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Some words on the miner’s conflict in Asturias

Article about the miners’ strike in Asturia in 2012 by Jose Maria Martinez.

The ‘Coal Plan 2006-2012’ is an agreement signed by Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialist Party (PSOE ) [1], the trade unions UGT [2] and CCOO [3] and CARBUNIÓN [4] in 2005. The main objective of the agreement was the ending of the government subsidies, meaning the closure of the Spanish coal mines in 2018. The money sums set aside for the reconversion of the mining areas were also detailed in the agreement.

This ‘coal plan’ was just of the several agreements signed between the trade unions and the government in the 80’s with the aim of dismantling the coal industry, which is, by the way, the last survivor of the Asturian traditional industries – the naval, textile and steel industries had already undergone their own reconversion.

In 2012, after winning the elections of November 2011, the government of Mariano Rajoy (PP ) [5], proposed in his bill containing the national general budget for 2012 a reduction of 64% of the subsidies agreed in 2005. This was a breach of the agreement and the trade unions called for demonstrations. The protests of SOMA and CC.OO. are against the end of the subsidies in 2012 instead of in 2018, not against the closure of the mines or the lack of working alternatives in the mining areas.

SOMA-UGT and CC.OO. organised a two-day general strike of the Asturian mining sector on the 23rd and 24th May. There are road blockades, many of which are agreed with the Guardia Civil [6] . Two more strikes are called for the 30th and 31st May, and on the 30th the trade unions meet with the Spanish Ministry of Industry, who remains inflexible about its decision to go on with the decrease in the subsidies. An indefinite strike is then organised (even if CC.OO. did not seem too enthusiastic about it), not being clear if the decision was taken by the trade unions, by the miners or by both. From that moment, a storm of protests erupt: miners locked themselves in the shafts, blocked roads and railways (which brought the terrestrial communications within Asturias and between Asturias and the rest of the country to a stand still), organised demonstrations, camped in front of governmental buildings, etc. And of course, the violent clashes between the miners and the Spanish police; its images and chronicles have flooded the social networks… we just need to type “miners” and “Asturias in YouTube to see some examples. The news even slipped in some bourgeois media – international mainly.

From the 3rd to the 8th June there was also a strike in the Asturian transport sector. The demonstrations, very combative, joined those of the miners and road cuts and clashes with the authorities became more intense. The strike ended with the victory of the workers, but this information was not widely published by the bourgeois media, the same media that however hit the ceiling with the ways in which the workers were defending their interests. In many cases the trade unions even dissociated themselves from the worker’s actions, using the same arguments of the bourgeois media, while at the same time they used this violent actions as a pressure measure: ‘Things can get out of hand, if the conflict is not solved soon, we won’t be able to control the situation’ they said.

The Civil Guard had to use all its force in the mining areas in Asturias and León; the miners used all they had at hand: metal pieces thrown with slingshots, rockets thrown with home-made bazookas, etc. Their objective was always the same: the riot squad of the Civil Guard who were trying to stop them to block the roads with barricades. One of the Guards nearly lost an eye because of the impact of a nut; some miners are arrested, some accused or trying to take down a helicopter, others condemned to pay big fines or even taken to jail for participating in the barricades. The road cuts cause some accidents – some of them quite serious – and at that moment, the Trade Unions decide to protest by less violent means and organise a march to Madrid. During the march, the disagreements between the two organising trade unions (UGT and CC.OO.) became obvious. When they reached Madrid, miners coming in buses from other areas of Spain joined them and thousand of persons of the capital, wanting to show their support, organised a huge demonstration that ended in riots while the trade union leaders were giving their speeches. Most of the people arrested were not miners and were not helped by the legal services of the trade unions that alleged they had nothing to do with violent protests; however, pictures, videos and chronicles of the demonstration show that the violence came from the riot squad of the National Police. The arrested were then supported by lawyers of the 15M [7] and of the CNT [8].

