In May 2012, Spain announced plans to reduce coal-industry subsidies from €300 million (US$405 million) to €110 million ($148 million) in order to comply with European Union regulations. The austerity cuts would, trade unions say, leave 30,000 workers out of work in a country where a 26-percent unemployment rate makes their chance of finding new jobs bleak.
In early June 2012, two helicopters and hundreds of policemen in full riot gear were sent by the Spanish government to a northern region of the country. As their mission was to contain a local union protest against reductions in state subsidies, the deployment might have seemed excessive. But that region was Asturias and the local trade unionists were coal miners.
In 1934, Asturian coal miners fought off a newly elected conservative government’s troops for 12 days by catapulting dynamite at them, all while establishing a commune in the region’s mountains and valleys. And in spring 1962, striking Asturian coal miners were joined by over 500,000 other workers in 25 provinces, who threw grains of wheat, symbolizing chicken feed, at the doors of those who did not participate. Their demands were not met, but the protests succeeded in giving momentum to the country’s democracy movement.
“In the mining sector there’s always been an intense protest culture,” says Asturian coal miner Gerardo Cienfuegos, 40. “A year rarely passes without us striking.” During the June 2012 protests, Cienfuegos and about 8,000 of his colleagues went on strike for 70 days, occupying three mine shafts and blocking 60 roads with burning tires, logs and curtains of thick smoke. When police tried to curb the protest with rubber bullets and tear gas, miners retaliated with their own artillery: potato launchers, slingshots, fireworks and Ping-Pong-ball hurlers. “Of course, there are miners who are very strong and could rip off your head in one move,” says Cienfuegos, “but they are also normal people who are scared, who are respectful, who aren’t violent or aggressive; they are here simply because they are being fucked over.”
“If this isn’t resolved, it’s war, war, war,” chanted 180 of the miners during a march to Spanish capital Madrid to demand that the existing subsidies not be cut. After walking 400 kilometers over 18 days, they were met in the city by thousands of supporters and the rubber bullets of riot police. Spain’s Ministry of Industry refused to see them, and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy just happened to spend the morning announcing further cuts. On August 3, 2012, union leadership requested that the coal miners return to work with the reassurance that negotiations were under way. But more than one year later, the government’s decision to cut coal subsidies hasn’t changed. “I think we were pretty clear about what we can do,” Cienfuegos insists. “If we are forced to fight those measures by turning up the pressure for three more months, we surely will.”
From the pages of COLORS #88 - Protest.