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Trade unions do miners in Poland more harm than good

przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

The conclusion of a social contract between the government and miners’ representatives is a sign that the mining unions have finally realized that the coal era is coming to an end. In Spain, there are numerous signboards of closed bars, restaurants and stores around the closed mines. This is also the result of the energy transformation that not only affects the energy and mining sectors but has a wider impact as well. If we count all the people from various economic sectors that will be affected by the changes, it turns out that we are talking about almost several hundred thousand people in Poland. The agreement with miners should contain provisions on preferential loans and support for developing own business, changing the sector, and further professional activation, e.g. in the renewable energy sector. Agata Pyka talks to an Outriders journalist, Karolina Baca-Pogorzelska.

In 2021-2040, Poland’s energy transformation will cost PLN 1.6 trillion, according to the Polish Energy Policy until 2040 (PEP2040) adopted by the government. The scale of the planned expenses includes not only ensuring energy security but also carrying it out in a socially acceptable manner. How do you assess the government’s plans and its social contract with miners signed in May?

It is good that this agreement has been signed because it may bring a lot of good. It provides us with specifics we can rely on. For the first time, the announcements include the date of closing coal mines supplying the power industry in Poland, namely, 2049. Mining leaves or benefits for those who are 4 years or fewer away from retirement are good and necessary solutions. Although the agreement is probably too late and unrealistic (the mines will be closed down earlier), we were finally dealing with tangible specifics.

This agreement evidences that the miners – or rather the mining unions – have realized that the end of the coal era has begun. In such cases, I always try to distinguish mining trade unions from the miners themselves, because whenever I talk to them, I get the impression that – especially among younger representatives – they grasp the situation much better. This agreement provides the basis for further action

However, neither the agreement nor PEP2040 is realistic. We already know that the current version of the Polish Energy Policy until 2040 will have to be modified due to outdated assumptions – e.g. those relating to photovoltaics, which is progressing faster than expected, mainly thanks to government subsidies for prosumers. Moreover, despite the modified nuclear program and references to nuclear power in PEP2040, no final decisions have been formulated so far in this regard.

Since the negotiation stage is over, now it’s time for action. It is good that we have scheduled the phase-out of mines until 2049, but plans for the miners’ future have not been announced yet, to name just one example. The fact that they will get severance pay of PLN 120 thousand solves nothing. They should hear attractive change-over proposals and investment postulates in places where they live. The ideal agreement with miners should contain provisions on preferential loans and support for developing own business, changing the sector, and further professional activation, e.g. in the renewable energy sector. A promise of an Izera electric car factory in Jaworzno, Poland, is not enough.

However, one should bear in mind that both PEP2040 and the social contract are not final documents There is still a long way to go.

Currently, around 80,000 people are employed in the mining industry. Mining retirement is possible at the age of 50. The average age of an underground worker in mines is around 36 years. In theory, combining mine phase-out with the miners’ retirement should be almost seamless. What is the root of the problem? Why are miners worried about losing their jobs?

The miners themselves are not such a big issue – they are concerned not so much with losing their jobs as with whether their current workplace would be at the top of the list to be closed down. Furthermore, they are fed the message by the trade unions, which last month once again showed their strength in Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa, influencing the dismissal of President Barbara Piontek and the entire JSW management board. Let’s be honest – trade unions do more harm than good in this sector. Unions mainly care about their interests – for example, companies that are connected to mines.

You are right – 80 thousand miners are employed in various companies in coal mines. They mainly work underground, but their number also includes surface personnel, e.g. in coal processing plants.

Many outside companies also work in the mines. A lot of preparatory orders are outsourced to mining works companies. Add to these 80,000 miners staff from these companies: manufacturers of mining machinery and equipment, service providers, etc. In total, there are 3-4 times more employees in the coal sector. The Mining Chamber of Industry and Commerce says that each mining job generates 4 others.

Could you give some examples?

A good example is the closed Krupiński mine in Suszec, where there was little else besides the mine. With jobs, miners have money. If they have money, they go to spend it on a beer, a taxi ride, or a visit to the barber. Numerous local businesses collapse along with the mines’ phase-out. Mining schools are and will continue to be closed down – teachers from these schools will also be affected by the closure of mines.

