Spanish mine strike turns ugly: “The government is leaving us no other choice”

Striking miners barricade a road near the Santiago mine. Photo taken by our Observer.
 
 
Spain’s miners are more riled up than ever before, after more than two weeks of strikes protesting the end of government aid to the mining sector. One of the protesters, who works in a mine in Spain’s northern province of Asturias, told us about their struggle, which is sliding a little more into violence every day.
 
Most of the four dozen Spanish coal mines that have (so far) survived the economic crisis are located in the north of the country, in particular in the provinces of Asturias and Leon. Approximately 8,000 miners depend on them for a living. But imported coal is cheaper than Spanish coal, which largely depends on government subsidies to remain viable.
 
Now the government, under pressure from the European Union, is set to end these subsidies by 2018. As part of its budget deficit plan, it has already slashed government aid to the mining sector by 63% - from 301 million euros last year to 111 million this year. Mining unions say the cuts could cause as many as 30,000 people directly or indirectly employed by the mining sector to lose their jobs.
 
As a result, the unions launched a strike at the end of May. In many areas, the protests have spiralled into clashes with police and security forces, as miners erected barricades on roads and railways and attacked offices of the ruling Popular Party in several Asturian towns.
 
Local authorities are pleading with the central government to reconsider the budget cuts, and a meeting between local leaders and Spain’s Industry Minister is expected to take place soon.
 
Clashes between miners and police near Soton mine, in the Asturias region, on June 15. Video published on Facebook by
Elena Gutierrez Gonzalez.
Contributors

“We are in the streets to defend our rights – we aren’t delinquents”

Alberto (not his real name), 39, has worked night shifts in the Santiago Aller mine for the past 15 years. During the past five years, he has been employed by the mining company Hunosa.
 
In the 1980s, the area I live in used to have 15 working mines that fed entire families. Now there are only two.
 
About 95% of mine workers here are unionized, and nearly all are participating in the protests. Here in Hunosa, we have been on strike since May 29, and will remain so indefinitely. Every day, we go to our usual workplace at 7 a.m. Our union representatives update us on the strike’s latest status, and announce planned actions, like a march or a road barricade.
   
Miners barricading a road last week. Photo taken by our Observer.
  
“At first, we marched openly, but since things have gotten uglier, protesters have begun to cover their faces”
 
Police forces quickly began using force against us. We are marching to defend our rights – we aren’t delinquents, but they have been treating us as such. For example, take the peaceful march that was organized in Madrid [on May 31] during which security forces encircled and blocked us in a particularly provocative way, making the situation even tenser. [Police say radical groups were spreading violence in the marches, throwing stones and bottles and injuring several officers.]
   
The Santiago mine on day 17 of the strike. Photo taken by our Observer.
   
“We miners risk our lives every day at work; we’re used to danger”
 
We march peacefully, and never meant for things to get out of hand or to injure anyone [last week, a train passenger was hurt after his wagon was derailed by logs that protesters had placed on the tracks.] But we do have to defend ourselves when we are attacked by police. The government leaves us no other choice; it’s destroying everything we had set up under the 2006-2012 mining plan [the plan included the creation of non-mine jobs for the workers of closed mining sites, but protesters say these are jeopardized by the budget cuts.]
 
There have been injuries on our side too, but we’re not afraid. We miners risk our lives every day at work; we’re used to danger. At first, we marched openly, but since things have gotten uglier, protesters have started to cover their faces with masks and scarves. However, we’re all aware that by now, police are keeping a file on all of us and watching us – notably by tracking our licence plates and listening in on our phone calls.
    
“Some workers opted for an underground strike, which is very dangerous, but it puts pressure on the government”
 
Some workers have opted for an underground strike, which is another way of putting pressure on the government because it’s very dangerous. They are 600 metres underground, where temperatures reach 25°C with an 85% humidity rate. It must be very hard for them.
  
After 19 days of striking, we are exhausted, and morale is very low. Miners are no longer bringing in money, but living expenses are the same – we have to keep sending our kids to school and putting food on the table. This situation will certainly contribute to the movement’s radicalization.
 
Workers from the Santiago mine barricade a road by lighting tires on fire. Photo taken by our Observer.
  
The only way people in this area can make a living are the mines. It’s all we’ve got. There was funding at one point to develop alternative industrial activities, but authorities did not use it wisely. The money was spent and still there is no viable alternative for miners. Without the mines or a viable alternative, Asturias will inevitably enter a deep and lasting depression. 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.

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