DUISBURG, Germany Tens of thousands of German steelworkers took to the streets on Monday, demanding more action against the dumping of cheap Chinese imports and greater job protection amid uncertainty over the future of Thyssenkrupp's steel business.
The powerful German IG Metall union is demanding job guarantees if Thyssenkrupp merges its steel business with that of India's Tata Steel or another player - a prospect that has become more likely in the past weeks.
Workers fear they could face a similar fate to their peers in Britain, where Tata has put its entire steel business up for sale, endangering thousands of jobs.
More than 45,000 took part in protests throughout Germany, IG Metall said.
"I have another 39 years left to work. I don't want to be left on the street," said Ingo, a 28-year-old Thyssenkrupp employee, who identified himself only by his first name, at a march towards Thyssenkrupp's steel headquarters in Duisburg in Germany's Ruhr Valley industrial heartland.
Social Democrat Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, addressing a crowd of more than 17,000 protesters in Duisburg, vowed to fight for the German steel industry in Brussels, where the industry fears new climate regulation, that will make steel production uneconomical, and more favourable trade terms for China.
"We have nothing against China getting market economy status but only if it behaves like a market economy," he said, referring to the coveted World Trade Organisation status that China is expected to attain in December.
That would make it much harder for Europe to impose anti-dumping duties on Chinese goods, including steel.
The European Union has set import duties on some Chinese steel products and has started anti-dumping investigations into others under pressure from Britain, France and Germany but will not impose any new measures until November.
Steelmaking in Europe has dwindled over the past decades as heavy industry has declined while other countries, in particular China, have ramped up production, selling excess steel on world markets at prices European producers cannot match.
That has led to calls for capacity cuts in Europe, a measure that producers believe will only be achieved through mergers.
Guenter Back, head of Thyssenkrupp Steel Europe's central works council, warned management to include workers in any consolidation plans or face mass walkouts.
"We are not prepared to be bystanders if you are in your back rooms making plans for us," he told the Duisburg rally.
The steel industry employs 87,000 people directly in Germany - which unlike many other EU countries still has a strong manufacturing base. In total, it keeps 3.5 million people in employment in related industries and services, Gabriel said.
In Britain, Tata Steel agreed a deal to sell one of its main steelworks on Monday, saving 4,000 jobs, but thousands of other jobs remain at risk at its other UK operations.
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(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Susan Fenton)
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