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Lessons From Essen: What the U.S. Rust Belt Can Learn From Germany

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

ESSEN, GERMANY—Stephan Haas has probably given this spiel hundreds of times, but he still sparkles with enthusiasm and mischievous wit as he tells the tale of the notorious Krupp family, the German magnates who helped make this area the heart of German industry. Speaking English for the benefit of French and Finnish visitors, Haas describes how Friedrich Krupp caused a scandal by reportedly seducing boys in Italy and how his wife Margaret was committed to a “madhouse” when her complaints about her husband became inconvenient. He shows visitors around the imposing Krupp mansion, slyly critiquing the architecture, and explains the company town known as Margarethenhöhe, which houses Krupp managerial workers.

Krupp’s company, now the multinational ThyssenKrupp, is still based in Essen in the Ruhr region in northwestern Germany, where the smokestacks of steel mills, coal-fired power plants and factories still rise above the otherwise lush green fields and hills. But over the past decades, much of the steel and coal industries once located here have closed up, along with the underground coal mines that in the 1950s employed 470,000 and now employ only about 30,000. Of more than 200 underground mines that once supplied 125 million tons of coal a year, only a handful remain open and they are all scheduled for closure by 2018. Because of the offshoring of industry and the import of cheaper coal from Colombia, Poland and South Africa, the Ruhr region now has among the country’s highest levels of unemployment and economic distress. (Though it is still noticeably more prosperous than much of western Europe and the United States; Germany has weathered the economic crisis better than most.)

“It used to be that miners were the underground kings, everyone respected them, this whole region was built by coal,” says Haas. “But now if you say you are a miner, you wouldn’t get the same response you used to. The memory is fading, and the miners are disappearing like dinosaurs.”

(A significant mining industry still remains southwest of the Ruhr region around the town of Duren, near Cologne, but that is the strip-mining of soft, dirty “brown coal” burned in nearby power plants run by the company RWE. Activists and local legislators who oppose the industry note that it employs relatively few people, because the massive strip mines are largely automated, and causes huge amounts of pollution that endanger public health and contribute to climate change.)

Like some former industrial and mining areas in the United States, civic leaders in the Ruhr region have tried to rebrand the area as a mecca for arts, culture and tourism, celebrating the rich industrial history (and now-lower levels of pollution). Their plan got a major boost in 2010 when the European Commission named the area a “European Capital of Culture,” a designation created in 1985 as a means to promote European cohesiveness and boost an area’s tourism and economic vitality. Since then, millions of visitors from the rest of Germany, Europe and beyond have toured new modern art museums and historical sites in towns and cities like Essen, Mulheim, Dortmund and Duisburg. The idea was that the region’s new identity could create tourism-related and other service-economy jobs and attract new high tech and other businesses to locate while maintaining a role for the heavy industry that does still exist. The region has also gained tens of thousands of jobs related to renewable energy, according to regional Green Party elected officials, since solar power installation and manufacturing (and to a lesser degree wind power) has boomed in Germany in the past few years. It helps that the Ruhr region, in part because of its industrial heritage, is home to 20 universities, including top technical institutes.

A massive former mine and coking plant called Zollverein is a prime example of the region’s transformation. Zollverein once consisted of almost 100 miles of underground tunnels and railroads that descended almost a mile deep, where tens of thousands of miners working in often horrifying conditions extracted many millions of tons of coal from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Much of the mine infrastructure and the central coking plant sprawling across the surface of the mine have been preserved. They now appear sculptural and surreal: soaring towers capped with wheels that pulled coal out of the earth; maze-like networks of conveyor belts and rail tracks; shining boilers, cylinders and cooling towers that are beautiful in abstract and geometric ways; even a carnivalesque contraption reminiscent of a Ferris wheel rising above the coking ovens, which were closed in 1993.

The Ruhr Museum, depicting the region’s history from prehistoric times to the present, is housed in the old coal wash house, and events from alternative energy conferences to weddings are held in countless converted conference rooms and reception halls onsite. Another former mining structure houses the highly regarded Red Dot Design Museum, while old coal buildings are also home to smaller art galleries and studios and a revolving schedule of concerts and performances.

