On Wednesday July 11, Madrid saw a massive show of support for miners who are protesting austerity moves by the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which they say will completely destroy their hardscrabble livelihoods. More protests and strikes projected for coming weeks.
The coal mining regions of Spain's northern Asturias province and neighboring areas are no strangers to militant struggle. In 1934, a miners' rebellion in Asturias was brutally suppressed by the army under the command of General Francisco Franco, the later dictator, with many killed and imprisoned.
Two years later, in 1936, the imprisoned miners and other leftists were released when the Popular Front government was elected. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the miners fought on the Republican side. Fascist troops, police and militias ravaged the towns in the region in revenge for the miners' combativeness, and after Franco's forces won the war in 1936, there were executions.
When Franco died in 1975 and democracy, of a sort, was restored in Spain, the miners continued to show a high level of class consciousness and union militancy. Yet in recent years, their jobs have been disappearing to automation, to transition to natural gas and renewable energy sources, and to competition from cheap imported coal from South Africa and elsewhere.
Currently there are about 14,000 people employed by the mines. Until recently, the Spanish mining industry has counted on government subsidies to keep going. But this year, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has announced the elimination of 63 percent those subsidies, without which it is believed that the mines will have to close. Rajoy's People's Party came into power in December 2011 after the government of Socialist Party Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lost national elections on November 20.
The slashing of mining subsidies is part of a massive set of cuts and austerity measures that Rajoy is proposing as a response to the country's current financial and economic crisis. The crisis was set off by the collapse of a real estate boom and recently accentuated by the near collapse of the important Bankia bank.
As in Greece, Portugal and other struggling countries, in Spain austerity is being demanded in exchange for financial help by the "troika" of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. Although Spain's national debt is not as high as those of other European countries currently in trouble, Spain has nearly 25 percent unemployment. Rodriguez Zapatero's government was defeated at the polls because it, too, had turned to austerity measures to combat the crisis.
Now Rajoy is going much further. In addition to the cut in the subsidies for the mining industry, he is proposing to increase the regressive value added tax from 18 percent to 21 percent, sharply cut the pay of government workers, drastically reduce unemployment payments, and cut the budgets for schools and health care, as well as services to the elderly. Privatizations of railways, airlines and port facilities are also in the offing.
One particular complaint of the miners is that Prime Minister Rajoy proposes to cut back existing programs for retraining miners who lose their jobs due to the decline of the mining sector. They complain that help to the miners is being cut while Bankia and other financial institutions are bailed out to the tune of $120 billion. In addition, there are plans for "labor flexibilization" which will make it easier for employers to fire workers.
So 200 coal miners and members of their families marched from Asturias to Madrid, a distance of 250 miles. Along the way, people in towns and villages came out to cheer them and give them food. When this "Black March" reached Madrid, they found that tens of thousands of Madrileños were ready to join their protest. On Wednesday, they reached the Ministry of Industry building on downtown Puerta del Sol. There they demanded a meeting with officials. This was refused, and the police charged the demonstrators and brutal scenes ensued with 76 people injured, plus arrests.
The two major union federations of Spain, the enormous CCOO (Confederacion Sindical de Comisiones Obreras) connected to the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and the UGT (Union General de Trabajadores) linked to the Socialist Workers Party, issued a joint statement supporting the miners and announcing massive strikes and marches for July 19, saying that the government is "playing with fire".
The Communist Party is calling not only for the rescue of the miners' jobs, but also for the nationalization of the mines. Writing on the website of the PCE's paper Mundo Obrero, Enrique Javier Diez Gutierrez, education coordinator of the United Left, to which the PCE belongs, pointed out that restoring subsidies to private companies does not make sense. Rather, he said, the subsidies should be going to nationalized mines and to the workers and their families, so that there can be a rational and planned mechanism for both protecting the environment and preserving jobs by creation of new industries in the mining regions.
In the parliament, Cayo Lara, coordinator of the parliamentary caucus of the United Left, denounced the austerity measures, which total up to 65 billion euros ($78 billion), as a violation of democracy, and demanded that they be submitted to a popular referendum. On Friday, civil servants hit the streets in massive numbers to protest Rajoy's austerity plans.
Photo: Miners' march to the Minister of Industry building in Madrid, July 11. Coal miners angered by huge cuts converged on Madrid for protest rallies after walking nearly three weeks under a blazing sun from the pits where they eke out a living. Andres Kudacki/AP