Spain: the miners’ rebellion against austerity

The country's 8,000 miners are determined to stop their jobs and communities disappearing.

A Spanish coal miner near Leon, northern Spain
A Spanish coal miner near Leon, northern Spain. Photograph: Getty Images

As happens so often in Spain, it has been left to the miners to make a stand when things get too much. One in four Spaniards is on the dole; the country has suffered two years of harsh spending cuts, with more to come. Yet the casual visitor to central Madrid could be forgiven for thinking that Spaniards are all their irrepressibly cheerful selves as they throng pavement cafés to watch Euro 2012 and chew the fat into the small hours.

True, the newspapers agonise over how the economic crisis is getting worse. True, there have been many huge rallies and a couple of one-day general strikes, but we have seen nothing like the full-blown riots with which Greeks responded to the painful belt-tightening prescribed by wealthier eurozone members.

However, since 23 May, miners across northern Spain have been blocking roads with trees and burning tyres, staging sit-ins underground or lighting up the night as they put on safety lamps and march cross country, all part of an indefinite strike in protest at a proposed 63 per cent cut in government aid to the coal industry. Just like their British counterparts in 1984, Spain’s 8,000 miners are determined to stop their jobs and communities disappearing and prevent an assault on hard-won workers’ rights. “It’s ridiculous. The government wants to get rid of us all,” one miner put it, before setting off on a hundred-kilometre march from the town of Ariño.

Like many in Spain, miners are asking why they should pay the price of a speculative property bubble that burst in 2008. They are also outraged that the government says it cannot afford to support coal when it has just found €100bn in European Union funds to bail out the banks – more than double what ministers plan to recoup this year with tax hikes and cuts to social spending and public works.

Spanish miners have a long history of resistance and are most active in the Asturias region, where their grandfathers faced army artillery with sticks of dynamite in a revolt against the government in 1934.

The miners lost back then to a military expedition led by General Franco, who went on to use similar brutal methods to win the 1936-39 civil war and become dictator for life. But they have prevailed in other disputes and as recently as 2010 forced the then Socialist government to support the industry by requiring power stations to burn home-produced rather than imported coal.

Help me, Rhondda

Asturias may yet be saved from going the way of the Rhondda Valley, because even allies of the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, baulk at the demise of coal in a country that depends on imports to cover nearly 80 per cent of its energy needs. As Juan Vicente Herrera, president of the Castilla y León regional government and a senior member of Rajoy’s People’s Party, said, Spain “cannot look down on one of the few native energy sources we have left”.

Environmentalists object that Spain can cut its energy imports – as well as emissions – and create sustainable jobs by investing in renewables but the government has scrapped subsidies that once made the country a world leader in wind and solar power.

The miners’ direct action also puts them at odds with the indignados movement, which relies on what it sees as less invasive and more modern tactics, such as using the internet to call on crowds to resist evictions.

Time may tell who is most effective, but the miners, the greens and the indignant ones all have one aim in common: to prevent Spain becoming a nation of pavement cafés, peopled with waiters and waitresses working dead-end jobs for long hours and low pay, with few or no benefits. l

Martin Roberts is a former Spanish correspondent for Reuters