For somebody of my generation, writing, especially in Wales, about a miners’ strike has a certain shiver to it. Certain associations. Certain memories. I am old enough to remember the successful British miners’ strike of 1972, with its flying pickets, mass picketing and in particular the battle of Saltley gates, (40 yrs ago this yr) in which the engineering workers of Birmingham joined with miners to close down the coke depot and win the strike. And of course, there was the 1974 strike, which toppled the government of Tory PM Edward Heath.
But I also remember the heroic battles of 1984-85, in which miners battled the Thatcher government but could not get the solidarity from other workers (indeed, from all miners) that they needed to win.
What much of the left did not fully understand then was the extent to which Thatcher’s attacks were a response to the re-onset of economic crisis in the 1970s and were the start of the process of establishing an unregulated, globalised free market economy, preferably with minimal, ineffective trade unions – what we now call neoliberalism. This was an attempt to overcome the fall in profits which had reasserted itself after the postwar boom of the 50s and 60s . It was a process which now lies in ruins in the collapse of the banking & economic crisis, but zombie-like, continues to destroy workers’ lives. And it is a process which is now being resisted by the miners of Asturia.
Before I look at the Asturian miners and their history, I want to say one thing: traditions and history have to be built. There is nothing ready-made about traditions of militancy. I say this because it is possible, especially when looking at the history of the Asturian miners, to stand in awe of them. The miners of South Wales had a similar reputation. It is worth reminding ourselves that in the late 19th century Welsh miners were regarded as the most backward in Britain from the standpoint of class consciousness and labour organisation. For two decades they had no effective coalfield trade union presence. The shift towards militancy came in the first decade of the 20th century. There is nothing automatic about the development of political consciousness. This has to be built by socialists in the process of struggle and resistance.
Having said that, the Asturian miners’ history of struggle and resistance are pretty good. There is a tradition in these communities not only of industrial militancy but of guerrilla activism, partially originating from the struggle against Franco. People may have seen on YouTube the battles with the police which became a daily occurrence for the Asturian strikers this year, with a home-made rocket-launcher used to fire projectiles at the police lines. Many miners are trained in the use of explosives. In the strike of 1934 local unions gathered small arms and launched attacks on the barracks, seizing many of them.
Let’s look at the strike of 1934. By 1934, the Spanish workers’ movement was acutely aware of the threat of fascism. They 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. 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.
With the military coup 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.
So, to quickly come up to the present day. I can do no better than to quote from Richard Seymour's LENIN'S TOMB blog:
"Spain is one of the "peripheral" economies of the eurozone, exposed to high levels of debt and volatility. Its banks, having expanded during the construction and property booms, are now dangerously weak. Like Greece, Italy and Ireland, it has been subject to waves of austerity, ostensibly to reduce the deficit. €27bn cuts are already planned this year. These cuts, and the conditions they have exacerbated, have already produced a mass insurgency, with the indignados of Puerta del Sol drawing inspiration from Tahrir.
However, the latest spending squeeze, which includes 63% cuts to coal subsidies resulting in thousands of job losses, has provoked furious and desperate resistance by the miners of Asturias. The cutback came just as the government spent billions rescuing the banks. So, toward the end of May, approximately 8,000 miners went on strike, indefinitely. The main square of the Asturian capital, Oveido, was occupied by workers using the same tactic as the indignados.
This is not to say that the miners are simply following the indignados. As one of their most widely seen banners put it: "No Estamos Indignados, Estamos Hasta Los Cojones" ("We Are Not Indignant, We Are Pissed Off To Our Balls").
The conservative government is anxious not to be seen to capitulate, or even negotiate. Aside from anything else, its political credibility with European lenders partially derives from its ability to contain domestic revolt. This is a dynamic being repeated across the EU, and it raises the stakes considerably in such struggles. Governments are bunkering down, and preparing for protracted battles, banking on the likelihood that union leaderships are not equal to such prolonged warfare. This hasn't worked in Asturias despite the key unions being allied to the Socialists, who are in favour of austerity.
The government's position is weak. Its crisis already compounded by the chaos in Spanish banks, it looks feeble after returning from EU negotiations with a bailout package which it claimed had "no strings attached", only for Germany to repudiate this claim. The reality is that the bailout of Spanish banks is making another sovereign debt crisis more likely – in an economy five times the size of Greece. As such, the battle with the miners is being conducted on shaky ground, and could easily fall apart. This is another factor that is common across Europe – the weakness and uncertainty of our rulers, which is exposed at the first sign of a real challenge."
The strategy of pushing through as many cuts as possible, to hit trade union organization and where possible to restructure the public sector and the ‘social wage’ – the welfare states which were set up in so many countries after World War Two as a buttress against revolution – is being carried through by governments across Europe. We in the UK are caught up in this struggle – the ‘struggle of our lives’ as it has been called more than once, against a weak, unpopular and bungling government, whose Chancellor, as daily more bad economic news arrives, is especially vulnerable.
In Spain Opposition to attacks on jobs and conditions is growing. Public sector unions have called on others to join them for a two-day general strike in September. Government workers marched through the Spanish capital Madrid on Monday of this week while striking against the cuts.
Opposition to attacks on jobs and conditions in Spain is growing. Public sector unions have called on others to join them for a two-day general strike in September.
The Spanish economy has contracted by one percent in the past year, new figures revealed on Monday.
Workers, unemployed people and students have been organising demonstrations, road blocks and sit-ins almost daily. The government announced over £50 billion in cuts last month.
A coordinated eurozone bailout of Spain’s economy looks increasingly likely. But there is also deep confusion about when and how this could happen.
Spain’s borrowing rate started to drop on Monday of this week as a bailout began to look more probable. But the problem for Europe’s ruling classes is that the bailouts aren’t working.
Billions have been pumped into the Greek economy, coupled with ferocious austerity measures. Yet things have only got worse. In these desperate attempts to save their system, the politicians and the bosses have no ideas beyond “make the poor pay”. As the crisis deepens, and as governments seem increasingly unable to control their events, resistance will grow.
Our main focus in the UK is to build our own resistance, focusing in particular on the TUC demo on 20 Oct, and to turn it into the sort of ‘Day of Rage’ that the TUC leadership would run a mile from. We need to be arguing to use the demo to launch a programme of strike action: bear in mind that in early November we are likely to see mass strikes by teachers, civil service workers and others. We need to be arguing to turn this into a general public sector strike. Bear in mind also that on Wednesday 21 November a national student demo is planned.
We need to use the Asturian miners’ strike as an example of how to resist, how to build in a way that gives the rank & file some power, how to try to create the spark that will detonate a wider explosion and spread resistance in the only way that can win.