Spanish miners protest in Madrid. Photo: Javi Julio, reproduced with permission.
For two months thousands of Spain’s coal miners have been on strike. They are fighting to stop the Spanish government’s plans to cut mining subsidies by 64 per cent, putting 30,000 jobs at risk.
They’ve taken their protest directly to the conservative government in Madrid and have been subjected to brutal police repression, fighting back with home-made rockets and dynamite.
Their dispute hinges, as do most at the moment, on austerity measures. The Spanish government decided to cut the subsidy to the coal mining industry from 703 million euros ($853 million) to 253 million euros ($307 million). To put this in perspective, this amounts to 0.45 per cent of the 100 billion euro ($121 billion) bailout for Spanish banks agreed last week.
The strikes are taking place in Asturias and Castile, regions with strong communist and anarchist political affiliations, which have long been a centre of militant working class resistance to right-wing governments. In the 1980s and 90s, Asturian miners engaged in militant but less violent protests against privatization and industrial restructuring of the type that destroyed the British coalmining industry, and the reforms were never fully carried through.
The miners’ fight has won wide support as part of the fight against austerity imposed at the behest of the European Union and the European Central Bank. When 400 miners marched from Asturias to Madrid to bring their protest to the government, they were welcomed to the capital by around 150,000 people.
For environmental campaigners, however, supporting the miners could seem rather more problematic. Coal is, after all, a key source of greenhouse gas emissions – and many greens have fought against new coal-fired power stations across Europe and called for the coal to be left in the ground.
So, if using coal is so bad for the climate, shouldn’t greens support any government moves to disinvest in the industry?
It is sometimes argued that Margaret Thatcher did the climate a favour when she destroyed the British mining industry. It’s true that the UK could only get near to its Kyoto target for emission reductions because of the shift from coal to gas-fired power generation in the early 1990s. But successive governments have failed to do anything meaningful to cut emissions.
It’s important to realize, firstly, that the result of the subsidy cut to Spanish mining would not mean more renewable energy generation and less coal burning. The power stations would just buy in coal from the Czech Republic or Poland, where it’s produced more cheaply because wages are lower.
Secondly, it’s not that the miners are fighting for their industry regardless of the environmental harm it causes. The subsidy which the Spanish government wants to slash was part of a deal which also included a fund for a move to alternative technologies.
If the subsidy is cut now, it doesn’t bring Spain any closer to less polluting methods of energy generation. The miners are well aware of the need to create jobs in green infrastructure. It is the government whose austerity agenda is hitting plans for green technologies as well as the miners’ current jobs.
The truth is that austerity is just not green. The savage cuts to jobs, public services and infrastructure – from Spain to Greece to the UK – are attempts to shore up the free-market system. It is this very system which is the root cause of climate change and the major obstacle to any possible solutions.
In recent years, we’ve seen the failure of a number of schemes in the UK aimed at (or purporting to aim at) more renewable power generation, from the closure of the Vestas wind turbine factory to the cancellation of the Ayrshire carbon capture and storage power station, because of market uncertainties and the lack of public funding.
The small-scale shifts to more renewable energy – which are the most we are ever likely to get from neo-liberal governments – can be cynically used as an excuse to throw miners out of work, but they won’t do jack for the climate.
The greenest thing for all of us to do now is to fight the austerity agenda – and that means standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish miners.
Based on a blog by Elaine Graham Leigh and reproduced with permission.