In the wake of the two-month strike against pit closures by Spanish miners, which ended with a return to work on August 6th, Gregorio Alonso reflects on the history and contemporary significance of industrial and political struggle in the country’s mines.
From nineteenth-century oligarchic liberalism to post-1975 democracy, a culture of working class resistance has been nurtured and spread throughout the mining areas of Leon, Asturias, Aragón, Murcia and Andalusia. Through different political and social regimes, a distinctive cohesion among industrial and mining workers took root in those regions. Scholars and commentators unanimously claim that it has fuelled strategies of collective defence of economic, social and political rights. Between political myth and social construction, their fiery past and present equally challenges over-exploitative domestic and international owners and repressive public policies against the mobilized workers. They are still perceived of as the last resort of workers’ dignity in Spain and their temporary suspension of their striking activity will hardly conceal that fact, although, for now, tactical moderation seems now to be advisable.
On 10 July 2012, a group of around 400 striking miners entered Madrid after long marches that had departed some weeks before from northern Asturias and Aragon. All along through the journey and especially at the Spanish capital, they were welcomed, supported and hosted by sympathisers and comrades alike. They were on strike for more than two months in opposition to the government’s determination to close most coal pits in Asturias and Aragón. The alleged reasons for the proposed closures were the pits’ lack of profitability in the face of international competition and their decreasing levels of productivity. The 2006-2012 National Plan that regulates coal exploitation in Spain still needs to be renewed. Given the current economic crisis and the priorities of the conservative Partido Popular government, the odds seem to be against a satisfactory renewal of the plan. Apart from the delicate socioeconomic situation in Spain, the increasing political and budgetary obstacles to accommodate the workers’ demands, the government has shown little political will to satisfactorily set an agenda to overcome the situation miners are facing. By closing the coal pits, as British experience shows, the government could well be sealing the fate of those mining areas and condemning them to long years of economic deprivation, social dislocation and severe suffering.
Yet such an outcome would quite certainly face a consistent and sustained resistance campaign. In the last two months Spanish media have done little to provide public opinion with balanced and deep coverage of the miners’ initiatives. This is not news in itself; the media also failed to cover the activities and proposals of the 15-M movement – the Spanish section of Occupy. Spectators saw images on TV of street and open field fighting between miners and the National Police and the Civil Guard. However, very little was shown of their open assemblies, debates and proposals for how they could keep their jobs and have their grievances addressed. On the Internet, interested or more curious audiences can access alternative versions and analyses at non-mainstream websites, blogs and forums, though. See, among many others: a film ‘La dignidad de los mineros y la cobardía de los cobardes‘ and articles on Diagonal Web. In English, there is information on the Spanish Miners Solidarity Committee blog and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty website.
Asturian and more generally Northern Spanish miners enjoy a long and well deserved reputation, earned through intense conflict, for their willingness to actively defend their socio-political rights. This history of political struggle has been masterfully studied by Adrian Shubert, David Ruíz and Ruben Vega. While there certainly significant experiences in the nineteenth century, the most famous episode in the history of violent confrontations between miners and public authorities is without a doubt the so-called Revolución de Asturias of October 1934.
The three weeks of co-ordinated efforts of Anarchist, Communist and Socialist activists and open revolt against the conservative government set a frightening example to the national and international middle-classes. Unionised or not, striking miners, industrial and rural workers took to the hills in order to stop the right-wing Radical Republican-CEDA government dismantling most of the progressive social reforms introduced by the PSOE-Republican cabinets of 1931-1933. The struggle soon became a revolution of sorts. The mobilised workers collectivized properties and companies, harassed the local bosses, undertook violent anticlerical actions and resorted to violence in their confrontations with the Civil Guard and the military. General Francisco Franco managed to crush the revolt with the assistance of the shock troops manned by the Moorish Legion directly transported from the Moroccan front, as would also be the case during the Spanish Civil War. This was followed by harsh repression that made workers and activists pay for their “insolence” very dearly with death sentences and mass imprisonment. The suffering caused by that repression and the memory of the excesses and mistakes committed during that October taught hard lessons to the workers who would subsequently adapt more moderate and compromising tactics even during the 1936-1939 Revolution and Civil War. On the other hand, the Asturias Revolution soon called the attention of outstanding intellectuals such as Albert Camus who published in Argel (Morocco) a collective fictional recreation the following year to honour the striking workers.
Under the Franco dictatorship the miners would show that, even if the first big battle had been lost, the war was far from over. Following a more cautious and peaceful, although equally challenging, plan, the Asturian miners organized strikes in 1957-1958 and then again in 1962 in order to improve their working and living conditions. Due to the authoritarian nature of the regime, workers’ rights had already been indefinitely “suspended” and every strike or industrial conflict automatically became political. The miners displayed once again the same solidarity and determination to improve their lot and the Police and Civil Guard were unable to use force against them as no provocation was ever provided. The sustained solidarity that joined together workers, families and neighbours showed no weak points, puzzled the civil authorities and confirmed miners’ resilience and determination. This new wave of mobilizations had limited success, although the miners’ commitment set an example for other militant fellow workers, neighbours associations and students who developed a refreshed political conscience after two decades of workers’ suppression and national isolation. The 1970s and 1980s, however, would witness record number of strikes and civic mobilizations. First in favour of democratization at the end of the Franco regime, and a decade later against the implementation of the deindustrialization, policies introduced by UCD and PSOE governments that closely resembled Thatcher’s in Britain, miners were duly found on the front line.
In 2012 new challenges and threats loom in the horizon, not only for mining workers but for all public and private sector workers in Spain and beyond. Links among workers of different crafts and nationalities are already expanding. The recent creation of Yorkshire, Merseyside, Wales and Lancashire Spanish Miners Solidarity Committees are good proof of this. In the 1984-1985 strike that shook those areas, support and solidarity was sent from Spain too. The future will tell if working class pride and solidarity still have good lessons to teach to new generations of the growing numbers of people excluded by plummeting neoliberal capitalism. For the time being, at least the morale of those militant citizens who have recently mobilized in defence of essential social, economic and civil rights has just been boosted by the bravery and resolve of coal miners.
Dr Gregorio Alonso is Lecturer at the University of Leeds School of Modern Languages and Cultures, and his research interests include the study of political and religious conflicts in Modern Europe and the making of the liberal and the Catholic traditions during the nineteenth Century