Union leader: ‘With more social ambition, climate ambitions will also become higher’

Judith Kirton-Darling, pictured in 2014, when she was a Member of the European Parliament for Northeast England. [© European Union 2014 - Source EP]

This article is part of our special report Poland’s energy transition.

European trade unions welcome ambitious EU climate policies, but warn that they need to be implemented alongside an equally ambitious social transition plan or risk sowing the seeds of a backlash, says Judith Kirton-Darling.

Judith Kirton-Darling is Deputy General Secretary of IndustriALL Europe, an international trade union federation. 

The coal phase-out in Europe is gathering pace, many countries are pushing forward their coal exit dates. Overall, how is Europe faring when it comes to managing the social fallout of the coal phase-out, both at EU and national level?

There has indeed been an acceleration of the coal phase-out in Europe, which is due partly to climate policies and partly due to the economy, including the COVID-19 crisis. All of this means we’re heading for a coal phase-out across the whole of the European continent.

How is this managed? Well, there are certainly good examples in Spain and Germany where coal commissions were set up and included a just transition framework. These have allowed a negotiated agreement to emerge, which included the social partners and strong collective bargaining to ensure social acceptance.

At IndustriALL, we measure these processes against the guiding principles adopted in 2015 at the ILO. And those principles say a just transition is about creating quality jobs, about balancing the economy, the environment, and the social dimension, as well as avoiding situations where workers feel that they’re being talked about without being involved.

At the moment, I’m not going to lie to you, it is really intense. As a trade union federation, we are trying to support our affiliates in different countries who may be negotiating sometimes at the national level, the regional level or at company level.

And at the same time, we try to ensure that these principles of just transition are mainstreamed into the European policy, including the pandemic recovery plans or the upcoming just transition territorial plans, which will deal with more than 100 regions across Europe.

So there are multiple layers to the coal phase-out in Europe, and they all impact on each other.

Obviously, I think the speed of the coal phase-out in, particularly in central Eastern Europe is very influenced also by the European Green Deal, including the emergence of the just transition mechanism and fund.

And our red lines throughout these policies is to ensure worker participation, social justice, and good jobs for the workers involved.

You mentioned Spain and Germany as good examples of negotiated coal phase-outs, do you have also counter-examples that should not be followed?

The cautionary tale is in the northeast of England, where the British coal phase-out from the 1980s onwards was pretty brutal. And the experience of the British coalfields has definitely played out in all the different negotiations in other countries – people are very aware of the long shadow in terms of socio-economic impacts of bad management, for example when it comes to depopulation in those regions.

In Spain, by contrast, policies on depopulation are mainstreamed within the ministry of ecological transition.

At the moment, we’re evaluating the development of just transition territorial plans across Europe. And our very basic view so far is that there is very poor involvement of trade unions in some regions. In many countries, the involvement is quite superficial, whereas the depth of this transition demands, good quality, meaningful dialogue.

Social policy at EU level is managed at the national level, it’s not an EU competence. Overall, do you believe there has been enough coordination between EU regions and countries in order to manage the social policy dimension of the transition?

We’re indeed always in a situation where the policy ambition is at the European level, and the policy tools are at the national level. So you end up with a puzzle effect and regional disparities as a result of that, with leaders and laggards.

That’s why we emphasise the Spanish and German coal commission as good examples, to try and inspire others as much as possible.

There are definitely big issues specific to central and Eastern Europe, where jobs in the coal industry tend to be relatively good quality jobs. And we have in many countries, effectively a low wage trap, where investments in new industries have been built around low pay.

That means the transition to new jobs is very difficult because coal industry jobs pay better. And we hear this when it comes to jobs in the renewable energy industry. That has been the case historically in other member states, I remember this was an issue a decade ago in Germany where jobs in the wind industry were more precarious than jobs in well unionised sectors.

That story has slightly shifted in countries like Spain and Germany. But there’s still that that issue in central and Eastern Europe.

Now, your point about lack of social policy competence at European level is true. But that’s where the action plan on the European pillar of social rights is really important. And particularly initiatives like the European minimum wage, the promotion of stronger collective bargaining, benchmarks at European level, and so on.

This is about the quality of jobs, and it will have positive feed-ins into the job creation that is necessary to support the coal phase-out.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has urged OECD countries to end coal by 2030 at the latest in order to fight climate change. Do trade unions support this? What would be the social implications of this? Are they well understood?

At the moment, there is no consensus among our affiliates, about specific coal phase-out dates. Where there is an enormous consensus however is about the need for ambitious climate action.

That might sound slightly contradictory. But it’s partly because within the trade union movement, we’ve moved beyond the conversation about whether the coal phase-out should happen into a conversation about how we deliver it socially.

And how the social impact will be felt, either positive or negative, will be directly determined by negotiations around the phase-out date.

We are extremely sceptical of situations where you set a target, and you assume that the social dimension will be rectified in a kind of natural way without any intervention.