The authorities feared that this protests were taken as an example by other Spanish workers. When looking at the images of the miners, many remember the Revolution of 1934 [9] or the ‘Big strike of 1962 [10] ’. Many see these protests as the confirmation of the fact that the Spanish workers, represented by the miners, have got sick of the current political, economical and social situation of the country. We should not get fooled, though: the current miners’ protests do not have the revolutionary nature of October 1934, where anarchist (CNT) and social (UGT) trade unions joined to overthrow the reactionary government and establish the socialism, each on their way, (authoritarian by the socialists, libertarian by the anarchists). They are not like the strikes in the 60’s, when the trade unions were illegal under Franco’s dictatorship, so with little support and less organisation, it was the workers who took the initiative to fight against their appalling working conditions.

The miners have long forgotten their revolutionary objectives; they no longer fight for the survival of the mining sector or for the finding of alternatives to the coal mines – the same mines that kill people and destroys the environment and the beautiful Asturian landscape. Nowadays the miners only want to work some years, retire early, university grants for their children and highways to easily get to the big shopping centers or to the bigger cities of Asturias. They have left all initiative in the hands of the trade unions

Let us stop and think about what the trade unions are requesting: that the subsidies are kept unchanged until 2018 as had been agreed. They are not asking for the keeping of the mines. Some coal mines are being reopened in other European countries, such as Germany, but in Asturias it would be impossible to reopen them once they close due to their high technical costs. The trade unions are not requesting alternatives to the mining sector; let’s remember the words of José Ángel Fernández Villa [11] (SOMA) when José María Aznar [12] , Spanish President of the PP (People’s Party), suggested closing the mines and creating new alternative employment in the region. ‘Over my dead body’ he said, and requested an increase in the number of thermal power stations that burn the coal. The ‘coal provisions” [13] were used to build roads, sports centers, museums (Asturias is full of them) and many more things that do not constitute any kind of alternative to the mines. The final agreement was that the coal would be subsidised by the government so that the thermal power stations could buy it cheaply.

Asturian coal is not technically cost-effective. Its difficult process of exploitation makes it more expensive, the problem is not really the salaries of the miners. The Asturian mines have not been profitable for the whole 20th century. The coal was imported from Australia, for instance, as it was cheaper, and the working conditions of the Australian miners are not precisely worse of these of the Asturian workers. The Asturian mines were nationalised in the 60’s, and it was clear that this was the beginning of the end of the mining sector in Asturias.

Let’s analise now the two miners’ trade unions that control the protests: 90% of the miners are members of a trade union, as it was very difficult to start working in a mine without that requisite. This happens as well is other big Asturian companies, explaining (just partially) why the CNT is not so important in Asturias. The SOMA was founded the same year as the CNT (in 1910) as since 1979 has been managed by José Ángel Fernández Villa, who resembles in some ways Manuel Llaneza, founder of the SOMA.

A short biography of José Ángel Fernández Villa will shed a lot of light on the history of the SOMA:

– In the 60’s he begins to work in the mines, where he gets in touch with the few surviving members of the CNT, and he becomes member of the CRAS [14]. He is fired from Hunosa [15] and afterwards he works in several companies, among them Duro Felguera [16]. After living for a while in Barcelona, he comes back to Asturias and becomes informer of the police [17]. At that time he begins to work in the mine La Colladona. In 1976, thanks to an amnesty [18] granted by the Government of Adolfo Suarez (UCD [19]), he comes to Hunosa, becomes a member of SOMA-UGT and founds the “Commission of the 16”. From that moment, his career rockets with a series of appointments (in politics and within the trade unions) thanks to his charisma and oratory [20].

– In 1978 he is elected as delegate by SOMA-UGT in the elections in the Candín mine and he becomes member of the Confederate Committee of the UGT, which is part of the CECA.

– He is member of the Regional Executive Commission of the Asturian Socialist Federation.

– In 1979 he is appointed secretary general of the SOMA-UGT, position he still holds.

– Between 1979 and 1993 he was member of the Federal Executive Commission of the PSOE.

– On 2009 he was granted the Medal of Merit at Work by the Minister for Social Affairs and Employment, Celestino Corbacho (PSOE), for his work as leader of the SOMA.

– Senator for Asturias between 1999 and 2003.

– Member of the Regional Parliament of Asturias between 1983 and 2007.

He only interrupted his political career once, when he resigned from all his posts to come back to working in the mine; he suffered a work accident on his first day which made him eligible for an early retirement.

