3. The role of the trade unions under the SED
In the GDR, a single trade union existed to represent all workers. Known as the Free German Trade Union Federation (FGDB), its leaders were members of the ruling party, the SED. Divided into locals, its members were officially volunteers. In practice, obtaining work within the GDR without active union membership proved all but impossible. Unions representing workers in the diverse trades and occupations existed as affiliates of the FGDB. By 1952 most of the industries and factories in the GDR were owned and controlled by the state. The SED controlled both the industries and the unions representing the workers. In theory, the unions negotiated with industry over wages, working conditions, benefits, and so forth. In practice, the decrees of the SED took precedent over both labor and management. Nearly all of the workers in the GDR were members of the unions.
Many of those workers had been former members of the German Communist Party, which dissolved following its absorption into the SED. The former head of the German Communist Party, Otto Grotewohl, served as deputy prime minister under Ulbricht in 1952. As workers found themselves confronted with increased production quotas, many blamed Grotewohl for having in effect surrendered to the SED and Ulbricht. Rather than all workers equally sharing the work and produce of the state, they saw themselves as laboring for the benefit of the ruling class. Union leaders argued their workers were being exploited by the state, and dissension grew on the shop floors and construction sites. The SED used the unions to demonstrate the GDR operated as a democracy, when in truth it controlled all aspects of their operations. In 1953 workers demonstrated their disagreement.