BOCHUM, Germany (Reuters) - Several thousand steelworkers took to the streets of Bochum in Germany’s industrial heartland on Friday to protest against the planned merger of the European steel units of Thyssenkrupp and Tata Steel.
Just two days before general elections in Europe’s biggest economy, the demonstrators protested against up to 4,000 job cuts that will be made should the joint venture go ahead. This would be about 8 percent of the combined workforce.
Thyssenkrupp and Tata this week said they had signed a memorandum of understanding for a 50-50 joint venture that would create Europe’s second-biggest steelmaker after ArcelorMittal, with combined sales of about 15 billion euros ($18 billion).
Thyssenkrupp Chief Executive Heinrich Hiesinger says a joint venture will be the best solution to what he sees as the main issue in Europe’s steel industry - overcapacity - but politicians and labor leaders fear further cuts.
“We want guarantees for all employees and locations,” said Detlef Wetzel, deputy supervisory board chairman of Thyssenkrupp Steel Europe.
Hiesinger depends on the support of labor representatives, which hold half of the 20 seats on the supervisory board of Thyssenkrupp AG, and have fiercely opposed the Tata deal.
If all of them vote against the deal, the board’s chairman could still push through the plan with his casting vote but it is Hiesinger’s declared goal to get labor leaders on board.
Wetzel said he was not overly optimistic after initial talks with Hiesinger and that he expected further cost cuts.
“2020 - that’s when things will really get going,” he said, referring to the date when Hiesinger has said a fundamental review of operations would take place after initial cost trimming.
IG Metall said about 7,000 workers took part in the protest in the Ruhr valley city.
Thyssenkrupp’s supervisory will discuss the plans at a meeting on Saturday even though the MoU has already been signed. It will decide on the plans early next year, Thyssenkrupp said on Wednesday.
Europe’s steel market has an annual production capacity of about 200 million tonnes, while actual production is about 160 million tonnes.
“I am not convinced by the merger plans at all. Without guarantees the labor side will not agree to it in the supervisory board,” said German Labour Minister Andrea Nahles, a leading member of the Social Democrats.
“You can put that idea right out of your head, Mr Hiesinger.”
Opposition from Thyssenkrupp’s workforce could mean prolonger negotiations with management and delay any approval of the plan by the supervisory board. The two steel firms say the would like to close the deal in late 2018.
Thyssenkrupp’s management and labor leaders are in for tough negotiations over the next months, before a contract could be signed early next year.
“I feel like I’ve been dumped on, screwed over, but I‘m in a combative mood nonetheless,” said Guenter Back, head of Thyssenkrupp Steel Europe’s works council.
“There is nothing good about this deal. And that’s why we have to reject it.”
Writing by Christoph Steitz; Editing by Jon Boyle