There’s an automatic assumption in climate policy, that it’s right to intervene into the market to achieve climate outcomes. And sometimes there isn’t the same logic when it comes to the social aspects.

As a trade union organisation, we are fully signed up to climate neutrality by 2050, on the condition that there is that social transition alongside. And that was the promise of the European Green Deal that was made by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and executive vice-president Timmermans.

The social management of change is a moral duty for politicians. And let’s be honest, this is not rocket science. It’s about basic anticipation of change, working out where are the people affected and developing transition pathways for them in negotiation with the unions to ensure social protection systems are in place to catch anybody who falls between the gaps.

So we welcome strong, ambitious climate policy, but not without a comprehensive view of how you’re going to deliver the just transition. Politicians at every level need to understand: we need climate ambition, but we need that social pillar alongside. That’s what we as trade unions have been advocating now for decades.

That means coal phase-out dates will vary depending on the outcome of social bargaining in the different countries or regions, not because of the climate emergency?

That is the current reality of amongst our members, yes. The scale of the challenge in different across regions and countries, and people have different resources to manage the transition.

If you think about the magnitude of the challenge in Poland compared to somewhere like Slovakia, it’s a different scale. So I think we have to have to see the direction of travel and aim to be as ambitious as possible in climate terms as well as socially.

And I believe that with more social ambition, the climate ambitions will also become higher. Because you get buy-in, people feel secure in the transition, and you reduce the anxiety about change. And that allows change to come quicker.

Here’s a concrete example, we heard in the Just Transition Platform. In Poland’s East Wielkopolska region, there is a coal company called ZE-PAK, which has about 4,000 workers. They have adopted a plan to phase out coal by 2030, and possibly even before. The local unions and the management have written to the Polish government saying, “we can go quicker if you give us the social support to ensure that it’s a fair transition for the workers”.

So the appetite is there, that’s not the question. But people need the security of managing this transition. And coal is just one sector because the transition is happening across the whole economy, all at the same time. This is enormous change that we’re asking people to embark on, in one generation.

So we need to provide some security for workers so that it’s not just a leap into the dark that people are being asked to make. Workers need more than just investment forecasts, they need to see concrete new jobs being created today.

Days ago, the Polish government and miner’s unions signed off on a plan to phase out coal mines by 2049. Is that sufficient with regard to the climate crisis?

2049 is the last mine closing. If you look at the timeline of the initial agreement struck in September, you will see that the majority of coal mines are scheduled to close a lot earlier than 2049. And if you look at the demographic pyramid in the coal mining sector, it’s basically accompanying the last miners to the last mine in terms of working life.

Like I said, people are starting in different places. And politics matters in this. And what is unbelievably striking for us is the speed of the shift in the discussion in Poland. Only in 2018, [Polish President Andrzej] Duda said there would be coal mining for 200 years in Poland. And then, in September last year, unions signed up to a deal that coal mines will close by 2049.

This is like a 180 degree shift in terms of the politics of the discussion in Poland. And we’ve seen that shift inside the unions as well. I think climate is part of the mix but it’s not the only issue. It’s also the economics of the coal sector coming into play.

Now, there is a deal between the government and trade unions in Poland to close the last coal mine by 2049. And let’s remember, the scale of this is half of Europe’s coal miners today, covered by this agreement. So it’s colossal. And this is really happening at pace when you compare to the amount of time other countries took to negotiate, for example in Germany.

So for us, it is really important as a starting point to recognise that shift. On the other hand, as I said, we are committed to climate neutrality by 2050. All member states have to play their part in that.

And in our view, this coal phase-out deal in Poland is a backstop plan for the workers affected. Once you’ve got that in place, then it provides that security, and it allows things to evolve further. It doesn’t mean that the plan will remain the same from now until 2049. But it provides a framework for negotiation and a backstop for the people who are affected and security to engage in the direction of travel.

And I think sometimes that’s forgotten when talking about climate action. You have to get people on the train, to be heading in the right direction, to then continue the process. And it could be that as we continue in our journey, that actually the train speeds up in the future, in common agreement between the two sides of industry.

Things can evolve and change, you know, the world isn’t static. But getting people onto the train is massive. And I really hope that that will be acknowledged for the significant step that it is.

And Poland is an important signal in central Eastern Europe but also outside Europe. If we can’t deliver a just transition in Poland, then there are real challenges for governments elsewhere in the world to deliver just transition elsewhere in coal heavy countries. So there’s a lot riding on these negotiations.

In Europe, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic are still planning to keep coal well beyond 2030. And for the time being, Poland does not yet have a firm coal phase-out date. Is this because workers in those countries are more reluctant to the clean energy transition than elsewhere in Europe?

The simple answer would be to say no: the world is made up of greys, not black and whites. The European trade union Institute (ETUI) did a study looking into union strategies in relation to climate change. Some have taken a leading role on climate action, while others have been hedging their bets and others have been more resistant. And so, yes, there are different positions within trade unions.

