Spanish miners given heroes’ welcome in Madrid

One hundred and fifty thousand people poured onto the streets of Madrid on the evening of July 11 to greet tens of thousands of Spanish miners, who had participated in an 18-day marcha negra (black march) from Spain’s northern coal mining regions of Asturias, Leon, Palencia and Aragon. Miners were protesting the right-wing Popular Party (PP) government’s 63% cut to state subsidies for the coal mining industry.

With their helmet lanterns shining, many of the miners wept as they were greeted by crowds of supporters, who, with raised fists, sang the “Internationale” and the miners’ anthem “Santa Barbara”. Shouting “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”) and “Long live working class struggle”, supporters accompanied the miners all the way to the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central plaza and the meeting point for Spain’s indignado protest movement over the last year.

Celestino Duran, a miner from the Sant Lucia de Gordon coalfield, told the British Guardian newspaper: “If the mine closes then the whole community will disappear. We saw that happen in the neighbouring colliery at Cistierna. They closed it and a community of 2,000 people now has just 150 inhabitants.”

Many protesters chanted “que si nos representan” (“they do represent us”), reversing the indignados slogan, “que no nos representan” (“they do not represent us”) in acknowledgment of the vanguard role the miners are playing in resisting the government’s brutal austerity measures.

Police attacks

Since May 31, 8000 miners went on strike, blocking streets and railroads and occupying coal mines. In the main square of Oveido, the regional capital of Asturias, workers established an occupation using the same tactic as the indignados. In response, the guardia civil (military police) were deployed, using rubber bullets and tear gas, to repress the miners.

Spain’s coal miners have a long history of struggle. As Guardian columnist Richard Seymour has observed, this siege recalls the 1934 revolt by Asturias miners, which was put down by Franco’s fascist forces, and the first general strike under the Franco dictatorship, led by the Asturian miners in 1962.

When attacked, Asturian coal miners have fought back against police with firecrackers and homemade munitions. On June 18, in a general strike across several mining counties, transport workers, relief teachers and shipbuilders joined the miners’ struggle.

On the morning of July 12, outside the industry ministry in Madrid, miners attempted to meet with the industry minister, Jose Manuel Soria. However, he rebuffed their invitation and police were sent in to attack the protesters. According to Al Jazeera reporter Tim Friend, “At one moment it was good humoured, the next, protesters were throwing firecrackers at the police. [The police] responded with rubber bullets. Spanish papers say 76 people were injured. One was a retired miner. Seven people were arrested.” Retired miner Olvidio Gonzalez told Al Jazeera, “We were walking peacefully to get to where the union leaders were speaking and they started to fire indiscriminately. There was no warning.’’

More cuts

A few hours before, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced a new sales tax hike and other spending cuts aimed at saving the government €65 billion (A$78 billion) over the next two and a half years. The new spending cuts include more wage cuts for government workers; closures of state-owned companies and privatisations of railways, airports and harbours; reduced unemployment benefits; and bringing forward an increase in the retirement age. The cuts form part of an austerity package, negotiated with the European Union, in exchange for a bailout package that gives the government one more year to comply with the required 3% of GDP deficit target.

Significantly, Rajoy began his speech by thanking the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) for having formed a pro-austerity united front in Europe. Meanwhile, United Left members of parliament wore miners’ solidarity T-shirts in protest.

Cuts in subsidies to coal mining, expected to result in the loss of 8000 miners’ and 30,000 other workers’ jobs, will save the government just €200 million, a fraction of the billions of euros of public spending cuts already announced. Yet a concession to the miners would set a dangerous precedent for a conservative government that has to date stood intransigent in the face of growing opposition. Its political credibility with European lenders derives in large part from its ability to contain domestic revolt.

Despite the mining and other major unions in Asturias being allied to the pro-austerity PSOE, this party is increasingly unable to hold back a growing rebellion by appealing to the miners to moderate their demands. Recent opinion polls show a further decline in support for both the ruling right-wing Popular Party (from 44% in the November 2011 elections to 37% now) and the discredited PSOE “opposition” (from 28.7% to 23.1%). The left-wing coalition United Left polled increasing support (from 6.9% last November to 13.2% now).

‘Enough is enough’

The rise in electoral support for the United Left is no doubt raising fears amongst the country’s rulers of a repeat of the rise of SYRIZA in Greece as a major left-wing opposition political force. The Spanish government has good reason to fear this possibility. It is increasingly losing credibility and its austerity measures having done nothing to calm nerves amongst Spain’s jittery investors in an economy five times the size of Greece’s. And the government looks feeble after returning from EU negotiations with a bailout package that it claimed had “no strings attached”, only for Germany to repudiate this claim.

The Rajoy government’s battle with the miners is being waged on shaky ground as the miners increasingly demonstrate they have the working class on their side.

To date the unions response has been feeble. The leaders of the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and General Union of Workers (UGT) federations, who called a very successful general strike in March (the first in 18 months), have not followed up in any serious way. In response to Rajoy’s latest announcement, the CCOO and UGT belatedly called another general strike for July 19.

The huge outpouring of solidarity with the miners on July 11-12 and the sizeable mobilisations now taking place in response to the latest round of austerity measures show the Spanish working class remains defiant. As Alejandro Casal, 28, an Airbus factory worker marching with fellow union members, told the Guardian, the miners’ protest “isn’t only their struggle. It’s a struggle for the working class.’’

“The people need to be here on the street to say ‘Enough is enough’”, he said.

Direct Action — July 15, 2012