If, under Capitalism, the quintessential legal actor is the owner, his counterpart under Socialism, one would think, must be the worker. And, indeed, East German labor law—or at least, East German labor law as reflected in my Lüritz files—was, in a way, the most “Socialist” branch of this legal system. Not the most important, far from it: in Lüritz and elsewhere in the GDR, labor law disputes made up only a small part of the courts’ yearly business. But the fundamental values of Socialism were demonstrated in more unadulterated form in this than in other areas of the law. It was less blemished, if you want, by ideological betrayals. When deciding labor law disputes, Lüritz judges spoke in a more creditable voice then when they dealt with civil or criminal law matters.
Admittedly, it took many years of false starts and detours before the labor adjudication of my court turned into a method of resolving conflicts that Lüritz citizens, after the Turnabout, occasionally would mourn. When the Lüritz Labor Court decided its first case in May 1946, the East German legal landscape looked no different from that on the other side of the border. In the Federal Republic, labor law primarily protects the legal interests of employees. Employers do not need the law to safeguard their financial interests against the people they employ—they can rely on their market power to get things done their way. More than ninety-five percent of the plaintiffs in labor court are workers who use the law to challenge decisions of employers that affect their work. The state of the economy determines what aspect of their jobs needs the protection of the law: in times of full employment, suits about salaries and wages tend to rise; in times of unemployment, more people will sue to contest dismissals.10
In the early postwar years, Lüritz labor law litigation followed this traditional pattern. More than 90% of the plaintiffs were employees. Most lawsuits involved controversies over pay or firings. Until 1952, the frequency of labor litigation rose despite the fact that private employment in the GDR was in decline. But then, the picture changes. The labor law caseload of the Lüritz court begins to shrink: from 255 suits in 1952 to 111 suits in 1958 and a mere fifty-one labor law disputes in 1960. The distribution of plaintiffs and defendants changes, too. In 1952, 96% of labor plaintiffs had been employees. By 1960, their share has been reduced to 65%. Parties begin to go to court for different reasons than before. If