Published on January 10, 2018

As The Netherlands shuts down coal sector, unions fight for fair deal

Interview with Patrick van Klink (the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, FNV) and Willem Wiskerke (climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Netherlands)

Interview by Claudia Ciobanu

Photo by Berber Verpoest. Mining museum near Heerlen, in the region of Limburg where the Dutch coal mines used to be located before closure.

The new Dutch government, formed in October 2017 and led by conservative-liberal Mark Rutte, committed to closing all the country’s five coal plants before 2030, including three new ones built as recently as 2015.

The country’s biggest trade union, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions* is fighting to ensure that workers from the dying coal business get compensation and retraining to match jobs available in the new economy. Trade unions are traditionally powerful in The Netherlands, where the ‘polder’ model of tripartite talks among unions, employers and government forms the basis of major policies. But, under successive liberal-dominated government coalitions, their power has been become shakier. Can the end of coal provide them with new opportunities?

We talked to Patrick van Klink from FNV and Willem Wiskerke from Greenpeace Netherlands about how trade unions and environmental groups try to work together to ensure a just transition away from coal in the country.

JT: What is the background of this decision by the government to close all coal plants in the country?

Willem Wiskerke: I always say that The Netherlands was actually the laggard for a long time. Somewhere in 2005, a decision was made to renew the five old coal plants from the 1980s, so three new coal plants were built – but they were bigger ones, so they completely replaced the old capacity. The Netherlands was thus the only country that renewed entirely its old fleet while other countries were using the closure of old plants to phase out coal.

But then the Urgenda case came (in 2015, following a case brought by the NGO Urgenda, a Dutch court ordered the government to reduce emissions by a quarter by 2020 in order to protect its citizens from climate change), so we thought this was an opportunity to ask for the closure of all coal plants in the country. After a long campaign, fought together with others, in 2016, the parliament passed a resolution asking for a 55 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2030 – this wouldn’t be possible without the closure of all coal plants.

The parliamentary resolution is non-binding but in practice it cannot really be ignored by the government except at very high electoral costs. So this decision kicked off a whole complicated political process to decide on the phaseout. We had a coalition of liberals and social-democrats in government at the time and the former didn’t support the phaseout, with the economy minister especially opposed to an executive decision to shut down coal plants, especially new ones – as a liberal, he thought such a closure should be brought about by market forces.

There was no compromise by election time in 2017, so we resumed asking for a phaseout only when the new government was formed in the fall of last year.

JT: When did your cooperation with the trade unions start?

WW: This happened much earlier, with the Energy Agreement in 2013 (In 2013, representatives of civil society and environmental organisations, employers’ associations and trade union federations, and the Dutch Government negotiated the broad outlines of an Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth, which aimed at creating ‘an affordable and clean supply of energy, more jobs, and better opportunities for the Netherlands in the clean technology market’).

In The Netherlands, we have this tradition of having a stakeholder dialogue towards consensus to make political decisions. In 2012, some representatives of civil society, environmental groups, unions and people from the industry got together to discuss why the previous commitments of The Netherlands to cut down emissions didn’t work out and how to do it differently this time around. Before, we had always had a deadlock in politics and therefore the money was not made available. This time around, people wanted to have everyone around the table to see how far we can get if we include everyone, including unions and environmental groups. This led to the Energy Agreement.

Patrick van Klink: We managed to form a very big united front, which was very powerful. This was a success story because the ‘green-red block’, the alliance between environmentalists and the unions proved to be really influential, we really managed to alter the mindset of business representatives.

JT: How did you get to this ‘green-red’ alliance? Why were unions persuaded to take action on climate change?

PvK: Unions are not automatically for this kind of agreement, we always have an ongoing internal debate. But we wanted this Agreement for two major reasons. On the one hand, we thought it was simply necessary: there are no jobs on a dead planet, an overall vision of the future is needed. On the other hand, we saw that the economy is changing and we wanted to seize the opportunity and be involved in shaping things. With the changing of the economy came a lot of new employment which was not unionised so we thought we should get in on this. Many new jobs were created, but these turned out to be flexible, precarious jobs – we were not satisfied with this and because we were involved in the process we were able to make a fuss about this from the start.

Because we were involved in the talks, we found out that even if the government made a political decision to close coal plants, no money has been made abailable for compensatory measures for workers. This is a main reason for us to partner with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the others: we want to influence decisions, we want there to be a structural fund to help workers retrain for new jobs or compensate them for income loss or pension loss.

