Trade unions in the balkans faced with the challenges of a just transition

From 5 to 7 July, representatives of around 20 trade unions from Balkan countries met in Sofia, at the headquarters of the KNSB/CITUB (Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria) to discuss the challenges of a just transition for workers in the region.

What can be done to ensure that Europe’s energy transition is not pursued at the expense of workers, as seen with previous economic transitions in the former socialist countries of Southeast Europe? This is essentially the biggest challenge facing Balkan societies. As part of an initiative led by the Just Transition Centre and with the support of Belgium’s Confederation of Christian Trade Unions, (CSC), representatives from several trade unions in the region were able to share their concerns and experiences, for the first time, regarding the future implications of the European Green Deal designed to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050.

Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro – although these countries are very different from a geopolitical or demographic perspective, they are all faced with one and the same challenge: the impact on the world of work of decarbonising their economies. Like a number of their European counterparts, the Balkan countries are still largely dependent on fossil fuels and, whether dominated by coal, oil or gas, the energy sector is still the backbone of their economies and an important source of direct and indirect employment. These jobs are now challenged by the “green transition” sought and driven by the European Commission, for example. As a Romanian trade unionist summarised: “This seminar is very useful, because we are all faced with the same situation.”

Whether their country is a member of the EU or has long been engaged in the accession process, the trade union representatives from the Balkans all have a shared sense of exclusion from the decisions concerning them on the implementation of the energy transition. The same lack of consultation, they lament, applies at both national and European level.

Against this background, the seminar in Sofia sought to open up a space of trust to enable trade union organisations to engage in dialogue and to join forces, with a view to ensuring that the destiny of the many thousands of workers in the region is given greater consideration by the decision-makers in Brussels and across the region. The energy transition is well and truly underway: Bulgaria, the country hosting the seminar, has just, for example, been granted €6.3 billion in funding for a plan, approved by the European Commission in April, designed to radically transform the local energy sector. The country has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its electricity sector by 40% by 2025, that is, just three short years. More broadly, all of the region’s coal-fired power plants, many of which are outdated, could close in the near future.

It has to be said that, every winter, people living in major cities in the Balkans have to cope with record levels of pollution, primarily due to their dependence on coal. Although the causes of the various forms of environmental pollution and the urgency of climate change are no longer a matter of debate, the trade union representatives attending the event in Sofia were sceptical about a fast-track transition which, in their view, is not compatible with a “just transition”. “We’re aware that there is no alternative to these changes,” acknowledges KNSB/CITUB president, Plamen Dimitrov. “But we have to make sure that all the funds and the different European investment programmes really benefit the people who are at risk of losing their jobs. For our part, as a trade union organisation, we are ready for this transition, but all of this has to bring positive change for workers. We’ve gone through badly managed transitions in the past and we want something different.”

In many countries of Southeast Europe, the transition to a market economy that began in the early 1990s has left painful memories. For many, it has become synonymous with privatisation, job losses, the destruction of the tools of production, the sharp rise in social inequalities and the weakening of social rights. “We are faced with new strategies and new measures every year. In fact, we have only experienced one state for the last 30 years, and that is the state of transition,” said Blagoja Ralpovski, president of the KSS (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of North Macedonia). “If our leaders continue with these policies, we won’t have a pollution problem in ten years anyway, because we will probably have no industry whatsoever.”

Given the context, this new transition is often viewed with mistrust by the citizens of the Balkans, who do not want their environment and their health being the collateral victims of decarbonisation in Western Europe. To illustrate their point, the representative of Serbia’s independent trade union Nezavisnost referred to the fact that the now-suspended lithium mine project planned by mining giant Rio Tinto (primarily to supply electric batteries to the German automobile industry) triggered the largest environmental protests in Serbia’s history, last winter. Behind the conversion to new technologies promoted by their governments, many trade unionists fear that this “green capitalism“ will be the final blow to a local industrial sector already severely weakened by three decades of neoliberalism.

The seminar in Sofia gave several Bulgarian trade unionists the opportunity to express their discontent and grievances to one of the drivers of this liberalisation, the European Commission. An EC representative who attended the conference online was questioned about the fact that certain reference documents are only available in English on the Commission’s website and are not translated into all 24 official languages of the EU. With the war in Ukraine upending political agendas, a trade unionist from the mining sector highlighted the contradictions and the apparently unequal treatment of the various member states. “Why should we close our coal-fired power plants here in Bulgaria when Germany is reopening them?” he asked. The seminar highlighted the fact that the current energy crisis raises many doubts about the nature and implementation of the various transition policies.

From Belgrade to Bucharest, the trade union representatives also emphasised the need to create meaningful, well-paid and secure jobs capable of retaining workers in their regions. For many years now, the Balkans have been experiencing a major demographic crisis, driven by large-scale emigration, which is draining the region of its human resources. Faced with the lowest wages on the continent and particularly precarious working conditions, young people are leaving the region to try their luck on the Western European labour market, preferably in Germany and the UK. In the space of around 30 years, Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, has lost over 20% of its population, which has fallen from 9 million in 1991 to less than 7 million today.

It is to help avoid a repeat of past mistakes that the CSC (Belgian Confederation of Christian Trade Unions) offered its support for this unique seminar and the region’s unions. The Belgian organisation said it was ready to act as a facilitator for future actions aimed at achieving a just transition. “As part of the European trade union movement, we are not ready to see a repeat of what happened at the end of last century, when industry was cut to the bone and an entire generation was sacrificed and never found work in the services sector,” explained the general secretary of the CSC, Marie-Hélène Ska. ” A just transition means jobs where people live, not jobs relocated anywhere. And it means concrete, practical, real prospects for today’s workers.”

Concrete prospects are something that trade unions in the Balkans are struggling to see at the moment. After this first workshop, the International Trade Union Confederation proposed discussing the issue further with the unions in the region at a future meeting.