Destination: a big hill

I’ve been in Poland for the last week for, firstly, the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, a journal which I help edit; and then secondly in attendance at the 12th international conference of the Otto-Brenner-Stiftung, a German research trust attached to the metalworking union IG Metall.

It was my first trip to Poland, hitherto a (rather large) hole in my visited map of central Europe, while the event provided major opportunities to catch up with old and new colleagues in the European trade union movement. The conference was held in Katowice, a town with perhaps all the tourist pull of Redcar, with which it shares a steel industry past if not the coal mining one that also defines Katowice, although I travelled to, and spent some time in, the rather more lovely/touristy city of Krakow some 77kms away.

It’s clear that Katowice has changed, radically. From a position of a reliance on heavy industry, and in a situation where a glimpse of sunsets was an apparently rare event as a result (as well as constituting a personal definition of hell), Katowice has become, well, a city of conference and business hotels and not obviously a lot else. Even if the jobs are not necessarily ‘McJobs’, the shift in the employment base is evident and that of course presents great challenges to trade unions.

Against a backdrop of dramatic and almost universal decline amongst central and eastern European trade unions, the conference theme of environment and growth – with discussions centring on green jobs, shifts in production away from car manufacturing and a consumption based on environmental values rather than consumerist ones – presented the stage for a tough series of debates. With employees and their trade unions having gone through one, hugely costly transition already in terms of the shift to market-based systems, and for whose impact the blame can clearly be laid at the door of capitalism, the prospect of going through another represents clear difficulties to trade union colleagues from the region. Here, when it is western trade unions that are propounding the need for such a transition represents a unique difficulty as regards their eastern counterparts. Examples of successful, and inspirational, organising initiatives can be found – and the transition to environmental values is clearly a very necessary one – but these need to be made clearer, more imaginative and more relevant if central and eastern European trade unionists are to be convinced that this next transition will not lead to them being totally wiped from the map.

For those of you looking at the title of this post for a less metaphorical hill, how about this: the Kopiec Kościuszko (Kościuszko Mound) – one of four such surrounding Krakow, this one being 326m above sea level affording magnificant views over the city and surrounding area. And yes, it is of course absolutely possible to get to the top even though the path might be serpentine.

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Trains, planes and the environment

The Scotsman is running a train vs plane competition/race tomorrow between two journalists making their way business class from the offices of the newspaper in Edinburgh to the Gherkin in the City of London, where they’ll be conducting an interview with persons as yet unknown.

Given that the event has a sponsor – East Coast – the winner seems set to be the train and parts of it seem geared to guarantee it: the plane traveller is flying to Heathrow, rather than somewhere more local to the City; the identity of the interviewee has to be accompanied while mobile and plane users cannot – yet – use mobiles in the air; and it’s clear that it’s not just speed that determines the winner. Still, given that East Coast is the people’s train company, that can be forgiven 🙂

As a regular traveller between Scotland and London – though certainly not business class – I’m naturally interested in the outcome. Flying is incredibly stressful but the key difference is the environmental aspects, with the train emitting 87% less CO2 emissions. And even if the plane is likely to be a bit quicker – travelling from Perth by public transport all the way, the earliest I can be in central London is 1030 by plane (though that’s taking a few risks!) compared to 1230 by train – the amount of the time saving weighs poorly against the environmental and stress costs of spending even such a short time in the air. Should Edinburgh and Glasgow be successful in winning their argument for high speed trains to be extended to Scotland from the London-Birmingham route that the government is currently prepared to support (though Network Rail had wanted to go further), the arguments on behalf of the train become even clearer, although evidence that the additional carbon-related costs of building the line only become viable if the trains gain a 62% market share, or more, of traffic on the route (it currently has just 15%) do need to be taken seriously into account.

So, the train – currently – wins for me every time. But I will be following the event with some interest.

[Edit 5 November: Yeah, the train unsurprisingly appeared to win the competition…]