This biography pictures perfectly the role of the SOMA from its founding: it collaborates with any political force, including the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera [21] during the 20’s. More recently, the satiric expression “SOMA-PP” became popular, referring to the good relationship between the trade union and the right-wing party. José Ángel Fernández Villa is ‘the king’ of Asturias, controls the UGT and PSOE, and the newly formed government of Asturias is made by members of the PSOE tied with the SOMA-UGT, who in last instance decides who holds public office and the most relevant political actions.

The other big trade union, CCOO, was founded in the 60’s as the infiltration of the communist party in the Spanish workers’ movement. It first appeared in the Asturian mines and its leaders, communists, encouraged the participation of its members in the trade-unionist elections held during the dictatorship of Franco (same as the trade union USO [22]). These elections were vetoed by the other two historical trade unions CNT and UGT. When dictator Franco died and the new trade unionist model had to be designed, the proposal was to keep the old system but including all trade unions. CNT is the only trade union who refuses and because of it, it suffered prosecution, state terrorism, infiltrations aiming to destroy it, etc. much to the joy of the other two big trade UGT y CCOO.

This short explanation on what SOMA-UGT and CCOO represent gives an idea on who is leading the miners and what are their objectives. Miners are in most part unassuming people that do not care on what is behind the trade unions, just look for their personal welfare and that of their family, and for that they trust the traditional mining trade unions that in the end have accepted the end of the mines with no alternatives.

As of end of July the miners have finished their strike without achieving anything.

And broadly speaking, this is what has happened in Asturias these days.

Jose Maria Martinez

…………………..

1. PSOE: Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (In Spanish: Partido Socialista Obrero Español). It is a social-democratic party founded in 1879, which has governed Spain 22 of the last 35 years after the reinstatement of the monarchy. In mining regions such as Asturias, it used to have great power, always keeping political and social control over the coal-mining areas, creating a racketeer and clientelistic network together with SOMA and UGT. Its power was such that working in many public companies was impossible without being a party member. The PSOE is as well a direct responsible of the industrial reconversion and the privatizations done in Spain in the 80s and 90s. Felipe González, Spanish ex-president, is a member of this party.

2. UGT: General Union of Workers (Spanish: Unión General de Trabajadores). It is a trade union of social-democratic ideology, historically affiliated with the PSOE. Co-responsible of the labour reforms and loss of rights of the Spanish workers. It is the biggest trade union in Spain in of number of members (1.204.000 in 2010) and the second biggest in terms of delegates’ representation (36,2%), and has great institutional power due to its ties with the PSOE. In Asturias it was impossible to work in sectors such as mining or firefighting without being a member. It belongs to the European Trade Union Confederation and to the International Trade Union Confederation.

3. CC.OO.: Worker’s Commissions (Spanish: Comisiones Obreras). Social-democratic trade union, tied to Izquierda Unida (election coalition of the Communist Party). It is the biggest trade union in Spain in terms of delegates’ representation (37,9%) and also the biggest in the mining sector, but it has less institutional power than UGT though, as IU is a smaller party. It has the biggest power of mobilization in the streets, with nearly 1.200.000 members. Co-responsible as well of the workers’ quality of life worsening. CC.OO. and UGT fill the 100% of the trade union in the mining sector, where 90% of the employees are members of a trade union, while in the rest of areas they just have a 16%. Its mining sections are know for being the most violent in Spain, specially the members of SOMA (Sindicato de los Obreros Mineros de Asturias, Asturian Trade Union of Miners).

4. CARBUNIÓN: It is the National Federation of Coal Mines Employers. All private companies in the coal sector belong to it. This makes Carbunión the biggest group in the coal-mining sector, bigger than the now dying public company HUNOSA. Despite being a group of companies, nearly all of them belong to the businessman Victorino Alonso. It is difficult to ascertain how this conglomerate of companies is really structured, as it hides ghost companies, fiscal frauds and influence peddling. Victorino Alonso has constantly been investigated by the police, who assures there are serious irregularities in his business, but this has been systematically ignored by politicians and tribunals. Alonso is also known for taking advantage of the miners’ confrontations with the government or with himself, obtaining more subsidies. In fact, in this latest conflict, it is him who has caused the demonstrations by not paying the salaries to the employees of the private companies, claiming he does not have the means to do it and putting the trade unions in his side (as his own riot squad) with the aim of increasing his privileges.

