Miners arrive in Madrid after 400km march to protest at cuts


PLÁCIDO ÁLVAREZ isn’t used to getting blisters on his feet. As a coal miner from the northern Spanish province of León, he is more used to getting calluses on his hands. Over the last 2½ weeks though, his feet have taken a beating as he has walked, with dozens of fellow miners, across northern Spain to Madrid – a distance of over 400km – to protest against cuts to the mining sector.

“We’ve been walking just over 30km each day,” he said, as he rested with other miners at the side of the road on the outskirts of Madrid. At mid-morning, it was already over 30 degrees.

“The heat is the worst thing – that and the feet. I’ve got loads of blisters and I’ve also had tendinitis for the last week.”

More than 200 miners from Spain’s coal-producing heartland of León, Asturias and Aragón have put up with similar discomfort to take part in this march. Álvarez and the other miners arrived in central Madrid yesterday to a rapturous welcome from labour unions, left-wing groups and members of the public.

They are fighting plans by the conservative government to reduce coal sector subsidies this year from €311 million €110 million. This is just one of a series of austerity measures with which the government is seeking to slash the public deficit in line with targets set by Brussels and thus fend off a full sovereign bailout.

The government argues that the Spanish mining industry is inefficient, producing expensive coal that cannot compete with its foreign counterparts.

Energy minister José Manuel Soria says the administration does not have the margin to maintain the subsidy for 2012, although he says he is willing to negotiate beyond that.

The miners believe it will be too late by then. They say this year’s cuts will effectively kill the Spanish coal industry. Successive governments have trimmed the sector over the last 25 years, leaving only 8,000 miners in work.

Labour unions estimate that not only will the new subsidy-reduction plan leave most of those miners out of work, but it will destroy the livelihood of many other professionals who depend on the industry, meaning a total job loss of 30,000.

Spain’s coal miners have long been seen as the vanguard of the country’s workers’ movement and some have gone to desperate lengths. In recent weeks, there have been violent scenes in the north, as protesters have blocked off roads with burning tyres and fired missiles at the police with catapults and homemade rocket-launchers. Some miners have shut themselves inside mines for weeks.

“We’re doing this march so that the local communities don’t die,” said Oran Espiñeira, a miner from León, as he smoked by the side of the road ahead of the final leg.

“If coal mining stops, then our communities die too. No one will stay there, they’ll be ghost towns. In those places, mining is everything, all the activities revolve around mining.”

Espiñeira’s father, uncles and grandfather were also miners.

He and the other miners who have taken part in this march have often sung the Spanish miners’ anthem, Santa Bárbara Bendita, as they walked. The song is associated with historic clashes between the miners and the authorities throughout the 20th century.

On completion of their epic walk to Madrid, though, the miners knew they were fighting what could be their very last battle.