YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Under Soviet Reforms, a Boss Is Elected

May 18, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

RIGA, Soviet Union — A factory near here that consistently failed to measure up to expectations has a new manager, elected by representatives of the workers, and he is planning sweeping changes.

The turnaround came about under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's push for economic reform and his emphasis on at least a measure of democracy in the workplace.

A new law governing industrial enterprises, approved by last January's plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, provides that factory directors must get a vote of confidence from their workers every four years or resign.

Makes Buses, Ambulances

The Raf factory in nearby Jelgava, which makes buses and ambulances, had not been doing well, and in April of last year it lost its state emblem of quality. Many workers reportedly were arriving late and then loafing on the job.

Out went the manager, and after a rigorous screening process involving technical experts and officials of the Communist Party and trade unions, Victor Bossert, 39, was named to take his place.

Bossert, who took over on Feb. 1 of this year, said in a recent interview that he was chosen from among hundreds of applicants. After the field was narrowed to two candidates, he said, he was elected, 387 to 57, by the workers. Ten percent of the workers in every department were allowed to vote.

Had Been in Siberia

Bossert had been deputy chief engineer of a factory in the Siberian city of Omsk, not far from the village where he was born. He said that what he had to do in Jelgava, about 25 miles south of Riga, the capital of Latvia, was to restore discipline and reorganize a management structure that had become overly centralized and rigidly bureaucratic.

A tall, black-haired, energetic man who seems to be rarely at a loss for words, Bossert developed a plan to make more decisions on the shop floor, shape up the workers and improve the quality of the vehicles they turn out.

His plan was discussed with party and trade union officials and was then endorsed by the Latvian ministry in charge of the plant. Finally, on March 4, it was approved by the Soviet Council of Ministers.

A plan for producing 70 vehicles a day, or 1,500 a month, was put into effect. The wage system was changed to tie each worker's pay more closely to the factory's overall performance rather than to individual achievement.

Under the Soviet system, many factories are responsible for worker housing, and Bossert has promised to hasten the rate of construction to finish 500 more apartments in the next four years and to eliminate the waiting list for apartments by 1994.

Also, he has vowed to complete a recreation complex, including a boat house, by the end of next year.

"If they work well," he said, "they'll be in a better mood for recreation, and vice versa."

His disciplinary effort has been confined largely to moral suasion, he said. Only six of the 4,400 workers at the plant have been dismissed, in part because a shortage of labor makes managers reluctant to use the ultimate weapon of dismissal.

As factory director, Bossert said, he will be paid 400 to 450 rubles a month (about $640 to $720), or less than some of the top craftsmen in the plant. But executives at his level customarily get valuable fringe benefits--a car, driver and attractive housing--that compensate for their relatively low pay.

Focusing on Morale

Bossert, in the Soviet style, said he is more interested in the morale of his workers and engineers than in any material reward.

Clearly, he is being watched closely in his new post. Gorbachev, on a visit to Latvia not long after Bossert took over at the factory, noted pointedly that the Raf plant had failed to carry out a promise to modernize the mini-bus it produces.

Starting July 1, Bossert said, changes will be introduced to strengthen the body of the bus and improve its fuel efficiency by 12%. Bumpers and interior design will also be improved. New models will be introduced next January and in 1989, he said.

"It's our answer to (Gorbachev's) criticism," Bossert said.

Bossert, whose election may have set a pattern for Gorbachev's plan to democratize the workplace, said he endorses wholeheartedly the concept of elected factory managers.

"As a result of the vote," he said, "I feel secure and strong. If the workers choose a director, they are easier to work with. We have a real mutual understanding. But if a director can't meet the needs of a collective, he must step aside."

Los Angeles Times Articles