Also tapping the Ruhr’s regional heritage is the Bergbau Mining Museum in nearby Bochum, which was founded in 1930 and got a major boost thanks to the Capital of Culture. More than a million people annually peruse a vast and eclectic mix of mining paraphernalia, artifacts and art. The collection, hard to see in a single day, includes hundreds of different miners’ lanterns from over the decades, a plethora of quirky dioramas and several rooms packed with mineral samples from around the world.

The high quality, efficiently run museums and tourism services in the Ruhr region provide an inspiration for U.S. Rust Belt towns trying to stimulate tourism and culture to replace the mining and manufacturing jobs that have disappeared. But the Ruhr region also shows that even a thriving tourism and culture industry provides a relatively small amount of direct employment, with the jobs directly created across a whole region unlikely to ever match the jobs lost at even one mass employer like acoal mine or steel mill. Jobs may be created in restaurants, shops and the like, but most tourists still move through the region in a matter of several days, so the economic ripple effects of popular museums and cultural institutions do not appear to be wide. Various people working in the area said that the European Capital of Culture designation brought a wave of attention and economic stimulus, but didn’t create significant lasting changes in the area’s identity or economics.

And this is all in a place like western Germany where tourists from other relatively well-off countries can regularly and easily travel. Luring visitors to a remote former mining village in Colorado or a notorious post-industrial city like Gary, Indiana, is an entirely different story.

A more realistic replacement for the lost jobs might revolve around clean energy. The German Green Party claims that in little more than a decade renewable energy has created 380,000 jobs, thanks to government policies like the feed-in tariff that promotes it. A significant portion of these jobs are located in the Ruhr region. For former U.S. industrial areas that still have infrastructure and skilled workers, such green jobs could be a better bet than tourism and culture in terms of employment, although, as in the Ruhr region, the two approaches can complement each other.

But the well-being of a region or a city has to do with more than its employment statistics and economic indicators. Pride in place and history and the cultural, artistic and social resources that are available to local residents and draw visitors surely have benefits beyond the economic bottom-line. The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago had tried to turn a former coking plant on the city’s far south side into a museum before the structure was ultimately demolished. The group had failed to get the adequate funds or political and institutional support for their project. Wandering the grounds of Zollverein, I couldn’t help but think of the shame that a similar (if smaller scale) opportunity in an economically struggling community in Chicago was squandered. But countless opportunities still exist; hopefully U.S. leaders and regular residents can take inspiration from places like Zollverein to create monuments that provide some economic stimulation and pay tribute to U.S. workers and industries of years past.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Sickened South African Mine Workers Seek Justice in Courts

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

South Africa’s mining industry has been plastered across international headlines in recent days following the massacre of 34 protesting platinum mine workers in Marikana. This week, thousands of striking workers marched to protest the assault on labor rights and economic security by both the police and corporations.

But while the media’s gaze has fixed on roiling unrest at Lonmin, the more insidious crisis of safety conditions in the mines remains mostly buried below the surface. Over the years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers have been gradually sickened or killed by an epidemic that has largely gone ignored by the industry and the post-Apartheid government.

But now, some workers are resisting injustice in the mines by going to court, with a group of lawsuits alleging that three gold mining companies sickened many employees with toxic exposures that are tied to “varying degrees of silicosis”–a disease that causes chronic breathing problems–as well as tuberculosis and lung cancer.

The legal claims, which target AngloGold Ashanti (formerly Anglo American), Harmony Gold Mining Company, and Gold Fields, have been advanced by a recent landmark ruling by the South African Constitutional Court. The decision affirms that injured workers have the right to sue employers for occupational health-related damages.

The principle behind the litigation, according to Richard Lewis, an attorney with Hausfield LLP who is assisting the South African counsel, is that that the country’s mining regulations, some stretching back decades, as well as common law and the constitution, “impose a duty on the employer to provide safe and healthy working conditions.”

Lewis notes the decision is “uniquely” progressive, even compared to the legal framework in richer industrialized countries like the United States, because the recent court decision effectively offers an alternative to the traditional workers’ compensation system, which is known for woefully inadequate payments to sick workers–and for discrimination against black claimants.

“Usually one’s claim against an employer is limited to the workers’ compensation system,” Lewis says. “You can’t go to court in the civil common law system and sue for damages. But here… in South Africa the miners do have that right, to go beyond the compensation system and into the common law courts.” (In the United States, injured workers often face dysfunctional state workers’ compensation bureaucracies that tend to get ensnared by severe budget pressures.)

