Workers and the Free German Trade Union Federation
The largest and most significant of the mass organizations is
the Free German Trade Union Federation (Freier Deutscher
Gewerkschaftsbund--FDGB). In the mid-1980s, approximately 96
percent of all workers (including manual laborers, white-collar
workers, and members of the intelligentsia) belonged to the FDGB.
As of 1985, membership was about 9.4 million, and the union had
61 deputies in the People's Chamber (the national legislature).
The FDGB is affiliated with trade unions in other countries
through its membership in the World Federation of Trade Unions.
All trade unions are united under the FDGB, the only
federation of unions allowed to operate in the country. The FDGB
is organized on a territorial basis, much the same as the SED.
Workers in enterprises employing twenty or more individuals are
organized in so-called free trade unions. Members at the local
levels elect union officials, who in turn elect representatives
at the next higher levels. The FDGB has a congress, a
coordinating executive committee, and a presidium to formulate
policies. Theoretically the FDGB operates on the principle of
democratic centralism; but in reality, as is true in the SED,
power is structured hierarchically, and decision making and
policy formulation are the preserve of those at the top. Changes
in policy are only infrequently initiated from the bottom up;
more often than not, party and union officials carry out the
policy directives handed down from above.
Just as the SED has its committed corps of cadres, the FDGB
has a component of about 2 million union activists who ensure
that policies are implemented. Union posts at the local levels
are filled by volunteers, and nonparty members perform about 75
percent of union tasks. Leadership positions, however, are held
by members of the SED Nomenklatur.
The Organization and ideology of the FDGB are predicated on
the basis of an overall unity of interests between workers and
the state. The Constitution states that "trade unions are
independent" and that "no one may limit or obstruct their
activities." In fact the FDGB's close association with the party
does not allow it to play a real bargaining role or to strike for
specific demands. Because a commonality of interests does not
always exist in reality, the FDGB on occasion finds itself in an
anomalous position. On the one hand, it is supposed to represent
the interests of the workers, which may include fighting for
better working conditions, higher wages, and more realistic
production norms. On the other hand, it is very much an auxiliary
of the SED, and as such it is used to control the work force,
enforce higher production quotas, and increase worker
Nonetheless the union is an important part of the worker's
life. The work place is the center of the average citizen's
existence much more so in East Germany than in Western countries.
The local union and the enterprise form a collectivity and offer
the worker a variety of educational, cultural, and social
activities. In addition, the FDGB administers the social
insurance program and provides vacation centers and packaged
holidays for workers. In 1984 there were 1,163 "holiday homes"
with a capacity of 135,889 beds. Housing, libraries, discount
shops, clubs, and recreational facilities are provided through
the worker's enterprises. Through their activities, the union and
the enterprise permeate every aspect of the individual's life.
Like other mass organizations, the FDGB has a socialization
function to perform. In the mid-1980s, it cooperated with schools
and enterprises to instill in the worker an appreciation of the
social value of work and an awareness of the social duties
incumbent upon a purported owner of the means of production.
Contacts between factory workers and children were encouraged
through special visits of children to factories and through
practical work experiences. In factories employing more than
fifty people, disputes, commissions (social courts) handled
discipline problems, settled conflicts, and generally enforced
norms of behavior. Commissions were composed of workers approved
by the FDGB; the commissions were a fairly effective form of
social control because workers were responsible for judging their
fellow workers. Worker productivity was encouraged through the
example of showcase production units and model employees who were
dubbed "Hero of the Work." The regime used these showcase units
to rationalize increases in production quotas.
After the mid-1970s, the government appeared to allow the
unions a greater voice in decision making and policy formulation.
In other words, there appeared to be some official support
permitting the union to function more as a representative of
worker interests than as a conduit for party policies. The bounds
of permissible criticism and discussion, however, were likely to
remain extremely narrow and not to obscure the overriding
authority of the SED leadership.
Data as of July 1987