Jürgen Klute’s report Strukturwandel und Industriepolitik im Ruhrgebiet: ein historischer Überblick was first published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in 2019. The report presents an account of how the Ruhr region in northwestern Germany went from being dominated by coal and steel in the 1950s to one dominated by services in the twenty-first century. This document is an English summary of it, about a quarter the length of the original, and seeks to convey the main elements of the story it tells to a wider audience.
Jürgen Klute is a Protestant pastor. He was a member of Die Linke's executive board until 2009, and served as a Member of the European Parliament and economic policy spokesperson for the European Left from 2009 to 2014. Since retiring in 2015, he has maintained the website europa.blog.
Peter Kenway is an economist, statistician, and writer who co-founded and became director of the independent UK-based New Policy Institute in 1996, which was devoted to highlighting the causes and nature of poverty and economic injustice.
Amidst the many accounts of the changes that have taken place in the Ruhr, this report stands out for three reasons. First, although the decline of the coal industry is still its spine, the story is just as much about the rise (and often fall) of other industries, notably car production, as well as other initiatives, for example to improve the quality of life in the Ruhr.
Second, its author is a participant in this history. As a protestant theologian, Klute took part in a church district project in the late 1980s called “Industrial Working World and the Church”. This included time underground in the Fürst Leopold mine and time with its works council. Beginning in 1989, as head of the industrial and social ministry of the nearby church parish of Herne, he was directly involved with questions of social, economic, and political change. He was also a Member of the European Parliament for the German socialist party Die Linke from 2009 to 2014.
Third, the report both describes what happened and offers insight into why and how. The actors shaping structural change are prominent throughout. The “triangle” of the trades unions, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the mining industry form the core. The churches, the movements of 1968, and Die Linke also grace the stage. Municipalities and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) are key players.
Taken as a whole, the report is a case study, rich in detail, about an historical process marked by a series of conflicts of interest. If Klute’s story could fairly be described as one account of the efforts, extending over more than 50 years, to secure a “just transition”, then it is also a reminder that every such transition contains conflict at its heart.
If the academic literature on this subject agrees upon one thing, it is that structural change in the Ruhr — especially the long, gradual rundown of the coal industry — is unique. While this characterization of the Ruhr as a one-off must be correct, it risks leaving the impression that nowhere else can expect to do as well. The danger in that is that an inherently positive story ends up weakening rather than strengthening others who are facing transition themselves.
Klute’s report, however, avoids this danger through the richness of its detail. Detail allows the reader to speculate on what it is was that made the Ruhr unique and to see the parts that make up the whole. Even if the whole is unique, not all its parts are. Recognizing what may already be in common or may at least feasible to strive for — this strengthens rather than weakens. Klute’s report shows the value of a detailed account of past attempt to secure a just transition.
Viewed from a British perspective, whether back to the abrupt end of coal mining in Britain in the 1980s, or forward to the prospect of the retreat from the North Sea’s oil and gas industries, what stands out in the Ruhr is the strength and importance of local and regional government. It is these governments, not the federal, that are the principal state actors in this account. In Britain by contrast, certainly in England, the exercise of state power remains overwhelmingly the prerogative of the government in London. Klute’s account prompts the question of whether such centralization is really in the interests of a just transition.