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Steel Workers’ Struggle Wins Sympathy of West Germans

May 23, 1988

RHEINHAUSEN, West Germany (AP) _ It wasn’t typical for postwar West Germany - steel workers staging wildcat strikes, seizing a bridge, setting up vigils, storming a corporate meeting.

For six months the workers struggled to keep the Rheinhausen Krupp steel mill from closing down, a victim of economic decline in the Ruhr, the long- time industrial powerhouse of Germany.

In the end, the workers lost their fight, widely covered by newspapers and television, but they won hearts all across the nation at a time when the steel industry has been closing plants and cutting costs to battle foreign competition.

Celebrities, politicians, students, right wingers and left wingers, even groups in the Soviet Union and East Germany, raised voices of support for the Krupp workers. Donations of money came from around the country for workers involved in West Germany’s worst labor unrest in years.

″During the winter, wealthy women started collecting toys and clothes for what they called ‘those poor Krupp children’,″ said the Rev. Dieter Kelp, a Lutheran pastor.

″But I said, this isn’t the Third World, and there hasn’t been any war or bombing. It’s just a question of jobs.″

Kelp had joined the workers in their vigils outside the plant’s front gate, sometimes standing in front of a cross with the word ″Solidaritaet’ ′ (Solidarity) on it. ″Solidarity″ became part of the local vocabulary.

″Our workers’ Solidarity fund got contributions from all over Germany,″ said Rheinhausen’s village manager, Hans Kleer. ″They came from Flensburg in the north to Passau in the south.″

West Germany’s tiny Communist Party donated 260,000 marks ($160,000), the much larger Social Democrats roughly the same, while businesses, ″average people″ and a host of others brought the total to 1.3 million marks ($828,000), Kleer said.

″You have to be amazed at that much support.″

The workers’ representatives nevetheless admitted defeat May 3, coming away only with a promise that the plant will stay open until the end of 1990 and that efforts would be made to find other opportunities for the 5,300 workers.

Only a massive and unexpected reversal in the steel industry’s sagging fortunes could keep Krupp from shutting the mill down after 1990. Company officials say the mill, 18 miles northwest of Duesseldorf, has lost more than 1 billion marks ($613 million) since 1980.

″The fight is over. It’s a real defeat for us,″ said Mafred Bruckschen, chairman of the Rheinhausen mill’s works council, the workers’ representative body that agreed to the compromise.

A Krupp spokesman, Hans-Juergen Berg, called it ″a victory of reason.″

The compromise provides for job placement at a nearby mill for some workers, rehirings outside the steel industry, newly created jobs and early retirements.

But Bruckschen said workers now must concentrate on making sure the new jobs come about. Many people have expressed doubts about that, he said.

During the workers’ struggles, the word ″Rheinhausen″ became synonymous with the economic decline of the Ruhr Valley.

In the last two years, the area around Duisburg, the city that includes Rheinhausen village, has lost 20,000 jobs, most of them in the steel industry. Unemployment in Duisburg stands at 17.6 percent, compared with the nationwide average of 8.9 percent.

The work force in the steel industry, centered in the Ruhr, has fallen to 150,000 from a peak of 500,000 in the 1960s.

As part of a national plan to consolidate steelmaking and cut costs, the federal government has been providing subsidies since 1983 for industry restructuring and the retraining and relocation of steelworkers.

The Rheinhausen works was built in 1897, joining the Krupp empire that later provided the German industrial muscle for two world wars, and helped rebuild the country over the past four decades.

Like other Ruhr steel plants, Rheinhausen has been hurt by declining demand and competition from countries with low labor costs.

″People have now realized how powerless politicians are,″ said Herbert Leimkuehler, a member of the Krupp works council and a Communist Party member. ″They’ve seen how just a handful of managers can pass judgment on an entire region.″

Mehmet Aslan, one of about 700 Turks working at Rheinhausen, also talked of the politicians.

″The politicians say, ’Go south and get work in Bavaria,‴ he said. ″But I know young people who’ve done that ... and couldn’t find apartments.

″Some of them wound up sleeping in cabins in the woods.″

End Adv AMs Monday May 23

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