Merger of German Steel Giants Sends Rude Shock to Workers

The hostile takeover, accompanied by job losses, has become a staple of American business strategy - and a phenomenon American workers have had to learn to live with.

But that's not how the game has been played in Germany. "The business of Germany is staying in business," as one longtime observer puts it. That has often meant cutting one's competitors some slack.

That's why a highly unusual hostile takeover bid has sent shock waves through the German steel industry - even though the bid has been withdrawn, and the two companies involved, Krupp Hoesch and Thyssen, are now negotiating a merger.

Concern about prospective job losses was enough to bring more than 30,000 steel workers and other union members to a protest rally in Frankfurt, Germany's financial center, Tuesday. "We have reached the limits of our patience," thundered Klaus Zwickel, head of IG Metall, the metalworkers' union. "Frankfurt is not Las Vegas," he said, accusing the bankers involved in the deal of being mere speculators and wheeler-dealers.

"Bonn must not be allowed to become Weimar," he added, referring to Germany's failed first attempt at democracy (1919-1933) that gave way to fascism, in part because of grave unemployment.

The whole episode signals just how difficult these times are for traditional industries here, and how the business culture is being forced to change under global competitive pressures.

With 4.7 million jobless, unemployment here is already at its highest since 1933. No real improvement is in sight, even though corporate profits are strong and the economy is growing modestly.

But that's no longer enough to create jobs. Economic analysts see this merger - discussed on and off for years - as a necessary, and long overdue, adjustment in an industry burdened with overcapacity.

Just two weeks ago, workers in another industry facing change - coal miners - were in the capital, Bonn, protesting. In the end, they won delays in cuts to government subsidies for their industry. But the miners had it relatively easy: Their negotiating partners from the government must ultimately answer to them at the ballot box. The steelworkers face corporate bosses and banks who keep score by eyeing the world's financial markets.

Big banks criticized too

Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank have seemed surprised by the sharp criticism of their role in advising on the takeover bid. In the somewhat clubby system here, banks are significant shareholders of publicly traded firms, on whose boards they also sit.

In this case, a member of Deutsche Bank's management board was on the supervisory board of Thyssen, the same firm whose takeover his bank was helping to engineer. (He was observed at a recent meeting not saying much but taking a lot of notes.) He has denied wrongdoing but at this writing appears on his way off Thyssen's board.

"Despite the withdrawal of the takeover bid, workers still feel threatened by cuts in jobs," an official of the construction workers' union, Brunhilde Hoffmann, told the steel workers' rally.

Tearing the fabric of consensus

That view was echoed in the the ranks of the Thyssen employees bused to the rally from the Ruhrgebiet, Germany's traditional rust belt.

"Perhaps cuts will be handled better now than under a takeover - perhaps," says Wolf Hofrichter, a white-collar Thyssen employee from Duisburg.

Tuesday's rally in the Opernplatz, a park just coming into springtime bloom, showed how economic pressures are tearing the fabric of consensus-minded Germany, where labor and management have traditionally been referred to as "partners."

One unemployed warehouse worker, Rolf Steinhauser, listened attentively as labor leaders gave speeches and read declarations of solidarity from other unions.

But then he jerked his head upward in the direction of the gleaming glass towers that house Frankfurt's banks. "Those pigs up there don't listen," he grumbled.

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