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East Germany-Workers and the Free German Trade Union Federation

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East Germany Index

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 productivity.

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

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