Published on September 15, 2020

Bulgarian Trade unions live in a parallel world shrouded in coal dust

, Todor Todorov (Za Zemiata, Bankwatch)

On August 20, during a special press conference, representatives of the two largest trade unions in Bulgaria, CITUB (Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria) and Podkrepa, demanded an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister and said they expected to receive a guarantee that the Maritsa East Coal Mines would continue working for at least another 15 years.

The unions were making their demands in a context when the Bulgarian government was already under pressure because of weeks long protests against governmental corruption. The protesters, whose scale and determination have been massive for post-socialist Bulgaria, had been asking for the resignation of the Prime Minister and Boyko Borissov was feeling the heat.

While few expected that the demands of the unions would be met, in the end, in early September, a 25 million euro governmental loan was approved for the Maritza East Mines, plus 2.5 millions euros were set aside by the government to increase miners’ salaries. The Bulgarian government evidently thought this was a price worth paying to have less tension on the streets. The decision to pour money into the coal complex was also, unfortunately, not out of line with the retrograde position of this Bulgarian government on the issue of energy transition.

At the end of January this year, the parliament obliged the government to continue to ensure the functioning of the Maritsa East 2 coal-based thermal power plant, regardless of EU policies. For years, the Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova has been misleading the public, by insisting the coal industry has a future – never bothering to refer to the economic logic of this policy or the energy transformation underway across the EU.

In the first six months of this year, coal production has decreased by 25% due to reduced consumption, energy efficiency measures and the development of renewable energy. This has been a trend for several years now.

And yet, we have yet to hear anything about development of renewables or decentralisation of energy production or any other such contemporary trends from any of the consultative bodies created by the government with participation from trade unions – the National Council For Tripartite Cooperation, the Economic and Social Council, or the newly created Advisory Board on the European Green Deal (which, incidentally, includes no NGO representatives). These councils tend to always have the same represetatives – the same experts, the same trade unionists, the same former energy bosses turned businessmen – never allowing fresh voices in and always delivering the same messages: that the energy transition is only for rich countries and that the intermediate goals set in the Green Deal by 2030 are too ambitious for us.

In the same way, a handful of compromised bosses and experts have been running the management of the National Electric Company, the Bulgarian Energy Holding, Kozloduy NPP and Maritza Iztok Mines for years, merely shfting places among one another and draining the budget to cover the losses accumulated under their management.

The interests of oligarchs have always taken precedence in Bulgaria over the protection of the environment and the quality of life for people.

It is high time for politicians in Bulgaria to stop misleading society and those employed in the energy sector, and to make efforts to quickly overcome the country’s technological backwardness compared to others in the EU. It’s time to close the Bulgarian Energy Holding, especially established in 2009 to cover up the huge corruption in the energy sector. It’s time to reform the meaningless councils by attracting experts from innovative and green business associations, scientists and NGOs with a vision for modern economic and energy development.

The European Council adopted the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the period 2021-2027, in which 29 billion euro is provided for Bulgaria. About 1.2 billion euro will be funds for a just transition in the coal regions.

It is extremely important for Bulgaria to react quickly by mobilising expert potential from all stakeholders to develop a national plan for economic recovery and a fair energy transition. This money from the European funds is not guaranteed. It will be obtained only with a clear and high-quality national recovery plan, in line with the Green Deal and regional plans for a just transition, meeting the condition for restructuring the economy from fossil fuels to low-carbon.

This is the reality and the future that trade unions need to accept and utilise if they really want to take care of their members. Part of the European funds is intended for the restructuring of the sector, as well as for retraining and compensation of employees in the coal industry, which will eventually be affected.

In our conversations with the international trade union confederations – ITUC, ETUC (of which Bulgarian unions are also members) we understand that they have many competent experts on the Green Deal and Just Transition. They have clear programs and plans to protect the rights of employees in the energy sector through the use of European funds and national budgets. These experts are certainly available to our trade union leaders as well.

In Za Zemiata, we have been working for over 20 years on the topic of energy transformation. We also have practical experience working in coal municipalities, civic initiative groups, and representatives of trade unions. We would be happy to share our experience with colleagues from the trade unions who are interested and need support.

The parallel reality that the government has been irresponsibly presenting to society and trade unions for years is coming to an end. Unions would be better advised to prepare for the future.