Spanish miners don’t normally make the headlines, but this week they did. Blockades, fireworks, clashes with police and a march to Madrid – miners based in the north of Spain have been on news channels across the globe as campaigns against austerity measures grow ever more extreme.
The miners decided to walk from their base in the mining region of the Asturias, in the north of the country, to Madrid, on the same day as the new government announced its fourth round of austerity cuts in 8 months.
They were joined by sympathisers and clashed with police. But it wasn’t just the violence that made it newsworthy. For millions of Britons the words “miners’ strike” have an enduring resonance.
The mine tends to be the centre of village life and it is also a father-son type of trade – multiple generations of a family can work in the same mine. Added to this the treacherous nature of the job means that it becomes central to the thoughts of a community.
A history of disputes
In Spain there is an extra layer of symbolism. Back in 1934 miners from the same region embarked on a strike action against General Franco. The action was more political than today’s strike with the communist miners against the fascist government.
Some 3,000 miners were killed back then, 40,000 were taken prisoner and thousands of others lost their jobs. The fight was bloody and brutal with accusations of rape and looting by the official troops. The revolt was crushed and Franco went on to rule until 1975.
Mining strikes also have political significance closer to home. The UK experienced its own miners’ strike in 1984-1985, which ended up being a defining moment in UK industrial relations.
If history repeats itself in Southern Spain then the miners’ may be on the losing side, as the Thatcher government in the UK ended up defeating the miners and seriously weakening the trade union movement in the process.
Strikes in the UK were started when the Government decided to cut down coal subsidies and close some of the Government-controlled industry. Eventually the police were mobilised against the strikers and there were even rumours of MI5 involvement including tapping trade unionists’ phones.
Public opinion was originally in the miners favour before seeping away as the strike wore on. Six people died during the strikes and although the disruption to coal production had less of an effect on everyday life in the UK (most people had alternative forms of heating in their homes unlike during the general strikes in the 70s) it had a social impact.
The mining industry was decimated during the strife: In 1983 the UK had 174 working mines; by 2009 it had six. The effect on mining communities was profound with Grimethorpe in North Yorkshire (a former mining community) classified by the European Union in 1994 as the poorest place in the UK and one of the poorest in the EU.
The Spanish miners’ strike has many similarities to the UK strikes of nearly 30 years ago. Firstly, it is miners, yet again, against a conservative government. Second, the strikes are taking place in a backdrop of economic recession and change.
They also highlight the lengths that unions will go to publicise their plight. Just like in the UK, unions in Spain are now campaigning not just about wage cuts and conditions but about job losses.
As Spain tries to boost competitiveness and deal with one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory, the trade unions won’t be giving up without a fight.
The subsidies to the coal sector amount to approximately $250million (£161million), which is a tiny fraction of the €65billion (£51billion) that Prime Minister Rajoy is trying to slice from the public budget in the coming years.
However, with 40,000 jobs on the line, miners know that without these subsidies they will lose their livelihoods and their communities so they are unlikely to give up without a fight.
Added to that with unemployment at nearly 25% (for the young it is 50%) and a low level of transferable skills from the coal industry to elsewhere, the bleak outlook could add fuel to the miners’ fight, thus the government (and the public) should steel themselves for a prolonged battle.
In a country with a history like Spain, public support for the miners is unlikely to fade too quickly due to the memories it evokes of the former dictatorship.
The government in Spain must tread carefully between implementing the cuts necessary to get the EU on board with its bank bailout and balancing social and economic conditions at home, where the Latin spirit could try to knock the government’s efforts off course.