5. PP: People’s Party (Spanish: Partido Popular). It is a social conservative and economic liberl party founded in 1989 by Manuel Fraga, who had been part of Franco’s regime. Its ideology is closely tied to that of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Together with the PSOE, it is the other big party in the Spanish two-party system. It is currently responsible for some of the biggest corruption scandals in Spain. Since the last general elections, it rules with absolute majority in Spain and in most of the Autonomous Communities. Jose María Aznar, Spanish ex-president, belongs to the PP.

6. Guardia Civil: Civil Guard, it is the Spanish gendarmerie. It was founded in 1844, initially charged with putting an end to insecurity in the rural areas of Spain. It played a repressive role of the workers movement during the second half of the 19th century, the October 1934 Revolution and Franco’s dictatorship. The Civil Guard is in charge of repressing protests in rural areas and in highways by means of its GRS (Grupos de Reserva y Seguridad, Reserve and Security Groups). These units are known by their severity and they are used to dealing with violent protests by left-winged independentist workers in the Basque Country. They are responsible of the violent repression in Ciñera and Pola de Lena, where riot squads with no warrants got into the doorways – and even tried to get into the houses – searching for demonstrators. They threw rubber balls and teargas canisters into the houses of the towns (something they usually do in all big demonstrations). Miners from Cangas de Narcea and Tineo (South West of Asturias) have reported random beatings and detentions, tyre puncturing and ill-treatments in general, from both the riot squads and the information squads.

7. The 15-M movement, also referred to as the Indignants’ Movement, is a citizens’ movement that was born during a demonstration organised on the15th May 2011. The protests demanded a more participative democracy, rejecting the current two-party system between the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party and the People’s Party, as well as the banks and bankers. The Movement brought together several associations and platforms with different slogans, such as ‘We are not puppets in the hands of politicians and bankers’ or ‘Real democracy NOW!’

8. CNT: National Confederation of Labour (In Spanish: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo). It is a Spanish confederation of anarcho-sindycalists founded in 1910. Until the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it was the biggest trade union in Spain, sometimes even tripling the size of the other trade unions put together. In Asturias, during the October Revolution of 1934 CNT was the second biggest trade union, almost as big as UGT, and that allowed putting anarchist communism in practice in several towns. The number of members of the CNT was quite fluctuating, but at times it was nearly as popular as the SOMA in the coal mines. After the restoration of the monarchy in Spain, the CNT was not represented in this area, although it was always provided critical support to protests.

9. The October Revolution of 1934 was a proletarian revolution that took place in Asturias (the revolution failed in most of Spain) between the 5th and the 19th October 1934. It was organised by a Workers’ Alliance between UGT and CNT with the aim of overthrowing the right-winged republican government, and establish a socialist or anarcho-communist society, depending of the preponderance of the UGT or the CNT in each town. For 15 days these political systems were a reality, specially in the mining areas, where the Revolution survived longer against the army attacks. The estate and the money were abolished, new money was minted and town assemblies or revolutionary committees were set up. CNT established anarchist communism in La Felguera and some neighbourhoods of Gijón. The government responded by sending troops from Morocco to retake the towns, causing a true massacre. The repression of the uprising by the colonial troops was extremely harsh. The role of the SOMA was crucial, as the force of the UGT lied in that trade union.

10. The Huelgona (Big Strike) of 1962 was a miners’ strike that took place during Franco’s dictatorship, and that was widely supported by the rest of Spain – where more than 300,000 workers went on strike as a gesture of solidarity. The aim of the strike to was to improve the salaries and working conditions of the miners. The hardest members of the dictatorship government refused, and the protests lasted two months, ending with the total victory of the workers. The conflict was very harsh due to the repression by the Civil Guard, that beat miners, women and children anytime, anywhere, like in cinemas for instance. Hundreds of miners were deported to the poorest regions of Spain, without resources or contacts, causing them months of hardships and suffering until they managed to get back home. It was the first big labour conflict against Franco’s dictatorship; it derived into a political conflict as well, as the right to go on strike was violated and it obtained the support of other workers, of intellectuals and other opponents to the dictatorship. During this conflict, CC.OO. began to gain a lot of members among the miners, as the Communist Party was the only with organised members within the sector and able to have an influence on the strike, as CNT and UGT had almost disappeared at that time.

