The Lusatian Conference of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) is considered the annual general meeting of structural change. This time, other issues were more important to the workers than the early coal phase-out. 

For a Green politician like Michael Kellner, the trade union scene in Cottbus is still difficult terrain. For the Parliamentary State Secretary for Economic Affairs, his appearance at the Lusatia Conference of the DGB on 1.9.2022 was also an opportunity to explain his policies where they are probably least likely to be received. At least that message was gladly received in Cottbus’ town hall: „We said we’ll put the coal-fired power plants back on standby”, Kellner said. „We have to do that.”

But the top Green from the Brandenburg Uckermark region, as the highest-ranking politician in the hall, nevertheless preferred to talk about the opportunities of the energy transition. Wind power, for example, is „totally important” for eastern Germany and a „settlement advantage” for new industries. Here, the audience’s enthusiasm was limited, however, and there were clear groans in the hall.

Minister presidents stayed away

The Lusatia Conference of the trade unions is a traditional must-attend event for politicians in Brandenburg and Saxony. With their project „Revierwende”, the trade unions are directly involved in the structural change. And because the DGB, Metal Industry Union (IG Metall), the service sector union Verdi and, in particular, the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union (IGBCE) are the largest visible interest groups in the Lusatian working world, their conference is considered the annual general meeting of structural change. Here, structural policy, climate policy and energy policy have to prove themselves before the critical eyes of the employees.

This is difficult enough in peacetime. Now, in a combined energy crisis, supply crisis and peace crisis, employees’ questions are even more pressing: How can energy supplies be secured in the long term without overburdening small and medium incomes? How can the 17 billion structural change funds benefit workers in Lusatia? And in general: Will the coal phase-out remain in 2038? To answer these questions, no prime minister was present.

Instead of phase out scenarios, there are adaptation strategies 

Dietmar Woidke (SPD) and Michael Kretschmer (CDU) had sent their economics ministers to Cottbus. The ministers were careful not to give a date for the coal phase-out. The „ideally by 2030” goal, set down in the coalition agreement of the traffic light parties, has already been publicly challenged several times since the start of the war in Ukraine – but it has not yet been withdrawn. Saxony’s SPD Economics Minister Martin Dulig said, „that the preconditions of the coal compromise could no longer be met, no one could have estimated that”. In order to secure supplies, he added, „adaptation strategies” must now be applied for the next twelve months.

That the Lusatian representatives from Brandenburg and Saxony attended the conference was not initially noticed. Klaus Freytag and Jörg Huntemann were not invited to the stage and were forgotten in the greetings. More was heard, however, about failures in structural change. „Only bike paths are not enough”, said the deputy district manager of Verdi in Saxony, Ines Kuche. What is needed are „new industrial clusters” in Lusatia, and politicians must be reliable in what they do, Kuche said. The “Revierwende” project manager Matthias Loehr opposed attempts to bring forward the coal phase-out: „Holding on would be appropriate to maintain trust among the population.”

Skills shortage and women’s participation unresolved

The exact year of the coal phase-out is no longer the most pressing issue. The unions, which fought for a good supply of attractive jobs in the structural change negotiations, are now dealing with a shortage of skilled workers. As far as employment opportunities are concerned, Brandenburg’s Minister of Economics, Jörg Steinbach (SPD), emphasized that they had delivered: „What is being created in terms of secure jobs in Lusatia is 2,500 at the moment”. He was referring to the industrial jobs that are being created at the railroad plant in Cottbus, for example, as well as the research centers around the Technical University Cottbus-Senftenberg (BTU).

Quite a few of these jobs go to women – an issue that the unions have a hard time with. The DGB does have a number of women in leadership positions. But female viewpoints are still too seldom heard in debates on the future of the industrial sectors. Julia Gabler, a social scientist from Görlitz, criticized the fact that structural change is oriented more toward the economy and research than toward social issues. Aline Erdmann, the equal opportunity commissioner of the city of Spremberg, emphasized the need to form women’s alliances in order to make their voices heard politically. But the topic of women only took place on the sidelines on a separate panel – while on the big stage the issues of energy security, jobs and prospects were largely discussed among men.

Valentina Troendle, Lusatian Perspectives