The Spanish miners’ strike puts their rulers on even shakier ground
It took a while for the Quebec student revolt to reach the Anglophone press. The same appears to be true of the Spanish miners’ strike, which is only now appearing in the UK newspapers after more than two weeks of escalating strife.
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, Spain 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 Spanish miners. The cutback came just as the government spent billions rescuing the banks. So, toward the end of last month, approximately 8,000 workers went on strike, indefinitely. In the Asturias province where the mines are largely based, the main square of 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”).
And the response of the authorities has provoked something greatly exceeding Puerta del Sol in its militancy. The Spanish government has set a standard of provocative and highly combative strike-busting action through previous disputes. During a 2010 dispute with air traffic controllers, the then Socialist administration used martial law to force the workers back to work. More recently, police used rubber bullets on strikers in Barcelona, resulting in several injuries. In Asturias, the Guardia Civil has been deployed, again using rubber bullets, and tear gas, behaving like an occupying force.
This siege inevitably recalls the 1934 revolt by Asturias miners, which was put down by Franco’s forces, as well as the fact that the first general strike under Franco was the Asturian miners’ strike of 1962. And it is true that the miners have a long tradition of struggle. These are workers who spend much of their lives together, not merely sharing risks at work but living in the same communities. Solidarity is part of the “consolidated habitus”, the taken-for-granted ways of acting that arise, seemingly spontaneously, from the mode of life of these communities. And these are not only traditions of blue-collar class struggle – there is also a tradition of guerrilla activism in these regions, partially originating from the struggle against Franco.
The workers have therefore responded to the government’s attacks in an uncompromising fashion, by blockading motorways, and setting up ad hoc barricades on transport networks. When attacked, they have fought back against police. In one case, workers improvised a rocket launcher. A general strike across several mining counties is planned for Monday 18 June. But it is by no means just the miners who have been drawn into this struggle. Across the region, several groups of workers have been on strike – transport workers, supply teachers and shipbuilders among them.
The notable thing about these strikes is that they tend to be indefinite: workers give the employers no notice of when they will return, and thus no certainty in their calculations. Just as importantly, they are militant and disruptive – blockades are a common tactic. We are used to employers complaining that strike action is disruptive, missing the point that it’s supposed to be. The premise of strike action is that the system requires workers’ co-operation to run effectively, but that co-operation is conditional on their being satisfied with the terms on which it takes place. An epochal rollback of the conditions and incomes of workers across Europe is bound to produce some disruption.
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 its rulers, which is exposed at the first sign of a real challenge.