Spanish Miners Fight Back

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In the context of a stagnant economy, while a €100 billion bailout has saved Spanish banks from disaster, other sectors are being left to die. The cuts to the Spanish coal mining industry are draconian and have led to a radical reduction of subsidies for companies, investment in infrastructures, projects, safety and educational programmes. Overall, there is an average cut in the sector of 63.2% and a promotion of forced early retirements and redundancies that leave miners with poverty-level pay-outs. Both social democrats and conservatives have pursued these policies for years, causing high unemployment, severe poverty and also growing outrage in the vast areas where the coal industry is located, mainly in the north of the country (León, Asturias, Galicia and Aragón). Some regions are barely able to survive and whole families having been pouring out onto the streets in protest, following the tradition of courageous struggle we’ve seen so many times in Spanish history. In Britain, former miners and trade unionists have set up the Spanish Miners’ Solidarity Committee in Sheffield, supported by fimmaker Ken Loach, to campaign and raise funds for the families of Spanish fellow workers. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Spain.

Both bosses and trade unions called for an indefinite strike, beginning on 29 May, to save the industry - although miners soon understood that the workers in the sector could hardly share the interests and tactics of their exploiters. On 30 May there was a march in Madrid, where 10,000 miners made themselves heard loudly with radical chants and let off home-made fireworks. The protest ended in clashes with riot police, in which a student from the 15 de Mayo (15M) movement was arrested. The prosecution has demanded a 12-year prison sentence for the student for demonstrating in solidarity with the miners and ‘disrupting public order’!

Over the following days, the protest grew and spread throughout the communities affected; the strike brought all of Spain’s coalfields to a halt and reached every auxiliary industry. Day after day, these workers have regained their fighting spirit and traditional ways of struggling, with coordinated blockades of motorways and railways and barricades of burning logs and tyres; they have confronted repression by special units of police and civil guards with catapults, rocks and homemade shields and rocket launchers. State forces have constantly made use of rubber bullets and tear gas, at the fear that miners could isolate whole provinces by shutting all road and railway connections down at the same time.

On 5 June, miners from Asturias obtained the solidarity of 90% of transport workers, who also went on an indefinite strike, an example of unity unseen in the last decade. On the morning of 6 June, dozens of workers blocked the A-66 motorway in the province of León, using metal fences, burning trees and tyres. A contingent of police started shooting rubber balls and smoke cans, but far from dispersing, the workers decided to fight back, throwing stones and firecrackers and using cartridges to repel them. Police managed to advance slowly, forcing workers to run to the nearby hills and forests, where the guerrilla-like warfare lasted three hours. The village of Santa Cristina de Lena saw an incredible battle in its streets, where police and guards tried to round up the brave workers. Finally, they dispersed, most broke the police lines and went on the run to the hills. Two miners were arrested, though later a local woman admitted that ‘some neighbours opened the doors for the lads to find shelter. They are fighting for what is theirs, and everybody here knows what mining is about’. Similar battles took place at roadblocks in Asturias on 12 June.

Over the following days, road pickets continued, with women taking part en masse – they have also been the main protagonists of night marches in several towns, carrying torches and the miner helmets that have become a symbol of the struggle. This is causing tensions between conservatives from the central government and local officials who witness the daily social struggle of these families. President Rajoy of the ruling Partido Popular has not made any comment on the ‘coal conflict’, and the mainstream media is avoiding giving detailed coverage to the struggle preferring to focus on  football euphoria to divert the attention of the general public. To prevent this, in mid-June miners will be marching hundreds of miles to rally even those towns without any mining tradition. They could be the spark that radicalises the ongoing protests of teachers, unemployed people, health care and other low-paid workers that continue to sweep across Spain.

15 June 2012


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