We don’t expect the utilities which own the coal plants to pay this money: the coal plants are in separate divisions that are empty companies with no money; if the government shuts down the plant and you knock on the door of the company to ask the compensation, you won’t get anything from the utilities. So that’s why we have to address the government for this money.

WW: There is no concrete date set for the phaseout yet, the commitment just says ‘before 2030’.

The government doesn’t want to pay any compensation to the utilities for forcing them to close the coal plants. That’s why they prefer to ‘smoke them out’, which is, to wait out and don’t do much – the more they wait, the more energy companies will pull out of coal on their own and they will do it without getting any compensation from the government. It’s good that the government doesn’t want to compensate the polluters, but this also means they won’t press the companies to compensate workers either. And the companies will never do it of their own accord: their legal obligation is to get the most possible compensation for their shareholders.

JT: It’s very surprising to hear the Dutch government doesn’t want to pay compensation for workers. In both Germany and Poland, which we visited for this project, important public funds went to this end.

WW: The Netherlands is a very liberal country. The idea to just give money to workers is simply shocking here. The government would rather give it to multinationals.

JT: How many workers are we talking about here?

PvK: About 2,500 workers in the coal plants, harbours and transport. About one thousand are in the coal plants.

JT: That’s not a lot of people!

PvK: Not at all but it is still tough. It’s especially tough in the ports, where we have low-qualified workers who get paid very well because of the union power. When they go into other jobs, they will really suffer from the gap. With workers from the plants it might be easier, they have higher qualifications, they might go to work in gas plants (gas is a bigger sector in The Netherlands than coal; coal accounts for a third of electricity production, renewables for another 12 percent and most of the rest is gas) or maybe to work in the chemical industry where there is a need for workers. But still they need retraining. And this the government won’t pay for and the companies haven’t been paying for either in the climate of austerity we have had here.

JT: At least the ports are in big cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam) so presumably people will be able to find jobs unlike if they were fired in monoindustrial cities. Are you optimistic about their fate?

PvK: We are pessimistic about getting compensation and retraining funds. This is one major issue we will raise when the new Energy Agreement is negotiated. It’s important because it’s not an issue that only concerns the workers of coal plants, but also those in the harbours, in the gas industry and old refineries, and in all other industries that will be closing down.

For the new Energy Agreement, we want to make sure we get compensation for workers, that we have a fair distribution of costs of energy (for example, the government plans to increase energy prices to finance Carbon Capture and Storage technology for industry, but we don’t think these costs should be covered by the poorer consumers) and we want steady jobs in the new economy. We think people have to be involved in the transition: if you involve people and address their questions on the local level, then you have a fair process; if you don’t, then you simply fuel the resistance. This is the common agenda of trade unions and Friends of the Earth in this process.

We expect the new economy to bring jobs in building and insulation, electric car repair, and in renewable energy production, but we need to retrain the workers to occupy those jobs – they often require a higher level of skill, and some of our workers are old.

WW: The harbours are the big battleground now. We are fighting for a phaseout of coal imports in the Rotterdam harbour, host to the biggest coal terminal in Western Europe, which can be very influential for a phaseout in Germany (half of coal imports to Germany come in via Rotterdam). And we always repeat that this cannot happen without a fair deal for the workers.

In Amsterdam, they already decided to phaseout coal imports by 2030, but there the motivation was money. The harbour facilities are close to the center and property here is so expensive that authorities want to renovate the area and make profit out of the real estate.

PvK: The EMO corporation has a long-term lease contract to operate the terminal, and they have the right to automatically renew it. But when the time came for them to renew it last time, the Rotterdam city council said no, giving them a new 25-year lease means breaking the Paris Agreement, this should be reassessed. Then the unions reacted fiercely, they said the work will move to other ports and the CO2 will be emitted anyway, just in other parts of the world.

But now we organised a meeting between some members of the council and unions to address the arguments of the workers and to show this is not a one-way decision and that it should only be made with fair compensation for the workers. We wanted to show that the best interest of the workers would be taken into account. So it is good that there is such a discussion going on even if the unions reacted quite toughly at first.

*FNV is at the same time a labour union covering different sectors and a federation with many affiliated independent unions. It has around one million members.