Heerlen Heerlen, Netherlands is a city of 90,000 in a 250,000-metro area now in the southeast piece of the country midway between the Belgium and German borders in a stretch of the country hardly sixty kilometers wide. The town was built on top of coal deposits at a time when coal was king in a region, spanning the three countries, when coal fueled industry and miners numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The mines have now been closed for almost fifty years, and the city has embraced its history of mining with a new museum, opened recently, and mementoes and monuments to that time dotted throughout the city and its center.
Time has not erased the generational impact of the mines’ closing. The government in the mid-sixties announced that the mines would close in a decade and by the mid-seventies 100,000 miners here were out of work. The national government moved a number of federal facilities, like CBS, the census bureau, and other agencies to the area to create middle-income, stable jobs, but those jobs were not the natural transition of miners with more skills and training underground than in an office or on the streets, particularly in Heerlen Nord, north Heerlen, where many of their families lived. A project being assembled by a longtime comrade and friend, has compiled the statistics and the legacy of the rapid closing. The numbers reveal the reduced life expectancy, significant illiteracy, low voter participation, and weak citizen engagement. The project’s mission is bringing these metrics up to the national averages over the next twenty-five years through a series of five-year plans. It won’t be an easy job.
We had a fascinating Zoom conversation with another colleague and friend based in Berlin, who is part of a project with the German labor federation. Germany is facing the same set of issues as they move to meet climate commitments and decrease use of coal, and are trying to fashion a smoother runway to the shutdown than Heerlen experienced. A tripartite agreement between labor, the government, and industry on the transition has created resources to plan and implement the transition with job creation and necessary social safety net protections. Some of the same statistics, including extremely low voter participation in the 30% range, have also been recorded in the general region including Rhine-Westphalia from Aachen to Colon, so many of the issues and impacts were worryingly similar.
The coal region running from Brussels through Heerlen and on towards Colon and Dusseldorf and from there to Poland and Romania is beset by these issues where people and communities that have depended on resource extraction are now facing convulsive transformations. Mass-based community organization would seem to be a key part of the equation in making a plan for the future, but there’s little history of that kind of work in the area.
I think they may be singing our song without knowing the tune and the lyrics yet.