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2017-09-22 04:36:03
In Germany, Blue-Collar Jobs Provide Bulwark to Populism

DORTMUND, Germany — This city in the heart of what was once German coal and steel country could easily be a breeding ground for populism.

The last blast furnace went cold almost two decades ago. Unemployment, at 11 percent, is nearly double the national average. A third of the 600,000 residents are immigrants, including thousands of recently arrived refugees from Syria.

Instead, Dortmund may help explain why there is no German counterpart to France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage or America’s Donald J. Trump — at least not yet.

As in much of Europe, populism is on the rise in Germany, fed by frustrations over rising inequality and an influx of immigrants. The far-right party, Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials, AfD, is expected to have a strong showing in the national election on Sunday.

But blue-collar strongholds, which helped fuel the backlash in the United States, are providing a bulwark for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Dortmund and other onetime factory towns in Germany have largely avoided the working-class alienation that nourished populist sentiment elsewhere.

Through a combination of public policy and entrepreneurial ingenuity, the city has attracted new jobs in sectors like semiconductors and logistics to replace the ones lost in heavy industry, while retaining a core of manufacturing jobs. Unemployment has fallen drastically in the last decade and continues to decline.

More than any other wealthy nation, Germany still offers blue-collar jobs that provide a middle-class income for people without college degrees. Although the country has suffered a steep decline in factory jobs since the 1970s, 19 percent of Germans work in manufacturing, nearly double the percentage in the United States or Britain, and higher than in Japan or South Korea.

Growth by midsize companies has helped compensate for job losses at the big steel conglomerates. These so-called Mittelstand companies, which account for half of German economic output, turned globalization to their advantage. They pushed into foreign markets with products that exploit Germany’s long tradition in precision engineering.

Wilo, a maker of specialized water pumps, is typical of the midsize companies that made Germany the third-largest exporter in the world last year, after China and the United States.

Wilo is based practically in the shadow of one of the enormous, abandoned steel mills that stand as monuments to Dortmund’s past. The company is constructing a new corporate campus across the street from its existing headquarters on land that is still being cleared of unexploded bombs from World War II. About 1,800 people will work at the complex, half of them in manufacturing.

Wilo has factories in China, India and the United States, including one in Thomasville, Ga. It and other midsize companies also continue to create jobs in Germany, believing that it’s important to retain manufacturing expertise close to home.

“We had the coal crisis. We had the steel crisis,” said Oliver Hermes, the chief executive of Wilo, referring to the resilience of Dortmund. “That’s the big advantage of this area. It knows how to handle change, and the people here are very flexible.”

Things could easily have turned out differently for Dortmund. It lies in the Ruhr Valley, which played a central role in Germany’s emergence as an industrial power in the 1800s because of its abundant coal and iron ore.

But the region began a steep decline in the 1970s. Dortmund’s last coal mine closed in 1987, and the last blast furnace used in steel making shut down in 1998. In some cases, the plants were dismantled and shipped to China for use by the same companies that put the Dortmund mills out of business. Even the city’s breweries, once among Europe’s largest, fell on hard times.

Local political leaders took action well before the mines closed. The government built a technology park, which offered office space to fledgling companies, and provided entrepreneurs with start-up capital.

An early tenant of the tech park was Elmos, a maker of specialized semiconductors for the car industry that was founded in 1984. Back then, surrounding fields were still used to graze sheep. Elmos, now the world leader in chips used in parking-assistance devices for automobiles, employs 750 people in Dortmund.

“There was early investment in the right industries,” said Anton Mindl, the company’s chief executive.

To ensure a supply of highly skilled workers, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia expanded the Technical University of Dortmund, which is now among Germany’s largest universities, with 34,000 students.

It has spawned start-ups like RapidMiner, a maker of so-called machine learning software — software capable of teaching itself to do things. Founded in 2007 by alumni of the university, RapidMiner employs 30 people in a local office, where the conference rooms are named after closed coal mines.

“There is a good start-up culture,” Ralf Klinkenberg, one of the company’s co-founders, said of Dortmund.

State and local officials also sought to improve the quality of life, which they see as key to attracting employers. After an enormous ThyssenKrupp steel-making complex closed in 2001, the local government cleared the property and created an artificial lake big enough to accommodate a small fleet of sailboats. Today the lake is ringed by modern low-rise buildings containing offices, pricey apartments and cafes.

All of this comes at a price conservatives in America would find unacceptable. The government safety net here is more comprehensive, with taxes to match, including a 19 percent national sales tax. Germany has universal health insurance, relatively generous unemployment benefits, and free university tuition. The government plays a role in the economy that many Americans would consider heavy handed.

Germany also has powerful labor unions, which have a long history of opposition to right-wing parties. Some research has linked President Trump’s rise to the decline of union membership in the United States.

In Dortmund, worker representatives have successfully pressured companies to finance retraining or early retirement for laid-off workers. Sabine Birkenfeld, chairwoman of the workers’ council at a ThyssenKrupp steel galvanizing factory in Dortmund, has lived through serial mergers and layoffs over the years that reduced the work force by 90 percent to 1,300 people.

Still, she said, “no one had to go to the unemployment office.”

The struggle continues. Ms. Birkenfeld arrived for an interview with The New York Times wearing a hard hat after touring the factory floor to urge workers to protest plans by ThyssenKrupp to merge its steel operations into a joint venture with Tata Steel. ThyssenKrupp said the deal would lead to the loss of 2,000 jobs.

Ms. Birkenfeld said workers would push hard for the best possible terms. “If no one lands on the street,” she said, “then there won’t be any fodder for the right-wing parties.”

It won’t be clear until the vote on Sunday whether Germany has succeeded in containing right-wing sentiment. Some analysts say the rise of populist parties stems not from economic factors, but rather from a feeling by some voters that mainstream politicians are not listening to them. In that case, Dortmund’s revival would provide no insurance against a right-wing surge.

“It’s not economic conditions but whether they perceive their concerns are heard by the establishment,” said Timo Lochocki, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

A wild card is whether AfD’s anti-foreigner policies, including calls for armed guards at the borders, will resonate with some voters here.

Emad Abdelmalak, a 30-year-old Egyptian studying in Dortmund, said he did not think so. Mr. Abdelmalak has sensed hostility in Germany once or twice since arriving three years ago, he said. But, he added, “in Dortmund I’ve never had this feeling.”