Forbidden fruit of capitalism: The hard-bargaining, high-living former head of Germany's biggest union is a fallen hero after an insider dealing scandal. John Eisenhammer reports

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TWO WEEKS ago, Franz Steinkuhler would have been looking forward to his 56th birthday on Ascension Day, the Thursday before last. It would be a fitting occasion to celebrate with close friends the victory of his engineering union in a bitter pay strike in eastern Germany. 'Fighting Franz', leader of IG Metall - with 3.5 million members the biggest single union in the world - and Germany's undisputed potentate of the labouring masses, would be able to show off the latest feather in an already fine cap.

But there was no birthday party. Around Steinkuhler's DM1m (pounds 396,000) German villa in the Schillerstrasse in Oberursel, a fashionable town studded with the residences of Frankfurt's banking magnates, prowled the popular press. Cameras and notebooks in hand, they wanted to see who still dared to chink glasses with a man now tainted by dishonesty and in disgrace.

Just three days before, Germans had been thunderstruck by the revelation in Stern magazine (of Hitler diary fame, but this time they got it right) that the workers' hero had speculated around DM1m on a company belonging to Daimler-Benz, where he sat on the supervisory board. More damning still, the purchase of the Mercedes shares came shortly before the announcement of plans to dissolve MAH, the Mercedes holding company, and swap its shares one-for-one with Daimler-Benz stock. This sent the value of Steinkuhler's new shares rocketing. Suspicions of insider trading aggravated concerns that profiteering on this scale was inappropriate for a trade union leader.

True to form, 'Fighting Franz' prepared to tough it out. His elbows scarred from three decades of battling to the top, Steinkuhler had a reputation as a man who did not give up. The shares, which had garnered him a profit of more than DM 100,000, had been bought for his 12-year-old son, Dominik, he declared. 'If a stone should fall on my head tomorrow, my son must be cared for,' asserted the union boss. 'Why should I alone not be allowed to buy shares?'

There were some embittered rumblings from those on strike in the east. 'Franz leads us into battle for a few marks and earns over DM 100,000 for himself with one phone call,' said one. But the reaction among the rank and file was generally muted. 'Our Franz' still enjoyed great respect.

Even Germany's financial establishment held its tongue. The birthday had been ruined, but Steinkuhler had reason to believe he could ride out the criticism.

The wall of silence was suddenly shattered last Sunday. Karl Otto Pohl, former president of the Bundesbank and a highly respected figure, said he was convinced Steinkuhler had abused insider information in his Mercedes share dealings. 'I was deputy chairman of the Volkswagen supervisory board in the Seventies and know how it goes. Naturally, there is no documented information,' said Mr Pohl.

Then the telex machine in IG Metall's crystal blue headquarters in Frankfurt whirred with a second poisoned missive from Stern. Steinkuhler had also speculated in the shares of Fokker, the Dutch aircraft company, shortly before it was taken over by Daimler-Benz.

The embattled union leader was forced into a desperate gamble to hold on to the power he had worked so many years to attain. In a letter to senior IG Metall officials on last Monday, Steinkuhler offered to resign if his union demanded it. But in the next sentence, he appealed for a renewal of confidence in his leadership. He offered to pay the profits from his share dealings into a solidarity fund for eastern German workers.

The word from within the union was mixed, but far from hopeless. Many voices pleaded for 'the best leader we have ever had' to stay on. In the end, however, a dejected Steinkuhler threw in the towel. Before he met the union executive last Tuesday, he realised he could not escape the web of lies and deceit. He knew his 1985 purchase of shares in AEG prior to its takeover by Daimler-Benz - he had sworn to the insider trading commission at the time that he had never owned AEG stock - would come out. It did. He also had wind that at the Daimler-Benz annual shareholders' meeting last Wednesday, Deutsche Bank would use its block vote to eject him from the supervisory board. That had never happened before.

At 12.20pm last Tuesday, the 16 members of IG Metall's executive heard their leader's letter of resignation. He was not contrite: he was going to protect his family. 'I can stand up to the scorn and derision,' he said, 'but not my wife and son.' As he strode out, he turned to photographers and said: 'This is the last good picture you will get of me.' He was standing in front of a mural of a teddy bear with a pig's face, falling into a play-pen with a noose around its neck. He then disappeared into the basement, to be driven away in his Mercedes.

