Interview M. Popescu: The coal industry in Romania and the relations of the environmental movement with the workers

Internationalist Standpoint spoke to Mihnea Teodor Popescu, a student in Sociology in Cluj-Napoca Romania, about the struggles of Romanian coal miners. Mihnea is a member of the climate justice youth initiative Fridays for Future in Romania. He has been active in FFF since 2019, when the very first climate strikes took place there. His hometown is Târgu Jiu in Gorj County, one of the main cities in an area that has a heavily coal-based economy. A lot of jobs in the industrial and technological sector of the region revolve around the coal industry and during the past few years these are being reduced due to the targets of the European Green Deal. That has led to workers struggles and a discussion in the environmental movement.

Q: Over the past while coal miners in Romania have been through struggles, protests and strikes. What is the cause of that? 

A: To briefly explain the situation: Over the last decades the coal industry in Romania was in decline. One of the areas that interests us for this discussion is the Jiu Valley. It’s an industrial region that consists of multiple towns located in a mountain area, on the valley of the river Jiu. Over recent years, some of the coal mines in the region have been closed, some of them slowed down production, some of them were on the brink of closure and just recently closed, and some of them are scheduled to be closed in the near future. Because of the European Green Deal and other international commitments regarding the climate and energy production, a lot of coal plants and coal mines will have to be shut down in the near future. Romania pledged to quit producing energy based on coal in the coming years. Since the European Green Deal targets the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, the Romanian Government is planning to convert the coal plants to natural gas plants in order to lower carbon emissions. Of course, we think that is a bad strategy from an environmental perspective. 

In any way, that means a lot of people who are currently working in this area will lose their jobs because the government has no plans of directly intervening in order to achieve some kind of justice in the energy transition. These are workers in the mines, as well as in the coal plants and in other industries – a lot of industries are connected to coal-fired plants.
I want to give one example to illustrate the policy of the government. In 2019, when the Fridays for Future movement was at its peak, I had the opportunity to talk to the Minister of Environment as part of an FFF delegation. When I asked him about the energy transition and the situation of the workers in this industry, he avoided giving a direct answer and was saying something like “Oh well, I don’t know. Maybe they will find some other jobs or the government would help them somehow or I don’t know”. That was his perspective at that point. 

Currently a lot of the workers are on constant strike action in the region, with the demand for the age of retirement for people who work in this sector to be lowered, in order forsome of them to be able to retire before they lose their jobs due to redundancy. 

But the government is intentionally delaying the adoption of such a law. There have been a lot of talks with some parties that support them and with union leaders. But from what I know, the proposal for the law is still blocked and the parties that are now in government are indeed actively trying to block it. 

And that has prompted a response from the workers. The response started in early 2021 when a coal plant and also some mines in Hunedoara County -that is where the Jiu Valley is located- were closed down.  Workers organized mass protests, some of them actually climbed buildings and one of them even threatened to jump from there if their demands weren’t met. Unfortunately, that struggle wasn’t successful. The plants were closed without being presented with a clear alternative.  Now we have the same story in my home county, Gorj. 

Workers go on constant strikes, every week or every few days, and organize street protests in front of the building of the government representative in area. 

Q: On many occasions governments blame the environmental movement for the jobs losses of workers in the fossil fuel industry. What do you think should be the response of Fridays for Future towards this accusation and towards the coal miners themselves?

A: First of all, we have to notice that some sort of hostility has grown against the climate movement in the region we are talking about. This was generated by the political establishment in order to shift the blame from the government’s policy to our actions

The truth is that bourgeois politicians are acting against the interests of the workers and also against the interests of the youth protesting for the climate. There is also major political clout, or political gain, to be made from attacking the broader climate movement by the politicians in these areas. They are trying to keep the votes of this part of the population which has been pushed into economic vulnerability by neoliberal pseudo-solutions to the climate crisis. 

The politicians who are practicing this discourse are definitely aware of the fact that they wouldn’t be able to stop the process of transition to green energy, as the process is happening all across Europe, not only in Romania, and it is the result of international decisions. And of course, transition from fossil fuels to green energy is absolutely necessary to tackle the climate crisis. The real issue is that those who govern do not have any plan for the workers who will lose their jobs from this transition. The discourse also capitalizes on the mistakes of the environmental movement in other countries and their disconnection to the reality on the ground. From the point of the movement, there should be a discussion and a critique made about those who have gone down the road and have agreed to anti-worker policies in the name of the green transition. But in this case, we are not talking about an honest critique but rather its exploitation for the construction of an apology for the capitalist status quo that doesn’t benefit the interests of workers and the youth alike. As a person who has lived in this area, and as a climate activist, I consider this kind of discourse as very cynical because it is just offering false hope for political and electoral exploitation, without providing real solutions, preying on the vulnerability of some parts of the population.

