The Spanish miner Socrates Fernández, worker at La Hullera Vasco Leonesa, a company currently in liquidation, visited Edinburgh to talk about the current mining conflict in Spain in an event organised by Spanish Workers Edinburgh. He talked about the decades of struggle of Spanish miners, who are currently battling to avoid the disappearance of the last mines in the country and demanding that the Spanish government honours what was agreed in the Plan for Coal (2013-18). Kenny Macdonald, a Scottish miner, also participated in the event. He took part in all the strikes that took place between 1972 and 1985 in the United Kingdom and worked in the industry until the last mines were closed in 1989. In this article, Cosmopolita Scotland tells the story of a collective which is essential to understand the evolution of the working class and the rights of workers, both in the UK and Spain.
Noelia Martínez Castellanos
Learning lessons from History to avoid repeating the same mistakes That was the backdrop of the talk “Miners’ Fight: Don’t Close Our Mine”, organised by Spanish Workers Edinburgh. In the event, which took place last month, a Spanish and a Scottish miner shared their experiences with an audience of mostly young immigrants.
The room was packed and, at some point, you could almost hear the echoes of the Santa Barbara Bendita song (the traditional song of the Spanish coal miners). The topic of the event generated a lot of interest,and with good reason. As both guests stressed, the struggle of coal miners is, in the end, the struggle of all workers.
However, coal miners have not always received such solidarity. During the 1984 strike in the UK, as Kenny explained, “the Trade Union Congress voted to support the miners, but in the end did nothing. Also, workers from other industries that depend on coal mining didn’t support the strike. The rest of the union leaders didn’t back us up because they thought that miners were Thatcher’s only targets. But everything she put through applied to them just as much as it did to us.”.
Learning lessons from History
After the screening of a short video about the clashes of miners in Leon (Spain) and the police during the strike in the sector in 2012, both miners explained their experience fighting to obtain better working conditions and ultimately, to avoid the closure of the mines.
Although it might be hard to believe these days, there was once a time when workers’ strikes, specifically the miners’, were linked to triumphs. They achieved improvements to their working conditions and, on at least one occasion, managed to shake-up the UK government.
Kenny Macdonald, a former worker of the mining company National Coal Board (NCB), was the first of the speakers to remind the audience about these facts. The Scottish miner explained the contrast between the three major strikes that took place in the UK in 1972, 1974 and 1984. The miners achieved their targets from their protest in 1972 and 1974 quite easily. The latter forced the conservative prime minister, Edward Heath to call a General Election, which the conservatives lost.
The 1984 strike was economic. We were defending our jobs and our communities, while Thatcher´s government was only interested in destroying the union movement.
After such victories, the British miners could not have imagined that an arduous 10 year plan developed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, would lead to the closure of all coal mines in the country, and ultimately, weaken the entire union movement: “When we started the strike in 1984 they were ready. It wasn’t only the Tory government that was determined to get rid of the Trade Union. The Labour party in Britain were just as guilty. They realised that, if we could end a Tory government, we could do the same with them. When Thatcher brought in all the legislation, the Labour party did not more than a lip service. They sat back and let it happen. And that was the beginning of the end”
Another significant difference between the first strikes and the one in 1984 is that the government limited the picket lines to no more than 6 people. Using more than this was illegal and you could lose your job or even go to jail. They also used more police force, which put the miners at a clear disadvantage. ¨During the 1984 strike many villages in Yorkshire where occupied entirely by hundreds of policemen. People couldn’t leave and with a limited number of picket lines we could not confront them”, Kenny narrated. “This was a very important strike for us. It was an economic strike. We were defending our jobs and our communities, while Thatcher´s government was only interested in destroying the union movement”
The miners lost the strike and when they went back to work, things went from bad to worse. Many accepted early retirement offers and this resulted in the loss of more union members. The NCB demanded more and more productivity with fewer workers, which made maintaining the viability of the industry impossible. “Thatcher’s biggest coup was convincing everybody in the country that the miners wanted the revolution and wanted to overtake the government. But all we wanted was going back to our jobs. All Thatcher wanted was to finish with the trade union movement. What we need now is people willing to go to jail for their rights, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.”, said the Scottish miner.
Thatcher’s biggest coup was convincing everybody in the country that the miners wanted the revolution and wanted to overtake the government.
Modern Spain: Too Many Similarities
Socrates Fernández’s speech was a well-organised history lesson about the struggle of Spanish miners. He began with the Asturias Revolt in 1934 and continued with the strike in 1962, known as La Huelgona (The Big Strike), of which he said: “miners and workers from other industries opened the first of the cracks in Franco´s fascist regime. They managed to get better working conditions, and what’s more important, the strike led to an increase in working class consciousness and brought it to political level”. Socrates gave special importance to the period between 1988-1998, which marked the entry of Spain into the European Economic Community. As he pointed out, this was a period, “in which the victories achieved by the working class previously started to be worn away, specifically in the mining industry”.
Los planes del carbón también han sido una forma de aplacar la combatividad de las comarcas mineras
Europe demanded a reduction in staff within the industries they named as “non-competitive” or “economically unfeasible”. One such industry was mining. The number of miners decreased from 80,000-85,000 in the early eighties to 20,000 in the late nineties. This process, known colloquially as the ‘re-industrialisation’, took place during the governments of Felipe González. “This was an euphemism”, Socrates explains “because that process never happened. What really happened was a reduction in industrial production.”
Then, the struggle of the miners’ counties, small but with large populations and very dependant on the mining activity, moved to what is known as “The Coal Plans”. “The goal of these plans was to gradually reduce all coal mining activity in two ways: setting an age limit for early retirement or giving redundancies with incentives or compensations for those workers wishing to leave the sector. At the same time, they launched the ´Miner Plans’, which invested in health, education and infrastructures in mining communities. These plans were a victory for the miners, the result of many decades of struggle. But they were also a way to placate the combativeness of the miners.”
The year 2012 was another turning point in the history of the Spanish mining industry. The last Plan for Coal (2006-2012) ended and Mariano Rajoy refused to develop a new one. As a consequence, in May 2012 the miners started a strike that culminated 3 months after with what was known as The Black March. Spanish miners marched 450 km from the mines in the north of the country to Madrid. It was a solid strike, supported by 100% of the industry. In Socrates Fernandez words, the march was “the result of a need to relieve pressure on the mining communities, practically taken over by the police and the Guardia Civil (Spanish military police)”.
The strike and the march made the miners’ struggle visible to the rest of the population. They received support from other workers in the country. However, and as Fernandez pointed out, they weren’t able to made that final push: ¨There were a series of misunderstandings between trade union organizations leading this process and finally, a struggle that had achieved enough goals and put the government on the ropes, quenched with a verbal agreement between the Government and the unions. The last Plan for Coal was finally signed at the end of 2013 until the end 2018, but the government has failed to fulfill the agreement and this has resulted in dismissals, redundancies and the closure of companies.¨
Socrates knows very well what he is talking about. The company he works for, Hullera Vasco Leonesa, has just entered into liquidation. But, his determination hasn’t decayed and he concluded: “Throughout this conflict and this battle, we have ahead of us to try to get the best working conditions not only for miners, but for all workers in the country. We always remember that everything we have, social and labour rights, have not fallen from the sky, they have been the result of constant struggles and sacrifices“.
But according to this miner, the fight must go on.