Miners demonstrating in Langreo, Northern Spain, June 2012.

Black future for nation’s miners

On strike since late May, Spanish miners have begun a march on Madrid in order to safeguard state subsides for the nation's coal mines. But in the midst of the eurozone crisis, their cause to save an old and struggling industry seems all but lost.

Published on 22 June 2012 at 15:20
Miners demonstrating in Langreo, Northern Spain, June 2012.

On July 21, 1962, the dictator Francisco Franco confided to his cousin and military secretary, General Francisco Franco Salgado-Araujo, that if Spain were ever admitted into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC), it would be a severe blow for Spain's coal mines.

Fifty years on, Spain's coal and anthracite mines are now the scenes of virulent conflict, punctuated by violent clashes between miners and police, and work stoppages in the region of Asturias and León.

What is at stake today is the final battle for the survival of an economic sector that has existed since 1801 and which was industrial production on a grand scale, and not merely local.

Two years ago, the European Union decided to ban state aid to coal mines by the end of 2014. Recently it agreed to postpone the cut-off date for the ban on such subsidies to December 31, a measure which would affect almost all of Spain’s coal mines.

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The industry knew that it was headed for certain death, but with a six-year stay of execution that hopefully could be further pushed back. After all, the Spanish coal industry has gone on for 90 years under the permanent threat of constantly deferred liquidation.

Emblematic of Spanish protectionism

However, in order to meet requirements set by Brussels, PM Mariano Rajoy's 2012 budget projected a €190 million decrease in direct subsidy for coal mining, a drastic reduction of 63%. Employers and unions and the municipalities of these mining towns, whose incomes and jobs have always been heavily dependent on coal, argue that without such aid, the majority of mining companies risk bankruptcy.

The ruling Popular Party has its back to the wall. Subject to the constant threat of ever increasing yields on its sovereign debt, as well as close scrutiny by the markets and the EU, any signs of weakness with regard to the miners' movement would be to undermine its authority and credibility and would only serve as encouragement for the many other industries and professions also facing severe austerity measures.

Nevertheless the economic climate is not favorable for the miners. Although their work remains hard and dangerous, and their wages, working conditions and pensions are nothing like what they once were, outside of their strongholds their cause meets with very little sympathy from their fellow citizens.

The problem of Spanish coal mines is structural: without the help of the state, they are mostly unprofitable. For geological reasons, the Spanish coal industry has never been competitive and since the 19th century the mining industry has been emblematic of Spanish protectionism.

Already importing massively

The miners, their bosses and union leaders have ever defended the cause. In addition to arguments on a territorial and social basis, they cite economic and energic criteria. They insist that without other sources of energy - apart from renewables - Spain and Europe should not relinquish its fossil fuel resources. If mines are closed now, the cost of reopening them will be prohibitive in the future.

Many economists argue that it is absurd that countries like Spain are supporting activities which can never be competitive in terms of production, quality and cost. Spain already buys large quantities of coal from abroad. It imports between 16 and 20 million tons per year, while domestic production does not exceed 8.5 million tons.

Even Asturias, Spain’s number one coal-producing region for a century and a half, has imported increasingly since 1967. Imports now cover over 70% of regional consumption of coal. A similar phenomenon has occured in Europe, after decades of closures. The EU still produces 130 million tons of coal, but imports about 160 million.

Neverthless, business leaders, workers, and local politicians from all parties, united in defense of the coal industry, advocate support of a "strategic reserve" of production in the name of national energic "sovereignty".


“Black March” to Madrid

"Struggle against black future to continue on foot," annoncesLa Vanguardia. On 22 June, 200 miners embarked on a “Black March” that will take them to Madrid on 11 July. Three separate columns set out from Asturias, Castilla y León and Aragon, the three regions that will be hardest hit by the 63% reduction in Spanish government subsidies for the mining industry. In the run-up to a major demonstration on 11 July, the marchers intend to rally the residents of towns on their various routes to their cause, as they march towards the country’s capital.

The march is taking place in the context of a strike, begun on 31 May, which is supported in 50 Spanish mining towns. To date there have been several demonstrations which have resulted in clashes with the police, while the government has continued to rule out any review of its decision.

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