People in the climate movement are aware of the fact that you have to offer a real alternative for those jobs that were lost. But a part of them are like, okay, we have to ensure a process of just transition to green energy, we demand that some alternative in the work field is offered to them, and that’s it. 

But it is not enough for the climate movement to just adopt a general demand for some alternative for the miners who will lose their jobs. In order for them to be allies of the climate movement and vice versa, in order for us to be their allies rather than the people who are unintentionally helping their enemies and exploiters, we have to go beyond that.

We have to learn to value the experience within those communities and listen to those who have had it in order to understand them, to understand their struggles and their fears and also the objective conditions that could make the transition to green energy fair and just for everyone. We have to support the miners demand for an early retirement plan but we also have to raise demands such as mass public investment in socially-necessary sectors where those workers could find a secure and well-paid job. We should not leave this to the hands of the market because this would mean unemployment and/or poorly paid precarious jobs.

And we have to understand that this is not possible or even desirable in the current capitalist system. If we are to serve both the interests of the workers and of the future generations, we’ll have to go beyond the paradigm of profit. For capitalism, the biggest problem is that the coal plants and mines we are talking about are not profitable anymore, and they are even discussing the importation coal-based energy from other countries! We have to push for clean energy alternatives, which are possible to build on a local, national and international scale, and we have to push for the retooling of industries in order to keep jobs and not impose a decline in workers’ living standards.

Another point of the local and national discourse against the climate movement is built around the issue of what they call national energy independence. Unfortunately, what could be a serious discussion regarding the predatory policies and actions of multinational companies is rather a protectionist discourse- in favor of local capital against foreign capital. It is also presented in a nationalistic fashion rather than from a point of the people who are suffering the burden of high energy prices. It tries to appeal more to the nationalist sentiment than to the concrete needs and struggles of the people. I feel like this has taken way too much space when the main issue is the situation of the workers and the need for a green transition, and it might be a move to divert attention from that. Cheap and reliable alternatives to coal are possible and realistic, however under the current capitalist system the people in power aren’t interested in that -because it doesn’t deliver as much profit. And we live in a system which prioritizes profit over people’s needs.

Because of the war in Ukraine many European countries are returning to coal for energy production. Romania imports only small amounts of natural gas for its energy production. It seems that the government’s plan is to accelerate the extraction of natural gas from the Romanian part of the Black Sea, and convert coal plants to gas plants. Of course, this is an environmental abomination and the exploitation will be done by foreign corporations, chiefly the Austrian OMV and Chevron, but that is another story. One way or another, coal miners are going to pay the cost.

So, the first thing that the climate movement should understand is that it is not possible to have a transition in which we change the way we produce energy and we retool the industries without actually being in contact with the people who are directly affected by this process. And by that, I mean the workers. We have to understand them and their objective conditions and we have to act within a frame that advances the aims of the movement but does not hurt them and their interests. 

Q: Does the Fridays for Future organization in Romania have a plan to intervene in the struggles of coal miners? 

A: We have tried various tactics in the past, like collaborating with some NGOs around this issue. But concrete experience has shown that this wasn’t the best strategy. The NGOs, which have taken an active role in the fight against the coal industries over the last years, were -and currently are- rather seen as enemies. We have to start from the local community in order to build trust among the workers and the movement. As for the future, we’re currently trying to work towards this. We are discussing some plans in this direction. We have also published a manifesto which is what we consider as the basis for our line of action. The manifesto reflects our vision regarding how we should build a mass movement for climate justice. And there we have stated that we oppose measures that would “combat climate change” while affecting not the people who profit from climate change, but rather the working masses and the people who are working in these industries. So, we should demand some form of direct intervention by the state in this situation in a way that will help workers and ensure the construction of sustainable industries in these areas as well. We believe this is an integral part of what we call a just transition to green energy without which it cannot take place without hurting the local communities and the workers. We don’t want to build a sustainable future for us at their expense, but rather along with them.

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