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Serbs Give Pink Slips to Their 'Red' Bosses

Yugoslavia: Workers oust unpopular company execs installed by Milosevic regime. Revolts in one industrial town underscore revolution's breadth.


VRANJE, Yugoslavia — On a whispered signal, 500 women in red smocks switched off their sewing machines last week on a factory floor the size of a city block, launching a three-day strike by 6,500 co-workers that toppled the plant's chief executive.

The unrest spread to Vranje's hospital, ambulance service, bus company, technical school, food inspection lab and a shoe factory. Roughly two-thirds of the town's labor force demanded and won the resignations of unpopular bosses installed by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Since the Yugoslav president's ouster three weeks ago, his Socialist Party cronies have lost control of workplaces across Serbia, the country's main republic, in an uprising against the mini-despots who really ran people's lives.

The purge of "red directors" in this industrial town of 65,000, a longtime fortress of Socialist power that is still in the hands of a Socialist mayor, shows how deep Serbia's revolution runs. It is empowering people like Dr. Petar Bulajic, a soft-spoken psychiatrist who earns $65 per month; Predrag Dimic, a shoemaker who handed the get-lost ultimatum to his ashen-faced boss; and Gordana Stojkovic, whose sewing brigade started the strike during the evening shift of Oct. 11.

Removal of Milosevic Inspires Laborers

Their grievances were economic and professional, but it was Milosevic's capitulation five days earlier to huge demonstrations in Belgrade--the Yugoslav and Serbian capital 170 miles to the northwest--that emboldened them. They got guidance from the Democratic Opposition of Serbia but are wary of turning their uprising into a tool of that party.

"I anticipated this moment for years, and when it came, my heart wanted to jump," Stojkovic said as she recounted the strike at Jumko, the biggest textile and clothing maker in the Balkans. Her work brigade leader, Nada Vasileva, added: "We chose this moment because the time for dictators was over."

The seamstresses are helping to push Serbia's post-communist era a step beyond those of Russia and some other Eastern European countries, where party appointees kept control of many large enterprises even after allotting a majority of shares to employees or private investors.

During Milosevic's 13 years in power, Socialist Party loyalists ran public and nominally privatized companies as they wished, often to enrich themselves. Employees became shareholders in name only, held in check by the police and a Socialist-run union that was the only one permitted to negotiate with management or collect dues.

During the past week in Vranje, police stood aside as upstart worker assemblies swept into one boardroom after another and switched registration en masse to two unions allied with the opposition. One executive left his factory under police escort.

Insurgent "crisis staffs" there and at other workplaces are choosing new managers and summoning police inspectors to investigate the financial dealings of the ousted bosses.

Surprisingly, this revenge is taking place under the helpless gaze of a city council led by Socialists who, according to disputed official returns, won 59 of the 65 seats in the Sept. 24 election that Milosevic lost.

Mayor Miroljub Stojcic felt obliged to fire the editors of the municipal television station and newspaper after the local Democratic Opposition leader threatened to lead a march against their premises.

"Probably the police have orders from Belgrade not to interfere," the exasperated mayor said in an interview. Last week, he urged new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica in a letter to halt "anarchy and chaos" that he says is hurting the town's export-dependent economy, which relied on exports even during years of international sanctions.

But the rebels have refrained from violence and resumed work on their own--after shedding the likes of Stanica Janjic, Mirko Dimitrijevic and Dr. Blagoje Tincic.

President of Jumko for nine years, Janjic was the kind of boss who thrived under Milosevic and helped sustain his regime. Evading Western sanctions against Yugoslavia, he continued to export clothes, including military uniforms, to Italy and some foes in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But the seamstresses said he piled on extra shifts without overtime pay when work was plentiful, sent them on unpaid leave when work was scarce, padded the payroll with Socialist cronies and fired anyone who tried to organize a protest. When Milosevic visited the plant and complained about a dirty toilet, they said, Janjic axed the cleaning lady.

"Half of Vranje depended on him. I wondered how he could sleep at night knowing how we lived and how little we had for our children," said Stojkovic, a mother of two preteens whose husband also makes clothing at Jumko.

By the end of the Milosevic era, the couple's combined salary had dipped below $60 per month.

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