Even when workers aren’t being mowed down by police, death is never far from South Africa’s mines; workers have been routinely exposed to toxins with appallingly minimal physical protection. In a Reuters investigation published in March, a mine worker interviewed in Lesotho, who had worked for Gold Fields for more than three decades before being laid off in 2008, explained the do-it-yourself safety protocol:

“The only safety gear they gave us was gloves,” said 55-year-old Tele Nchaka… “We didn’t have masks. To stop the dust, we just had old T-shirts that we used to make wet.”

The impact of the gold miner litigation could be massive: According to Hausfeld, “between 320,000 and 500,000 black southern African gold miners have contracted silicosis and other occupational lung diseases in prior decades. The highest recorded rates of TB in the world have been found in the gold mines of South Africa and the disease figures have remained unconscionably high for decades.”

The next step for the current plaintiffs is to press forward with certification as a legal “class” and move toward a trial. The structure of the litigation leaves the door open for more workers to join the suit down the line, and some experts anticipate an explosion of claims due to the size of the workforce, the widespread presence of migrant workers from countries like Botswana and Malawi, and the prevalence of silicosis.

As with many other countries, including the United States, the health threats plaguing mine workers aren’t so much a product of lax laws; regulatory conditions have somewhat improved in recent years. The problem, says Lewis, is systemic failure of enforcement:

There is no lack of knowledge on how to prevent occupational lung disease. [It’s] not so much that the laws are weak, but that they’re not enforced. And so in reality they become weak and the workers don’t get the protection they deserve and that they need. And I think that’s true around the world.

This is the tragic subtext to many of these mine safety crises–from the chokehold of black lung in Appalachia to the Chinese mine explosions that regularly bury workers alive. The laws on the books aren’t applied on the ground, and workers are generally left at the mercy of the regulatory bodies that lack the staff and institutional capacity to hold employers accountable or prevent future hazards.

The claimant at the head of the compensation lawsuit that led to the breakthrough ruling, Thembekile Mankayi, died just before the court issued its decision in March 2011, as a result of respiratory illness attributed to his work at an underground mine near Johannesburg. Mankayi had toiled for Anglogold from 1979 to 1995, but although his career spanned through the fall of Apartheid, his body ultimately expired before he could see justice served in a democratic South Africa.

But some redemption may be on the horizon for many others sickened by the mines if the legal system finally provides them fair compensation. Under a neoliberal economic regime, South Africa’s mines remain haunted by the ghosts of Apartheid. But at least for some of the workers whose bodies bear the scars of that history, justice is no longer so far out of reach.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Blame Flies Over Police Massacre of 34 South African Miners

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Shafted: Reflecting on Miners, Media and Margaret Thatcher

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

kari-lydersenMany coal-fired power plants in the United States are closing because of cheap natural gas prices, and while the closings are cheered for environmental and health reasons, some unions lament the loss of jobs. Many who are happy to see coal plants close are also frustrated that the change is driven by a rush for gas that could curb investment in clean wind power and the “green jobs” mass wind farm construction could create. Others mourn waning interest in the development of “clean coal” technology that arguably could let the United States tap its vast domestic coal reserves more responsibly.

Three decades ago, Great Britain had its own “Dash for Gas,” during which coal power plants and coal mines were closed as the country turned to natural gas to generate electricity. But the primary motive then was neither cheap and abundant natural gas nor environmental concern. Rather, it was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determined campaign to smash the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the labor movement in general, and to privatize public industries.

Given current conversations about our energy futures in the United States and worldwide —not to mention scandals in British media and U.S. battles over public union rights—I think it is worth revisiting the 2009 book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath.

Edited by Granville Williams, this compilation explores the role of spin, solidarity and strategy in the bitter 1984-1985 strike by miners and sympathetic union members as the Thatcher government and police acting on its behalf moved to gut the miners union and close many coal mines. Chapters written by prominent journalists and others detail the seedy ethics of many mainstream media outlets; the role of alternative media; early examples of community and “citizen journalism;” and the power of propaganda and popular organizing wielded by various parties to the conflict.

