They came with helmets on their heads and the worried look of men with no future on their faces, but the Spanish coal miners who marched through Madrid on Wednesday were clear that they would not give up on their life-or-death struggle for the future of their collieries.
“We will keep going and, if nothing happens, the fight will just get harder,” said Jorge Exposito, a miner from Mieres, northern Spain, as fireworks crackled and twitchy riot police stood by with shields and guns loaded with rubber bullets.
A tense standoff saw occasional police charges, rubber bullets and demonstrators hurling objects at police. At least 76 people were injured in clashes along Madrid’s central Castellana Boulevard, but the march eventually ended with nothing more violent than a rousing singsong.
The miners had brought with them the dust of Castile, the sun-baked central region of Spain that 200 of them had walked through on their 400km, three-week march to reach the capital. Many had wept when they were greeted by crowds of supporters in Madrid.
Thousands more came in buses on the long trip from the northern regions of Asturias and Leon or the collieries of eastern Aragon and southern Puertollano. Spanish Minister of Industry Jose Manuel Soria declined to meet the protesters.
The miners had arrived in the hope that the center-right government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could be persuaded to return to a program of subsidies to mining companies that has been dramatically chopped by 60 percent this year. Instead, the prime minister devoted the morning to announcing a further austerity package to save the government 65 billion euros (US$79.5 billion) over two-and-a-half years.
“All we are asking for is that they stick to the agreement,” said Isidro Castro, a former miner from the northern region of Leon. “That is not so difficult. If the mining companies do not get their subsidies this year there will be nothing to negotiate next year because they will have to close.”
Celestino Duran, a miner from the Sant Lucia de Gordon coalfield, said: “If the mine closes then the whole community will disappear. We saw that happen in the neighboring colliery at Cistierna. They closed it and a community of 2,000 people now has just 150 inhabitants,” he added.
With Spanish unemployment at 24 percent few miners believe they can find jobs elsewhere.
“The trouble is that everyone depends on the mine and if it closes then the town dies. My daughter used to work for the regional television station, but she was laid off. Now she has opened a bar, but, if the mine closes, she will have to close that, too,” said Angelita Arias, from Santa LucIa de Gordon.
Tens of thousands turned out on Tuesday to greet the miners, who strode into the city’s central Puerta del Sol, famous as the center of Spain’s indignado protest movement.
Many see the miners as in the vanguard of the fight against austerity measures which were made still more drastic yesterday and threaten to deepen a double-dip recession. However, the government argues that Spain’s coalmines are making losses and EU rules do not allow it to subsidize them much longer.