As Steinkuhler had feared, the Daimler-Benz shareholders' meeting the following day was unusually turbulent. Deutsche Bank, holding 28 per cent of Daimler shares, said Steinkuhler had to leave the board for the sake of Daimler-Benz and Germany's future as an international financial centre.

By the end of the ill-tempered gathering, the extent of the damage wrought by the affair was evident. The German labour movement had lost a man who stood head-and-shoulders above everyone else, and the critical gaze of international investors was again fixed on Germany's inability to deal with insider trading. It is the only country with pretensions to being a significant financial centre that has not made insider dealing a criminal offence.

For Daimler-Benz, which is seeking a listing on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of this year, the whole business could hardly be more disastrous. Dismayed US institutional investors would not touch Daimler stock for at least six months, Mr Pohl said.

Steinkuhler relished his position on the supervisory boards of some of Germany's most influential companies: Daimler-Benz, Thyssen, Volkswagen, Mannesmann. This typically German institution is the apex of the system of mitbestimmung or co-determination. Supervisory boards in big companies are made up 50-50 of worker and shareholder representatives, with a neutral chairman. The board 'oversees' management's running of the company.

By consulting the board on important decisions of strategy and personnel, the system has played a significant part in Germany's avoidance of industrial conflict. The package of confidential papers on Daimler's 1992 performance and future business plan that Steinkuhler received in March was typical.

Steinkuhler's impressive rise to become head of IG Metall in 1986 was driven by a fierce ambition to see the working man enjoy the fruits of capitalism. Here lay his two souls: the indefatigable negotiator who drove hard bargains, and the individual who unashamedly enjoyed fine living.

He liked to attend horse races with the Steigenbergers, owners of some of Gernany's most luxurious hotels, and is, or at least was, on familiar du (you) terms with Edzard Reuter, head of Daimler-Benz. In a country of such formal linguistic etiquette, to be on du terms means a great deal. If properly done, the senior person will raise his glass of sekt (German bubbly) saying 'My name is Edzard'. And The other will reply, 'My name is Franz'. They are then on first name terms.

Mr Steinkuhler always looked as if he had a personal hairdresser in tow; his love of Armani ties, noble wines and fine food were well known. When people questioned this, he would reply: 'Do you know anyone who likes to eat badly?'.

But this did not blemish the standing of a man who was re-elected last Autumn as IG Metall's leader with a 90 per cent majority. On the contrary, IG Metall's skilled and prosperous members were proud to see their man at home with the great and the good.

But times are different now the recession is biting. While few workers understood the details of insider trading, they all appreciated the difference between their salaries and the DM1m Steinkuhler was able to place on a single hot tip. The union leader said he had, as a 'thrifty Swabian' (the Scots of Germany) saved the money. Many suspected he had a special loan from somewhere.

Then came the news that the Frankfurt federal prosecutor is investigating Steinkuhler for possible tax evasion. Having perfected the ability to move easily between the shop floor and the salons of the rich, 'Fighting Franz' finally lost his balance.

Timetable to the end of a career

17 march - Steinkuhler is invited to supervisory board meeting of Daimler-Benz on 2 April.

18 march - Steinkuhler buys 500 shares in MAH (Mercedes Holding Company for DM228,000.

23 march - Steinkuhler buys another 500 MAH shares for DM225,000.

24 March - Daimler announces it will seek a share listing in US; Daimler's shares rise, pulling MAH shares along with it.

26 March - Steinkuhler buys another 100 MAH shares for DM49,000.

1 April - Steinkuhler buys a final packet of 1,000 MAH shares for DM496,000.

1 April - beginning of the Daimler-Benz supervisory board meeting, attended by Steinkuhler, a member for 16 years.

2 April - Daimler announces MAH is to be dissolved and its shares swapped one-for-one for Daimler stock. In late trading, shares of MAH, which traditionally traded at a 25 per cent discount to Daimler's, jump by DM85.

April-May - Steinkuhler and other members of the Daimler supervisory board are interviewed by officials of Frankfurt's insider dealing commission in connection with the rise of the MAH share price prior to the 2 April announcement.

17 May - Details of Steinkuhler's share dealing are publicised by Stern, based on material leaked from the BfG bank, the former trade union bank.

(Photographs omitted)