing this. But the principal effort seems directed at building up better relations between management and workers, enterprise by enterprise, on the Yugoslav model.

In theory, the workers' congress is now the supreme decisionmaking organ within a given enterprise. Management must obey resolutions it passes.

In fact, since workers, whether as individuals or as a group, seldom have the all-around knowledge of internal and external factors affecting production, sales, and profits, on most matters they can be persuaded to take management's word. The two most powerful individuals in any enterprise are still the director and the Communist Party secretary.

But if things do not go well, when a factory faces declining production and even the possibility of going out of business, a workers' congress can at times play a decisive role. This is what happened two years ago at the Peking Electric Welding Machine Factory, an enterprise of 474 workers in the northern part of the capital.

In common with many other enterprises, this factory set up a workers' congress in 1978. Whereas trade unions choose their representatives workshop by workshop, whether the shop has many workers or only a few, the workers' congress was elected on the basis of one representative for every 10 workers.

That year was an unhappy one for the factory. For three years production had been declining at an annual rate of nearly 12 percent. Why did welding machines not sell as well as they used to? The management had no idea.

At this point the municipal authorities, who owned the factory, told the director to make battery-charging machines. The factory had no experience in this field. But, worried by accumulating losses on the welding machines, the director agreed. He worked a full year on this project and spent 800,000 yuan (about $532,000), at the end of which only two battery-charging machines had been built.

Worker morale was at a nadir. Other, profitable factories were giving their workers bonuses. The welding machine factory had none. Some workers began to ask for transfers to other enterprises.

"You see, we were producing blindly," said the director, Zhang Yongzi. "We had no independent decisionmaking power. We produced what we told to produce. We had no idea what the demands of the market were."

Then came 1979, a year of economic reforms. The factory was given limited decisionmaking powers in terms of choosing what products to manufacture and of retaining a larger share of the profits than before. (It now retains 25 percent. Previously, most of the profits went to the state in one form or another.)

Workers' congresses are held twice a year. The ones in 1978 were perfunctory , none of the representatives being exactly certain what they were to do. But the one called in March 1979 was different. The director, deciding to take his problems directly to the workers, gave a full, frank report, in which he proposed that production continue both on the welding machines and the new battery-charging machines.

The congress's 50 delegates responded with great heat to the director's proposal. Too ambitious, many delegates said. "We had not made a proper analysis of conditions and of the technical level of the works," Mr. Zhang now recalls. Most delegates held that in view of the sorry production record on battery-charging machines, these machines should be abandoned. The factory should stick to what ti knew -- welding machines

Surprised by the vehemence of the opposition, the director asked for a four-day suspension of the workers' congress. During these four days he and his assistants held thoroughgoing discussions in every workshop. He then reconvened the congress and submitted a new report. The congress passed a resolution rejecting the earlier proposal to continue production of both welding and battery-charging machines, and affirming a decision to concentrate only on the welding machines

"This decision bound both sides -- workers and the management," said the director. For the first time, management began to make a sales effort, trying to find out what type of welding machines customers wanted, what type competing factories were making, at what prices the machines could be sold. The variety and types of welding machines were increased, their designs improved. In September 1979, and again in September 1980, machines produced by the factory won first prizes at industrial exhibitions. Production increased by 6 percent in 1979, and by 10 percent in 1980. Workers received the equivalent of three months' wages.

One of the best results, from management's viewpoint, was that the workers themselves took renewed interest in the welding machines, making suggestions regarding production methods and improvement of design. the factory used to make four types of welding machines. Now it makes 15.

The factory's order book for 1981 is rapidly filling up. It had secured half the orders it required before the end of 1980.

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