There are juicy and shameful examples of media outlets’ questionable ethics and bald partisanship, juxtaposed with the solidarity stands of union journalists and printers who refused to publish slanderous propaganda or who invoked equal-time policies to demand the miners be given a chance to tell their side.

The book notes The Sun’s plans to publish a photo of union leader Arthur Scargill cropped to make it appear he was doing a Nazi salute, The Daily Mirror’s claims that union leaders paid their mortgages with Libyan cash when they didn’t even have mortgages, and the BBC’s manipulation of camera footage to make it appear miners rather than police were the first to become violent in the seminal clash at Orgreaves.
Regarding the Libyan story, which was supplied by a union staffer who approached the tabloid, author Robin Ramsay notes wryly, “Ah, the logic of the tabloid journalist: he didn’t ask for money, so he must be telling the truth.”

Shafted, published with a grant from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, criticizes journalistic laziness and the lack of context that plagued even the less-abhorrent coverage. For example, the Tory government’s statements about the “uneconomic” nature of certain union mines and the wisdom of burning up limited North Sea gas reserves in lieu of coal went unquestioned, according to Shafted, and the conflict was too often portrayed as a battle between colorful adversaries (namely Thatcher and Scargill) than a showdown that would determine the well-being of working people for many years to come.

As a counter to most of the mainstream media’s performance, Shafted celebrates the role of the grassroots alternative media, the NUM’s own journal, and documentaries and articles by miners and community members, produced with the help of grassroots media organizations and the public Channel 4.

The book notes that journalists at alternative outlets with names like Leeds Other Paper, Islington Gutter Press and Sheep Worrying could personally relate to the DIY mentality and sense of mission and passion of the union miners and their supporters. Along with print media, the book also examines music, poetry and major movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. It catalogues the use of music to raise funds and awareness, from local punk shows to benefits by the likes of Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg.

One chapter about movies and plays in decades after the strike describes how popular pieces like Billy Elliott furthered the Thatcherite idea of individualism triumphing over collectivism, and the glossing over of the impacts on depressed “pit villages” where to paraphrase sources, now heroin instead of coal runs in the veins of youth.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter is a soul-searching essay by former BBC journalist Nicholas Jones, who looks back with dismay at how he and other journalists unquestioningly bought into the Thatcher narrative of militant trade unions as the “enemy within.” He takes a more nuanced view than other contributors of mainstream media’s performance, and notes that union leader Scargill’s portrayal of the media as the enemy was counter-productive since it meant journalists were often received with scorn or violence in pit villages, and thus understandably less likely to tell the people’s stories. (Other chapters also describe how police brutally attacked and arrested journalists trying to report objectively on the conflict.)

Jones also describes how the birth of the 24-hour highly competitive news cycle contributed to flawed coverage of the strike, and dissects why media coverage of mass protests against more pit closures in the early 1990s was by contrast highly sympathetic to the miners. Jones writes:

With the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgment comparative to that during the buildup to the Iraq war.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

MSHA Says Massey Blast Shows Need for Tougher Safety Laws

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Image: Mike HallAs we approach Tuesday, April 5, the first anniversary of the deadly blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 coal miners, the nation’s top mine safety official today called for tougher laws and bigger penalties for safety violators.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) chief Joe Main today told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee:

No mine operator should be risking the lives of its miners by cutting corners on health and safety. For those operators who do knowingly engage in such practices, we need to send a message that their actions will not be tolerated.

Main also called for stronger protections for miners who speak out about unsafe practices and conditions.

Miners know best the conditions in their mine. But miners are afraid to speak out because they fear they’ll lose their jobs.

He also said a full report on the blast is several months away, but MSHA will hold a public briefing in June. After the Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA has increased its enforcement efforts, created new mine safety screening procedures and conduced 228 “impact” inspections at mines with poor safety records or other warning signs of problems.

He said the new screening procedures were put in place after officials discovered that a computer error had allowed Upper Big Branch to evade heightened scrutiny despite the pattern of violations system that is supposed to identify mines with continuing safety violations. Main urged Congress give MSHA more authority to shut down problem mines.

Legislation is still needed to fully protect our nation’s miners. This committee has never subscribed to the myth that mining fatalities are an inevitable aspect of the business. I am asking you to again stand up for miners and pass new and needed mine safety legislation.

Click here for his full testimony and a video of the entire hearing.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 31, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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