23.04.20 Where there’s a will there’s a way” Interview with Helmut Born, Unionist • 4 min.

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Helmut Born

Are climate protection and job security compatible? What will happen to people who currently earn their living in Germany’s coal industry? Helmut Born, who for more than twenty years was president of the German Farmers’ Association, is a cofounder of Trade Unionists For Climate Protection. He advocates that Germany’s coal-mining regions convert to wind and solar energy. Debate.Energy talked to him about this and other issues.

What are Trade Unionists For Climate Protection’s main objectives?

First, we want climate protection to be a much more prominent issue and to ensure that it’s a key criterion in policymaking. Second, we don’t want workers in coal-mining regions simply to be left unemployed but rather to have policies put in place that create new jobs for them. And if there are job cuts, we believe workers need to be treated fairly. Finally, we want to facilitate dialog between trade unions and the climate movement.

What’s your approach?

Verdi, Germany’s second-largest trade union, has adopted a number of motions that tend in this direction. That shows that union members are sensitive to climate change. That said, trade unions have so far refused to really engage with the issue. There are companies and trade unions that are waging a fierce battle against the climate movement. They use isolated incidents to portray the entire movement as violent. We believe this needs to change.

You're also involved with Fridays For Future. What do you think of their demands?

We have our reservations about a carbon tax. And lavish subsidies for electric cars are probably not a great idea. But Fridays For Future is all about climate protection. For us, that’s the most important thing. We’re of course also concerned about the situation of workers, something that we believe can’t be ignored.

Can we simultaneously protect jobs and the earth’s climate?

We see that as a false dichotomy. Germany’s public debate about the energy transition completely overlooks the fact that thousands of jobs in the wind-energy industry are currently being destroyed because the federal government is blocking the expansion of wind energy. Similarly, the country sat idly by in recent years while thousands of jobs disappeared in its solar industry. If policymakers would take corrective action in these areas, the labor market would have much better prospects. A representative from Greenpeace Energy recently gave us a presentation that showed how expanding wind and solar energy in Germany’s coal-mining regions could have an extremely positive impact. Companies could make big investments in these regions and offer workers there opportunities for retraining. Where there’s a will there’s a way. The problem is: the will is generally lacking.

How do you respond to middle-aged workers who say they’re too old for retraining?

The average employee in the coal-mining region of western Germany is about 53 years old. If Germany was to phase out coal by 2030, it wouldn’t be hard to find fair solutions—like early and partial retirement—for workers of this age and older. Employees in their 40s face a different situation. They’ll need retraining. And that’s precisely what’s planned.

Most people just want to keep their old job. Does your organization propose that they make a personal sacrifice in the interest of the common good?

For the workers affected, their existence is at stake. So it’s understandable that it’s a huge priority for them. Moreover, many of them have worked at the same company for decades. They’ve established a social network and a sense of belonging that they naturally don’t want to lose unless it’s unavoidable. Yet we believe that people shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture, both socially and globally. It simply can’t be denied that climate change is already having a big impact. In some areas, people’s livelihood is being threatened by drought and floods. We can’t turn a blind eye to this. Germany is a wealthy country that’s capable of giving people new options. Change is doubtless on the horizon. The question is: will workers suffer from it? Or will they be offered new prospects?


Background

In 2016 members of two of Germany’s biggest unions, Verdi and IG BCE, launched Fed Up With Climate-Activist Violence. Their now-deleted Facebook page militated against environmental movements, cast doubt on anthropomorphic climate change, and organized counterdemonstrations to the annual environmentalist Climate Camp in Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. Workers opposing climate activists wasn’t new. The belief in irreconcilable alternatives—save the world or save your job—was widespread. The movement’s very name suggested a new level of uncompromising escalation. To counter this polarization, that same year Helmut Born and members of several German trade unions joined forces to form Trade Unionists For Climate Protection.

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