When top East Germany trade union officials are asked whether the labor unrest in neighboring Poland could spread to their country, they reply quickly, "It can't happen here."
"Strikes in socialism lead to worse problems, not solutions," said Rudi Focke, a senior director of the Free German Labor Federation, the second most important organization after the Communist Party.
Focke claims that there has not been a strike in East Germany in recent memory, "unless you count half-hour breaks to discuss weekend soccer results."
"When a worker knows prices will be the same next week, when tomorrow the mark will still be worth a mark, when he is assured of his job, of his pensions, of his vacation -- why in the world should he strike?" asks Focke.
As that suggests, the East German government is counting heavily on the success of its economy and the benefits of the welfare state to prevent the spread of the Solidarity virus here.
East Germany, says Focke, does not need an independent trade union such as Solidarity because its unions are part of the process of economic planning from the factory floor up. No factory director can transmit his production plan for the next year without clearing it with the union. Similarly, the union's central headquarters in East Berlin has a say in national economic planning, says Focke. The union, for example, takes credit for getting additional funds allocated to apartment construction in the 1976-1981 five-year plan. This resulted, in the contruction of 163,000 more units than the original goal.
Nevertheless, East Germans acknowledge that economic prosperity and social benefits are the best insurance against labor trouble.
Germany is the father of social security, a concept first introduced extensively by the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Both German states follow in that tradition, but socialism has carried it much further in East Germany than in West.
In addition to such standard programs as cradle-to-grave health and medical coverage, pensions, and a minimum 10 years of free public education for all children, there are other benefits.
Sixty-one East German pre-school children out of 100 attend state-operated day care centers that cost only $6 a month, and working mothers receive paid maternity leave of up to one year. Abortions were legalized in 1972, and women receiving them get paid leave of 15 to 20 days.
Focke says that 70 percent of all East German workers receive a subsidized meal at work, for which they pay no more than 50 cents. Eighteen days' vacation is guaranteed and workers in strenous jobs such as mining and metal-working receive up to 30 days.
The other side of the story is that the benefits and subsidies are costly. And Polish riots resulting from food price increases in 1970, 1976 and 1980 show that a population accustomed to subsidies resents being weaned away from them.
Every East German carefully read the single paragrah referring to consumer prices in Communist labor Erich Honecker's 92-page speech to the party congress this week. Honecker announced that "stable" prices would be maintained over the next five years for "basic needs," including food, rents and services.
But he called attention to the "sharp increases" in world prices and hinted that East Germany could not avoid adjusting to these indefinitely. He left open the possibility that some prices would be raised, and he indicated that there would be higher prices for new products and for luxury items.
Price controls have been in effect for basic needs for 20 years.
To maintain price controls, the government and, indirectly, East German taxpayers have absorbed inflation and the staggering costs of running a modern welfare state.
Budget subsidies for food and industrial consumer goods run an estimated $10 billion a year. An housing subsidies, in the form of national rent control, probably cost the government at least $2 billion a year. If the U.S. government provided the same subsidies on a per-capta basis, they would be running $120 billion and $24 billion a year respectively.
There are still long waits for apartments and cars. Refrigerators here cost almost four times as much as in West Germany. The housing shortage is still the overwhelming and seemingly unending social problem in East Germany today -- just as it was 10 years ago. Food, however, seems plentiful and good -- a tribute to East German agriculture.
One place where tensions remain is education. The country's public education system is far more democratic than West Germany's with a much higher percentage of worker's children attending universities in the last 20 years than in capitalist Germany. But tensions are building among youth here because of restrictions on university attendance. As jobs in technical specialities and teaching have been filled, the need for graduates has declined and rigid quotas have been imposed.