It is 284 miles from the Asturian valleys to Madrid. But those making the trip feel they have little to lose as savage cuts loom
Cristián wears the yellow and blue Asturian flag, the symbol of his homeland, tied around his dusty overalls. Olga, his mother, is writing a dedication on it that reads: “You are the hope of the mining valleys.” She wants to lend her strength to her son for the miners’ three-week protest march, which set off on Friday and ends in Madrid on 11 July – the most likely date for the prime minister’s appearance before parliament to report on Spain’s bank bailout.
Cristián’s father, José Manuel, 49, a miner who took early retirement, watches from a distance. “I was a miner for 20 years; my father was also a miner and so are my two sons. I don’t know what will happen to us if the mines are shut down. Those making their way to Madrid are our last hope.”
Eighty miners are setting out on the 248-mile journey from Mieres, a town near the Asturian capital, Oviedo. The “black march” will cover 19 stages, with miners joining from León, Teruel and Palencia along the way. Around 200 are expected to arrive in the Spanish capital next month, one of many acts planned to protest at the proposed 63% cuts in coal subsidies already approved by the EU.
Ana Sánchez is on her knees, saying goodbye to her three-year-old goddaughter Marina. Sánchez has worked as a miner for nine years, at the María Luisa mine. She is one of four women from the Asturian valley who will join the march. “I have to do this for my unborn granddaughter. I will do whatever it takes.”
One of her two children, Jane, 24, is due to give birth in November. At 45, Sánchez says “it will all be over” if the mine shuts down. “The cuts are going to choke us, and there will be no work for anyone – not for miners and not for all those who depend on us.” Sánchez lives in El Entrego, a small village in the Asturian mining valley that, like so many others, revolves entirely around its coalfields.
“If miners have to leave, the schools will also close, as well as the shops and businesses. And where are the 50,000 people affected supposed to go?” she asks.
Luis Rodríguez is one of those who cannot leave. A miner at the Sotón mine for the last 10 years, he has commitments: a mortgage to pay, a nine-year-old, and a six-month-old baby. His wife, a waitress, recently lost her job. “How can I sell my house to pay off my mortgage if we have to leave?” he asks. He has the same problem as so many of his colleagues who are paying off mortgages: “If the mine is shut down, no one is going to want to buy a house on dead land.”
Pepe Pérez, 45, a miner from Cerredo, adds: “The cuts approved by the conservative government would suffocate mining to the point that it would disappear. These subsidies have already been approved, so it is like we are being robbed. They want us to starve, and we cannot allow it. We must fight.”
Pérez hugs his daughter Vanesa. “It is because of our children that we are marching. I took part in the second black march in history, in 2010, but that only lasted four days. This one will be much harder – it is almost 500km – but there is no other way. The government must realise we are not going to give up.”
Fireworks start to fly across the Mieres sky as the 80 miners stand ready. Some of them are wearing black T-shirts bearing slogans such as: “They want to end it all. Keep the coal mines open.” Before they leave, José Angel Fernández Villa, of the Soma-Fitag-UGT trade union, gives them words of encouragement: “We must persuade the government to call an urgent commission to monitor the coal plan, and it must modify the economic provisions. These brutal cuts will kill the mining industry”.
It is all or nothing now: as Jorge Expósito, 26, says: “There won’t be any more chances.” Expósito works at the Candín mine, where five miners have locked themselves in, along with three from the Santiago mine, for 25 days now, 300 metres below ground, as they wait for a solution. Around 8,000 miners in provinces across Spain have been on strike since 31 May. “We will not stop until this is resolved,” says Expósito. “They are stealing our future, and we are not going to let our families starve.”
On 18 June, a general strike was called throughout the mining valleys, with a turnout of nearly 100%. There have also been road and rail barricades in all the affected areas, with burning tyres and logs being used to block the railroad tracks.
“We want to get the attention of a government that is ignoring us. We want them to be willing to negotiate, to talk,” says Víctor Luis Pérez, 30, while his wife Rocío tenderly removes his helmet and writes “I love you, keep going” on it. His colleagues add their own words of encouragement. Those who cannot walk say they will be there in spirit.
Before leaving, the workers place red roses on the monument to dead miners as the notes of the mining hymn Santa Bárbara Bendita, in honour of their patron saint, ring out. The miners set off. “I just want my kid to make it there, and for this situation to be resolved. We just want to work,” cries Violeta, another marcher.
Their workmates and relatives walk with them for a considerable distance, and as they pass before a nursing home one of the residents, Gloria, 69, begins to sing the hymn. Everyone at the home stands at the gates to support the marchers. “These are our miners, our brave hearts,” shouts Gloria. She is the wife, daughter, sister and now grandmother of miners. “Keep going, don’t give up,” she cries as her grandson walks by. All of the elderly people at the home carry small placards with black ribbons on them, and they weep as they hold them up.
Despite a long road ahead, Cristián is optimistic. “This is not the first time miners have fought for all workers,” he says. “We are an example to everyone, and we hope that the government will see reason.”