POLAND’S COAL MINERS HAVE THE SKILLS TO MAKE A SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION TO A RENEWABLES-BASED ECONOMY, BUT LONG-TERM VISION AND EXPANDED DIALOGUE ARE NEEDED TO ENSURE A PROSPEROUS FUTURE FOR ALL.
Katowice, the city for which I work as a city council member, is the capital of Poland’s Upper Silesian Coal Basin. The region’s traditional economy is based on heavy industry, coal mining, and steel factories, but these are industries in progressively steep decline. Following the collapse of communism and the turn away from central planning and toward an open-market economy, various state-led restructuring efforts have been introduced in recent decades to assist in transforming the regional economy — with mixed results.
Employment figures from the mining sector give a clear picture of the magnitude of change. In the early 1990s, Poland’s coal-mining sector employed 400,000 people, mostly in Upper Silesia. In the 2000s, extensive government reforms in the mining sector saw the number of employed miners drop to 150,000. As of 2018, the mining sector employed just 82,000.
At the same time, however, a further 86,000 jobs in renewables have been created. But this only tells part of the story.
Regional transition processes in the past have been focused too narrowly on the macro-economy, GDP, and such metrics. The numbers at first glance appear encouraging: a little over 2 percent unemployment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and plenty of investment in new office space — and with that, lots of new business process outsourcing (BPO) jobs.
Many of these jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing. In other words, it’s a short-term fix — and does little to address the primary concerns of the adversely affected mining community.
FACE TO FACE
I work with a science and technology park called Eurocentrum. There are 12 similar facilities in Poland, but I work with the only one dedicated to energy efficiency in buildings and renewables. After my election to the Katowice City Council one-and-a-half years ago, I also became deputy chair of the City Council Environmental Committee and a serving member of the City Council Coal Commission.
The fact that these might appear to be conflicting obligations is quite understandable — but it helps explain the following anecdote.
One day, as a council member, I was attending an event at the still-operating Wujek Coal Mine, the site of bitter and violent protests in 1981. I saw a group of miners in front of the main entrance to the coal mine. I knew some of them personally, and they were shouting at me: “This is the guy who wants to close our coal mine!”
I approached them. “No,” I said. “What I want for you is healthier, better-paying jobs.”
My reply softened their tone, but they didn’t believe me. “We don’t have other skills or knowledge. What can we do?”
I turned to a few of them. “Aren’t you a qualified plumber? You’re an electrician, right? You do carpentry, don’t you?”
They all nodded.
“Look,” I continued. “There’s a local training center where you can get skill certification and start a new job in renewables.”
They were really surprised to hear this — pleasantly surprised, I think.
A PLACE AT THE TABLE
It’s true, indeed, that today’s miners are very highly skilled and qualified for a number of occupations. But a lot of people don’t realize this. And, worse, too few miners themselves realize this. Part of the blame for this dynamic is that most of the major negotiations about making the transition from fossil fuels to renewables over the years have excluded those people most affected by the transition — the miners themselves!
Transition roundtables generally have politicians sitting on one side, and miners’ union representatives on the other side. And the only issue being discussed today — apart from COVID-19 — is money. There’s no real, long-term transition plan being put on the table, no fair dialogue between politicians and miners, no message of hope. And the only messages coming from the unions are that they want to close the mines, there’s no post-coal future, and there are no alternatives.
The unions are generally successful in getting higher salaries and benefits for the workers, but tend to tune out the government. And politicians are afraid of the political power of the miners. ‘Round and ‘round it goes, and no truths about global economic trends or the climate crisis ever see the light of day.
We absolutely need to stop burning fossil fuels and digging coal. We need to change our energy system and dispel myths about “clean coal.” This is about our health and our future, about the future of coming generations, our children, our nieces and nephews. We need to preserve the future for them. But this urgency is hard or next to impossible to communicate in our currently rarified air of discussion.
While governments have tended to see the miners as allies and have done a great deal to deliver on promises about a “super future” for them, there has always been something missing from these promises — namely, consequences. For example, a program implemented in 2000 gave money directly to people to start new jobs. There were options for local communities to re-generate post-industrial sites into new business incubators, business centers and support centers. Former factories were turned into office spaces. There were plenty of success stories — short-term success stories.
The first pillar of the program, which involved giving money to miners leaving the sector, misfired. While the miners were good workers, many lacked white-collar and managerial skills. Lacking investment capacity for the future, they bought new cars, new houses, and the like. When the money ran out, a host of new problems emerged — substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty. When they hit rock bottom, older fears and skepticism about new opportunities were reinforced. It shut down dialogue. The miners were no longer interested in new proposals and wanted to preserve the status quo — or more accurately, the status quo ante.
We can certainly draw some good experiences in the past, but we also need to learn from past failures. We need to understand consequences, and to introduce planning and vision that spans decades, not four-year or five-year election cycles. We also need to confront the reality that long-term strategies are likely to be unpopular and have political consequences for those who introduce or implement them. Will leaders be prepared to possibly pay a steep political price to secure a better long-term future?
ROOM TO TALK
With renewables now a meaningful part of the equation, there’s new space for dialogue, new space for civil society organizations, new space for important partnerships that can build trust. Negotiations are a lot more successful when partners trust each other.
Despite these new opportunities, we also have to be mindful of the language we use. Politicians, members of the business community, and union leaders are very skilled in formal dialogue. They understand the protocols, the procedures, and how to vote. They generally take a very bureaucratic approach. We need to create a lot more room for open-ended discussion and informal contact. Civil society panels, for example, raise the level of trust during such proceedings, and invite meaningful dialogue to follow a bad recommendation or poor decision.
It’s also very important to understand the local context, as well as the hopes and fears of the vulnerable and under-represented. You really don’t want to be seen as is some wise-guy from Warsaw preaching the new gospel. To be convincing, examples need to be concrete, and approaches need to be tangible. Stick with smaller numbers, as large numbers and quantities can be abstract and incomprehensible. And tell good, meaningful stories.
To sum up, I believe that the three most important things to consider here are:
1. Learn the lessons of the past and understand the consequences of present actions.
2. Put people at the center of the process and engage them in real dialogue.
3. Deploy long-term vision to develop and implement a long-term strategy, whatever the immediate consequences might be. At the same time, any good strategy will take into consideration the macro-economy, social well-being, and the environment. You can’t leave out any of that.
My region has a lot of social and economic links with Germany, and I’m personally responsible for communication between Upper Silesia and North Rhine-Westphalia on matters concerning energy. There’s a lot we can learn from recent German experience. Reductions and closures there resulted in lots of protests at the time, but a mechatronics program has seen the region make a successful shift into new jobs, as there’s a huge concentration of automotive companies in the region. The Polish government needs to be more open to outside ideas so we can communicate these types of experiences more effectively — at least ideas that emerge from areas with characteristics similar to our own.
Last year, I was selected as the national coordinator of Polish Climate Reality Leaders, and I’m very proud to be a member of this platform — especially today and given in the Polish context I’ve attempted to describe here. We need international connections that our government sometimes fails to establish. The more links you have, the more options you have. And with more options, there’s a lot more hope.