I recently returned from Spain, where only one hard coal mine remains operational. Some of the closed mines are now tourist attractions, but some are left empty. Around them, you can see numerous signboards of closed bars, restaurants, kiosks, stores… This is also the result of the energy transformation that not only affects the energy or mining sectors but impacts other areas. If we count all the people from various economic sectors that will be affected by the changes, it turns out that we are talking about as many as several hundred thousand people.

While it is clear in the social contract what care the miners will be provided with, mining-related companies do not have any safeguards proposed and keep asking the question, „What will happen to us?” The major manufacturers can diversify their business and open up to new markets, e.g. the real estate market, as the Famur Group did. What about smaller businesses? There is no answer here.

You mentioned post-mining tourist attractions in Spain. What will happen to Polish mines after they are shut down? After all, not all of them will turn into museums…

I have been wondering about it since writing the book, „Second Life of Mines.” There will probably be some space for a museum; some can be developed as hotels or shopping malls – the Silesia City Center in Katowice being one such example. However, most will share the fate of the mines that have been closed down in recent years.

Contrary to the popular narrative, the fact that we are closing them down is nothing new. In 1993, there were 71 hard coal mines in Poland. Now we have around 20. Some of them merged – the present Ruda mine consists of 3 mines, but most of them have been closed down. If we go to where they once were – and let me tell you that thanks to the Outriders and what we have prepared, you will be able to see these places – we will find no trace of them.

The decommissioning process is long and it is not just an underground process. First, we need to secure what is underground and then make decisions regarding surface infrastructure. If there are buildings that can be used, the mine restructuring company may sell them, but remember that there is no space for all of the currently operating mines to be used commercially in the future. I suspect that some of them will be razed. One can hardly predict if, when and which ones, but I believe that a large part of them can stilll be used.

Precisely – you are in the process of making a documentary about the changes in mining in Poland and abroad. How is the transformation going in other countries? Are there any examples that we can be inspired by in Poland?

It is interesting how many elements abroad coincide with the transformation in Poland. While making the video, we have already visited five countries, including Germany, Ukraine and Spain. While recently in Asturias, we came across a miners’ protest. People who have come to terms with the fact that the mines have been closed, but have nevertheless taken to the streets to ask what plans the government has for them. These are largely young people. On the one hand, the life of a young pensioner is fun, but these thirty and forty-year-olds would like to do something else in their lives.

In Germany, the mining phase-out plan has already been implemented. No underground hard coal mines are operating anymore. It was decided to develop the utility area of the post-mining areas – examples include office buildings in Zollverein or Recklinghausen with their training mine and a museum with former miners as guides. We know this solution from the old mine in Wałbrzych – there, too, former employees of the mining sector show visitors around the museum.

The idea of tourism use is everywhere. The implementation of the other part of the plan is different – Spain and Poland did not fully answer the question of what will happen to the miners. In Germany, because this process was more spread over time, some people could end up in, for example, the renewable energy sector. After all, besides miners, mines also employ locksmiths, welders and electricians. With such competencies, they found themselves admirably in construction and other energy sectors. This is an example that we, as Poland, could aspire to.

Are you able to give any negative examples of the transformation carried out abroad, which may indicate the threats awaiting us?

One place we should not be inspired by is the United States, where the miners are left to their own devices. In West Virginia, there is no drinking water in post-mining areas due to how mining has damaged the area. Nobody took care of those mines. A similar situation is in the Ukrainian Donbas, where there will be no more drinking water in a few years because separatists are closing the mines incorrectly. Of course, the situation there is more complicated due to the ongoing war.

As Poland moves towards green transformation, it must prepare long-term plans, taking into account the mistakes and successes of others. It is also worth using the knowledge we already have following the liquidation of the Wałbrzych basin. That was done wrong. Wałbrzych is only now recovering from that. What happened in Lower Silesia must not be allowed to happen – unemployment of 40% lasted there for years.

However, seeing the difficulties that lie ahead, I am still optimistic. One must remember that when the Wałbrzych Basin was closed, Poland was not yet part of the European Union. We must do as much as possible to make the most of the EU transformation funds, to make it as painless as possible. Although I can not say painless, because it will never be like that.

Polish version is available here.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.