Spain bailout: miners of Asturias rise up against austerity
The miners of Asturias began the struggle against Franco. Now they are leading a militant protest against Spanish austerity
CELEBRATIONS are always premature in the manic depressive world of the eurozone, and Spain's conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy should have known better than to present Sunday's bailout deal as a victory.
By Monday evening German politicians were disputing his claim that the deal came with no strings attached, and insisting that the Spanish economy will have to be subjected to Greek-style external supervision.
Now the two main unions have announced a general strike on 18 June in the provinces of Asturias and Leon, where Spain is currently embroiled in a major industrial dispute that has so far received little attention in the Spanish and international press.
For nearly two weeks now, striking miners in the two provinces have fought pitched battles with Spanish police and the Civil Guard in a militant protest that increasingly resembles recent events in Greece – or the Arab world.
The strikers have erected barricades made from burning tyres. Since 29 May, five miners have sealed themselves 500 metres underground at a mine in Aller. On various occasions, trains have been forced to stop because tree trunks were laid across railway lines.
The Civil Guard have used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets, none of which have succeeded in cooling the strikers' ardour. Asturian miners are not generally cowed by such tactics, and pickets have responded with stones and bottle rockets.
A rugged, green and mountainous region on Spain's Atlantic coast, much of Asturias resembles Wales or Scotland. Like Wales, it has always been associated with steel manufacture and coalmining. With its strong communist and anarchist political affiliations, the region has long been a centre of militant working class resistance to rightwing governments.
It was in Asturias in 1934, that miners rebelled against the rightwing government in what many historians consider a curtain-raiser for the Civil War. The revolt was suppressed with extreme brutality by Spanish and Moorish troops under the command of Francisco Franco, at the cost of some 1,500 lives.
Both during and after World War II, the region's mountainous terrain provided some of the last redoubts for anti-Franco guerrillas – a tradition celebrated in Guillermo del Toro's post-civil war fantasy epic Pan's Labyrinth.
In the 1980s and 90s, Asturian miners engaged in militant but less violent protests against privatisations and industrial restructuring of the type that destroyed the British coalmining industry, but the reforms were never fully carried through in Asturias.
Since Spain's transition to democracy, the Asturian mining industry has been in decline, and its survival is largely due to subsidies from the Spanish government and the European Union, which have protected Asturian coal from foreign competition.
The European Union recently announced that these subsidies would be abolished by 2018 in order to promote cleaner energies. But this year, the conservative government slashed the subsidies by 63 percent with a whopping €200 million cut – a decision that is effectively a death sentence for the Spanish coalmining industry.
Subsidies might not look good to economists and free marketers – unless of course they are handed out to banks. But in a region where mining still keeps some 7,000 people employed, state intervention has been crucial in keeping the dole queues shorter than they would otherwise be, especially since alternatives to mining have been few and far between.
In short, this is not a region where politicians pick fights lightly, and the subsidy cuts, coming from a rightwing government with Francoist origins, have gone down like a lead balloon in the mining villages.
The miners' strike has overlapped with an indefinite strike by transportation workers in Asturias and neighbouring Leon against wage cuts and proposed changes to work agreements.
All this has clearly made both strikes more potent and more militant. Much of Asturias is effectively paralysed. Public transport has ground to a halt in some areas and trucks on the motorways frequently require police escorts.
With the government determined not to negotiate – in part to show the EU that it has the toughness and resolve to follow through its cuts programme – the stage is set for a major confrontation whose impact might not be limited to Spain itself.
In a country facing economic collapse, where savage austerity cuts have been accompanied by million-euro payouts for the directors of some of the discredited banks that caused the crisis in the first place, the miners of Asturias may not be the only opposition that Rajoy's government will have to quell in order to keep foreign investors happy.
In 1934, Asturian miners fought the first battles of the Civil War against Franco's Army of Africa, armed with sticks of dynamite. Today, the smouldering dispute in the Asturian coalfields heralds a new era of militant working class resistance to Spain's 'budgetary discipline', alongside the more middle-class Indignados movement, which has occupied squares in cities across the country over the past year.
Rajoy's government may find the former much more difficult to deal with. No wonder it prefers not to talk about it.
- Matthew Carr blogs on history and politics at The Infernal Machine