11. Historic member of the trade union SOMA, Secretary General since the trade union re-legalisation in 1977. He was often compared to Manuel Llaneza (founder and leader of the SOMA until his death). Biographical data will be provided in more detail in the next pages.

12. President of the Spanish Government between 1996 and 2004. He became member of the PP after belonging to the most radical facism (which opposed Franco) during his youth. Under his rule, the privatisation process of public companies started by the PSOE was fulfilled. He promoted a law removing the controls on the land, which was one of the reasons of the ‘property bubble’ that triggered the current economical crisis in Spain. His economic liberalism also brought Spains’ adoption of the Euro, inflation and a rise on the prices that caused a loss in purchasing power by the Spanish people. Together with George Bush and Tony Blair, he was part of the ‘Trio of the Azores’, that instigated the invasion of Irak in 2004.

13. Funds granted by the EU with the aim of closing the coal mines. In theory, the funds were earmarked to help in the reindustrialisation of the mining areas after their reconversion. In practice — except for a few companies created with this money, most of which are nowadays already closed — were used to create fake companies, ethnographic museums, congress and sports centres, etc.

14. CRAS: Revolutionary Groups of Socialist Action (Spanish: Columnas Revolucionarias de Acción Socialista). Group that undertook social, political and cultural actions, founded by the anarchist José Luis García Rúa (later he became member of the CNT, where he held the roles of Secretary General of the National Commitee and Secretary General of the Andalusian Regional). The CRAS acted not only in Gijón, where it had been created, but also in the rest of Asturias.

15. HUNOSA: Hulleras del Norte Sociedad Anónima. Company created by the merger of more than 15 bankrupt private companies. HUNOSA was therefore sentenced to death from the beginning. Until the mid-90’s it was the biggest mining company in Spain, owning more than 60% of the mines. Its decline begins after the reconversion, in the 80’s, and the plan was to close it in 2018. It is the only company not privatised in the 90s due to the power of the SOMA within the PSOE. Most of the managers of HUNOSA were members of the SOMA; this fact made SOMA a very powerful trade union, much more than CC.OO.

16. Company specialised in iron and steel production and coal mining, based in La Felguera. Its workers took part in one of the most important labour conflicts in Spain, when they went on strike for three months as a gesture of solidarity with their co-workers of the factory in Galicia.

17. Information provided by the historian Gómez Fouz. He is not to be fully trusted for his sympathy with Franco; he tends to avoid information that he does not like on one hand, and on the other, he assures other information is true, without properly double-checking it.

18. Amnesty Law approved by the government of Adolfo Suárez in 1976. It was applied to all political prisoners (both politicians and trade-unionist) of the dictatorship.

19. UCD: Centre Democratic Union (In Spanish: Unión de Centro Democrático). Adolfo Suarez’ political party. Suárez had been appointed president of Spain by the king when Franco died. He was entrusted with task of guiding the transition to a satisfactory conclusion. The pre-constitutional government joined UCD for the elections of June 1977 and kept power until 1982. The UCD and its president, supported by the PSOE and the Communist Party, are the architects of the current democratic, political and social models of Spain.

20. We would like to highlight that his promotion to leader of the SOMA was not achieved through promotions, but because of his influence over his colleagues. It is also true that it was a time of reorganisation for the trade unions and there were no ‘veterans’.

21. Proto-fascist dictatorship by General Primo de Rivera, father of the founder of the fascist party Falange. The accession to the government of Primo de Rivera was caused by the disastrous colonial war in Morocco, for which the king was blamed, and for the extremely tense political environment in Spain. It was known as a ‘soft dictatorship’, and it was supported by the SOMA, the UGT and the PSOE, that held important positions in the administration. Manuel Llaneza even relinquished the 7-hour working day that had been achieved by the miners years before.

22. USO: Workers’ Trade Union (In Spanish: Unión Sindical Obrera). Catholic trade union founded in the mid-60’s and legalised in 1977. It is exactly the same as the UGT, but more conservative. They just follow the guidelines of the UGT and have no representation in the mining sector.

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