Free German Trade Union Federation

The Free German Trade Union Federation, in German Freier Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (FDGB), was an East German organisation that existed between 1946 and 1990. It was part of the National Front and had representatives in the Volkskammer.

On paper the FDGB was the umbrella organization for about fifteen individual trade unions (e.g. IG Metall, IG Transport etc.), but, in reality, most members did not even realise that was the case. Only a handwritten note on the last page of the standard red membership booklet mentioned the individual trade union they belonged to.

FDGB was a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions.


Harry Tisch, FDGB chairman from 1975 to 1989.

The bureaucratic union apparatus was a basic component and tool of the SED’s power structure, constructed on the same strictly centralist hierarchical model as all other major GDR organizations.

The smallest unit was a Kollektiv, which nearly all workers in any organisation belonged to, including state leaders and party functionaries. They recommended trustworthy people as the lowest FDGB functionaries and voted for them in open-list ballots. The higher positions ranged from "Departmental Union Leader" (Abteilungsgewerkschaftsleiter, AGL) to Leader of the "Central BGL" (Betriebsgewerkschaftsleitung - Company Union Leadership in combines); they were normally full-time and held by SED members with a history of toeing the party line, or in some cases bloc party members. Their jobs, like those of the FDGB district leaders, were assured until they retired as long as they did not stray from party policy.

The chairman of the FDGB was Herbert Warnke until his death on March 26, 1975 when he was replaced by Harry Tisch, a member of the SED’s Politburo, who kept the post until the political turnaround in 1989.

FDGB's cruise ship MS "Fritz Heckert" in Helsinki (May 1961).


Officially, membership in the FDGB was voluntary, but unofficially it was hardly possible to develop a career without joining . In 1986, 98% of all workers and employees were organized in the FDGB, which had 9.6 million members. This meant that it was nominally one of the world’s largest trade unions. As well as improving members’ career chances, the FDGB also offered various "concessions".


In the East German system, the FDGB was in charge of ideological control and conformity in companies, as well as social tasks such as hospital visits, presenting awards, giving gifts on special anniversaries, even extending as far as organizing health spas and the hard-to-get holiday bookings. The FDGB’s own holiday service was responsible for the latter.

Though formalized, the union held responsibility for setting work norms, through negotiating with management, protecting workers from management caprice, and enforcing GDR labor code and worker protections. There was a criticism that the union held too much power, e.g., it was a very lengthy and difficult process to fire a worker.

The single trade union was also very important as a source of new blood for the military. Using small benefits as an incentive, and if necessary gentle pressure, large numbers of workers and employees were recruited to what were known as "Combat Groups of the Working Class".


In spring 1946, the former ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau bei Berlin, which before Nazi rule had belonged to the Allgemeiner Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (ADGB) (Federation of German Trade Unions), was given to the FDGB to use as a training centre. After some restoration work, the school opened in 1947 under the name FDGB-Bundesschule "Theodor Leipart" (Theodor Leipart FDGB Trade Union School). In January 1952 it was given degree awarding status and renamed Gewerkschaftshochschule "Fritz Heckert" (Fritz Heckert Trade Union College). [1]

Short term two and four week training courses and longer term study were offered, including collective bargaining, social and economic policy, youth and women’s issues, employment law, business administration, history of the labour movement, etc. After 1952 two year courses, and later, from 1956, three year bachelor degree-equivalent courses were also taught. From 1958 correspondence courses were also offered, and from 1959 courses were run for foreign trade unionists. Over 15,000 East German and 5,000 foreign trade unionists were trained by the FDGB school between 1947 and 1990.[1]

The college closed in September 1990 just before German reunification.[1]

The building, originally completed in 1930, was a project of the Bauhaus design school and is now restored and preserved as an historic monument. Since 2007 the building has been used by the Internat des Bildungszentrums der Handwerkskammer Berlin (Berlin Chamber of Skilled Crafts training school).[2]

German reunification

In May 1990, shortly before German reunification, the FDGB was dissolved. Many former members did not join the West German (now German) unions, some, due to the lightning privatization of the GDR, simply because they had lost their jobs.

Media related to Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund at Wikimedia Commons


  1. 1 2 3 History. Bauhaus trade union school. Available at: (Accessed: 11 November 2016)
  2. Internat der Handwerkskammer Berlin (Photos with German text). Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2016)
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