But I wouldn’t say that longer coal phase-out dates are due to union reluctance, to be honest. I think it’s far more complex, with a mixture of politics at national level, the role of employers, and the positions of other economic actors. And then the unions are in that mix as well.

If you take Poland, and think about the scale and pace of change which is underway, it’s massive. Let’s say 2049 becomes their coal phase-out date, this means they will have 30 years to end coal. Now, compare that to countries like Belgium, Northern France, or the UK – the process started in the late 40s or 50s. So actually, the speed with which they’re attempting to make the transition is relatively quick in comparison to other countries.

Think about Silesia and the development of the electric vehicle battery supply chain there. This involves long term economic planning, it doesn’t happen very quickly. So I think the length of time and the phase-out dates actually are a reflection of all that.

The European Union has put together a Just Transition Mechanism, with a dedicated €17.5 billion fund that will be complemented by national support schemes for coal regions in transition. Overall, the European Commission claims this will help mobilise at least €150 billion over the period 2021-2027 in the most affected regions. Do those numbers add up, according to you?

To start with, the €150 billion figure is a forecast. And we will wait to see if that materialises.

I think it’s worth saying that just transition isn’t necessarily cheap. And although €17.5 billion can sound like a lot of money, what the European Commission put on the table in May last year was €40 billion.

And that €40 billion is an interesting figure. Because it corresponds exactly to the figure that Germany put on the table as part of its own coal commission.

In addition, the just transition fund was meant originally to cover only coal regions, which is about 40 regions across Europe. But it’s now been extended to carbon intensive regions, as well. So we’re talking about more than 100 regions across Europe that qualify as potential recipients for this pot of money.

So it’s clear the scale of financing at European level still doesn’t match the scale of the challenge at European level. And I think the people involved in the European Commission recognise this as well.

That said, you need to see the whole European budget and recovery plan as a series of combined proposals. If the just transition fund is seen as the main vehicle for financing support to the coal phase-out, then it is just too paltry.

But if there is clever articulation between the national recovery plans, the cohesion funds, the Regional Development Fund, and the just transition fund together, then you can start to see how those funds can really have an impact.

if I take a historic example, going back to where I’m from, in the northeast of England. It was really in that brutal closure of the pits in the 1980s and 1990s that the European Union filled the funding gap that was left by central government. Equally, in cities like Manchester and Liverpool, those European funds used in a clever articulated way, actually promoted economic diversification, regeneration and the creation of new jobs.

So the just transition fund is part of the mix, and I campaigned for it when I was an MEP in the European Parliament. But it’s not a silver bullet. And it has to be seen in articulation with other funds.

In central and Eastern Europe, there is a real challenge about how to draw in Foreign Direct Investment to support the transition. Because the danger is that lots of the investment in the green transition will flood into regions which are leading the green transition. And the difficulties of drawing investment into regions which desperately need the transition will become all the more difficult.

And so there’s a real importance here of connecting up the dots with work in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the OECD about the quality of FDI flows and ensuring that those investments are supporting green transition and quality jobs.

Because if the jobs that are created are poor quality low-paid jobs, then you are sowing the seeds for a backlash against the whole strategy.

So the just transition fund is vital for us. But we need to have an investment policy agenda, particularly in central and Eastern Europe, to ensure that the €150 billion that the just transition mechanism will attract is quality investment, creating good quality jobs for people.

Let’s talk about regional cooperation now. Last year, Poland decided to extend mining activities in the Túrow  coal mine near the Czech border, despite warnings from Prague about the environmental consequences, including pollution of drinking water supplies. The Czech Republic has now referred the case to the European Court of Justice. What lessons do you think can be drawn from this? Has international or regional cooperation been lacking in this case?

Túrow is a case study on the limits and weaknesses of international cooperation. This is exactly why European cooperation in the fields of environment, energy and climate is so absolutely crucial. Because what happens on one side of a border has an impact on people living on the other side. This is why the European Union has a real raison d’être in the 21st century. And it’s really a tragedy that it’s got to that point.

We’re not involved in the details of the case, but I would remind that we are all bound by our commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And the SDGs include clean water and insuring environmental protection. So I think it’s a shame that the European Union as a forum for dialogue hasn’t been adequate enough to solve the conflict as this point. But this is what the European Court of Justice is for, it’s the final arbiter of disputes between member states in the Union. I just think it’s a tragic story, really.

Ordering an immediate closure of the mine would also be dramatic for the workers potentially affected. And this is something the judges will have to consider as well, I suppose.

They will have to weigh up the whole context. There will be damage either way, I’m afraid. If there is a decision to close the mine, that doesn’t preclude the fact that there needs to be a negotiated dimension to  the closures.

But I can also see the point from the Czech side of the border. So I think there is a public interest in both cases. Ultimately, it’s a good example which demonstrates that an environmental question has deep-seated social impacts which can’t be separated. It makes the case for a more holistic policy approach.

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