The fight of successive generations of Spain’s miners have marked major turning points in working class history and could do so again, writes Andy Durgan
In the region of Asturias, north western Spain, most of the country’s coal mines are to be found. On banners or painted on pit village walls three dates symbolise the fight of these workers—1934, 1962 and 2012.
By 1934, the Spanish workers’ movement was acutely aware of the threat of fascism. Workers saw what was happening elsewhere in Europe.
It was widely believed that the main right wing party, the Catholic CEDA (Confederation of Rightist Groups), would try to introduce an authoritarian regime through parliament. This had happened in Austria and Germany.
When the CEDA entered the government in early October 1934 a revolutionary general strike was called. This became a full-blown insurrection in Asturias.
The miners were at the centre of this movement. This was due to their traditions of struggle, a crisis in the mining industry and the unity of workers’ organisations in the Workers’ Alliances.
Such alliances had been formed throughout Spain. But only in Asturias did they include both the powerful anarchist union the CNT, the socialist UGT, as well as communists and revolutionary socialists.
With other workers, the miners took over the region. They organised militias, transport, the distribution of food and revolutionary justice.
A revolutionary committee based on delegates from the unions and workers’ parties declared that the region was now a Socialist Republic.
For two weeks the miners held out against the army in the mountain valleys and the provincial capital Oviedo. Lightly armed, their main weapon was dynamite thrown or shot from catapults.
The miners were finally defeated by overwhelming force. The failure of the strike meant they were isolated across Spain. They faced appalling repression.
The Army of Africa, under the command of future dictator Francisco Franco, wreaked a terrible revenge, especially in the pit villages.
Over two thousand workers were murdered, many more imprisoned and tortured. Miners’ wives were beaten and raped. But far from being cowed, the experience of the Asturian Commune inspired workers throughout Spain.
When the military rose up in July 1936 the slogan of the Asturian miners echoed through the streets as workers resisted: ¡U.H.P! (Unite Proletarian Brothers!). The Civil War would rage on for another three years.
In Asturias the miners once more were at the forefront of this struggle. Badly armed, the Asturian working class held out for 15 months before being overwhelmed by the fascist forces in October 1937.
Once more the mining valleys flowed with blood. But even then the miners did not stop fighting—many fled into the mountains and guerrilla warfare raged well into the 1940s.
After Franco’s victory all trade unions and workers’ organisations were banned. The repression unleashed during the war continued until the late 1940s.
Working class activists were executed, imprisoned and sent to labour camps. The new regime aimed to eliminate all vestiges of a militant workers’ movement.
By the late 1950s a new generation of workers had entered the factories and the mines. Mining in Asturias had reached its peak with 52,000 miners by 1958, compared with barely 4,000 today.
Coal production would soon help fuel Spain’s economic boom after the Stabilisation Plan of 1959 opened the door to foreign investors and tourism.
Over the next 14 years Spain underwent unprecedented growth and was transformed both economically and socially.
Economic development meant that workers flooded into the cities and industries. A new working class emerged relatively unscathed by the horrors of the Civil War.
Throughout the 1960s there would be repeated clashes and strikes as this new working class strove to both improve its conditions and, increasingly, bring about democracy.
The Asturian miners were at the centre of this struggle. In 1962 they carried out one of the most dramatic strikes during the dictatorship.
The strike started on 7 April 1962, at the Nicolasa mine in protest at the sacking of seven miners. It soon spread to involve the rest of the mines. Demands to end a state-imposed wage freeze were also added to the strikers’ demands.
The regime responded with mass arrests, beatings and torture. Strikers were sent forcibly to live hundreds of miles away.
Solidarity was important in sustaining what was an illegal strike. Shopkeepers and small famers provided food. In the neighbouring Basque Country fishermen worked extra hours so they could provide the strikers with fish.
The miners’ struggle proved a spark for other workers for a general protest against the wage freeze. Over the coming weeks this involved 500,000 workers throughout Spain.
The Spanish government declared a state of siege on 4 May. Yet the miners held out. On 24 May the government agreed to the strikers’ demands. On 5 and 6 June the strikes ended with wage increases being granted across industry and agriculture.
The miners’ victory was the first mass workers’ movement to successfully take on Franco’s regime. The strike saw the birth of workers’ commissions elected directly by the workers which bypassed the state-run “unions”.
Such commissions became commonplace. They formed the basis of a new democratic trade union movement that went on to play a central role in the struggle against the dictatorship.
The 1962 strike was difficult to organise at first, because of the dictator’s formidable reputation as a repressor of all forms of protest.
When the Asturian miners began their strikes in April, Franco refused to recognise them. He claimed they were illegal.
The key to victory was how the dispute spread. Miners in the Nicolasa mine declared a strike on 7 April. Miners from Baltasara struck the next day. Then a strike was declared in Polio and a week later the whole Caudal Valley in Asturias was on strike.
On 16 April the strike spread to Turon and then to the Nalon Valley. At this point 60,000 workers were striking. The slogan the strikers chanted was, “General salary raises and solidarity with our comrades”.
Franco responded with brutal repression including detentions and beatings of workers and women. In Franco’s Spain, striking was equal to military rebellion and was punished harshly.
Yet strikers were able to organise effectively. The strike gripped 24 provinces for more than eight weeks.
The Spanish democratic movement stemmed partially from the Asturian mining strikes. The strike wave had given the movement strength, momentum and hope that fascism in Spain could be beaten.
Since the transition to democracy the miners have fought desperately to maintain their industry and their livelihoods. Victories have been tempered with the constant shrinking of the mines and state aid.
The latest package of cuts spells the end of coal mining in Spain. This is a life and death struggle.
The methods of struggle include occupations of the mines, barricades and the ingenious use of fireworks and catapults to repel the police. The tactics are reminiscent of the battles of 1934 and 1962.
There is no doubt that the miners’ struggle is an inspiration for all those fighting austerity and cuts. If the government thought that it could sweep aside a relatively small group of workers it was wrong.
Instead the miners have become a symbol for millions outraged by the attacks on their living standards and working conditions. They are a symbol that could pull together the disparate strands of resistance.
Importantly, the contradictory role of the unions is much clearer. Many on the radical left and among the indignados movement in Spain treat the unions as part of the system.
The leadership of the main unions, the socialist UGT and the former communist CCOO (Workers Commissions), are as moderate and treacherous as trade union bureaucracies elsewhere.
However the miners are one the most unionised sectors of workers in Spain, most being members of UGT or CCOO. As has happened in Greece the union leaders have been forced to fight.
As in 1934 and 1962 solidarity is key. A victory for the miners would be a massive blow for the government and for the wave of austerity stalking Europe.
Andy Durgan is a member of En Lucha, the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in Spain