Miners man the barricades to halt Europe's wave of cuts

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The coal miners of Asturias, in northern Spain, are demonstrating against government plans to cut subsidies to the industry. They fear that their jobs will go the same way as those of miners across Europe, as the once-mighty industry collapses.

Bienvenido Rodriguez, 46, a miner for more than half his life, hurried to the barricade in Figaredo just south of Mieres, the heartland of Asturian coalfields, where the pits have been strikebound since Boxing Day. He frowned as the sound of rubber bullets and smoke canisters fired by the Civil Guard cracked round the little town.

"We are very angry and frustrated. This used to be a rich, prosperous region. Now there's nothing. I can't tell you how many strikes I've fought. But I think this will be the last I'll see." Despite his militancy, Rodriguez, a member of the Workers' Commissions union, was pessimistic. "The government will win. They always do." He hacked a deep glaucous cough. "We've been losing battles for decades, and when we lose this one, our community will die."

In what remains of Europe's publicly owned pits, the miners of Asturias are the last outpost of a once mighty force that fuelled the industrial revolution and invented the principle of workers' solidarity. Pioneers of militant trade unionism, they have made governments tremble for more than a hundred years.

In October 1934, when conservatives won elections in the shortlived Spanish republic, the Asturian miners rose up and declared a revolutionary soviet. They were the only workers to mount convincing strikes in the Sixties against the dictator Franco, who militarised the pits and forced the miners to the coalface at gunpoint. They fought their political allies, the ruling Socialists, in bitter struggles in 1991 against the closure of more than half the region's 23 pits. In a workforce 96 per cent unionised, strikers were so militant that they barricaded their own union executive in the pit over the Christmas of 1991. But that struggle, like all those of recent years, was defeated.

Yesterday morning, while the moon was still high, strikers strewed flaming pit props and upturned coal wagons across Asturias's spanking new motorway to Madrid for the 13th day running, trying to make the region a no-go area. At Figaredo, the Civil Guard riot squad pushed protesters back from the road, across the narrow-gauge railway that runs alongside it, and forced them up the slope opposite the station.

Throughout the morning they fired rubber bullets the size of golf balls and canisters of tear gas to keep the pickets at bay. The protesters, some masked with handkerchiefs, flung lumps of rock but these made little impact against the riot shields. Some of us took refuge in the station bar to escape the bitter smoke that stank of burning chicken feathers.

On Monday, a miner building a barricade died when a car a hit him, and some yesterday wore black ribbons in mourning. Mounting tension all week increased when talks in Madrid between the miners' unions, the state coal company, Hunosa, and the government adjourned in the early hours of yesterday to resume on Thursday. Two miners were hurt and one arrested in actions yesterday throughout the coalfields which in many cases seem to have slipped the unions' control.

Asturian coal is of poorish quality, high in gases and sulphur, and pit machinery is outdated. As recently as 1995, 25 miners died in Dante-esque explosions of grisu, the deadly mixture of methane and air, after warning systems failed. Coal from South Africa or Poland costs a sixth of what it costs to extract it from Asturias's complex, where facework is mostly still manual.

Hunosa employs some 10,000, compared with 18,500 ten years ago and 26,000 in 1967 when loss-making private pits were nationalised. It lost 45bn pesetas (pounds 200m) last year, leading cynics to conclude that Hunosa would save money by closing the pits and laying off the workforce on full salary. Consumers and industry meanwhile complain at the inflated cost of coal- fired electricity. The conservative Popular Party government wants to pull the plug and initially sought to withdraw the state subsidy by 2002.

Mobilisations in 1996 and pressure from PP-controlled regional authorities, who feared an explosion of social grisu on their own doorstep, forced the government to grant a reprieve until 2005. Plans for Thatcher-style instant closures were quietly ruled out. None the less, vaunted projects for alternative employment came to nothing, and the other major industry, iron and steelmaking, closed down long ago.

In May, a deal was struck to cut coal output from 2.5m to 2.1m tons, give 4,000 workers early retirement, and issue some 1,000 new contracts by 2001. But the European Commission, ultimate provider of the subsidy, wants a cut to 1.5m tons and no new contracts, and the government now seeks to renegotiate. "Next Wednesday the ministers go to Brussels to get their orders before meeting us on Thursday," said Mr Rodriguez, with disgust. "We know we are losing, but we must fight to salvage as much as we can."

Miners' unions insist that, despite their reputation as hardliners, they want dialogue, and that the government has reneged on its word. Luis Angel Vasquez Maseda, 36, on the executive of the Workers' Commissions mining federation, says: "We signed a deal with the government in May after 14 months of talks, agreeing a framework for negotiating a trauma-free reduction in subsidy. But now they want to reopen the whole thing. We want them to stick by the deal they signed in May."

Mr Vasquez Maseda, a picador (faceworker), went down the mine at 19. He has the taut, bulky shoulders of someone who has wielded the 6.5kg mechanical pick for 17 years. "You have to work with one hand, ... with the other you hold on to the wooden supports built up to the coalface above."

Solidarity, he says, emerged as a survival mechanism. Miners looked out for each other because of the risks of instant death. "My father died in an accident at 49 in ... when did Franco die? Yes, 1975. When a neighbour is hurt, we are all hurt." But he, like others on the barricades, recognises that solidarity and militancy are not enough to defend jobs.

"We don't want to send our sons down the mine. But we worry because more than half our youngsters have no work. There is nothing. They'll live at home with dad, off his pension, and when he dies they'll pack their bags and go." So you face extinction? Mr Vasquez Maseda gave a level stare.

"That's a strong word," he said after a pause. But he didn't disagree.