Spain's Coal Miners Fight for the Right to Keep Digging

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Eloy Alonso / Reuters

Coal miners protest in Oviedo, Spain, on Sept. 17, 2010

Early on Tuesday morning, 200 men in the northern Spanish town of Villablino put on their blue jumpsuits, strapped their helmets to their heads, and lined up in two straight rows. But instead of marching into the coal mines that have been the lifeblood of this region for over a century, they took to the highway. As Villablino's townspeople sang the traditional miners' song "Blessed Saint Barbara," the men solemnly began the eight-day march south toward the provincial capital of León. "Everyone in the town was there," says retired miner José Manuel Alvarez, who spoke to TIME by phone as he marched. "The entire region is up in arms."

By itself, the so-called Black March is a dramatic show of anger. But as part of a series of protests that began weeks ago and will culminate in a number of strikes beginning on Sept. 22, it is one more sign of just how desperate things have become for Spain's — and Europe's — coal miners. In May, the European Commission announced it would no longer permit its member states to bail out their coal mines and coal-fueled power plants. That ruling, coupled with Europe's determination to reduce carbon emissions, has coal mining facing an increasingly desperate future.

In Spain, the situation for miners is especially grim. The coal mining industry has been contracting for decades, shrinking from a direct workforce of 50,000 in the late 1980s to just over 5,000 in 2009. But in July, the two largest coal mining groups in Spain, Alonso and Viloria, which together employ 35% of the country's miners, ceased paying their workers, citing lack of funds. In response, 50 miners began a sit-in at a mine in the city of Palencia, north of Madrid, on Sept. 1, while other protests — including a smaller sit-in inside the Ministry of Industry building itself — broke out throughout the country. This week, the situation will get only more tense: The major unions have called for general strikes for all miners on Sept. 22 and 23, and again a week later, to coincide with a planned general strike for all industries.

"We're sick of it. It's not acceptable that a businessman like [Alonso owner] Victorino Alonso, who has received millions of euros in subsidies, doesn't pay his workers," says Victor Fernández, secretary of the mining sector of the General Union of Workers syndicate. Spain's industry minister Miguel Sebastian has also criticized the two companies, insisting they pay their employees or face governmental action.

But as the mine owners point out, they're facing their own pressures. Spanish coal is relatively expensive to produce, which is why the country's power plants have resorted to importing almost all the supply they consume. A Royal Decree proposed in the fall of 2009 by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who hails from the mining region of León, would offer credits to power plants that buy Spanish coal and guarantee a certain amount of sales, which would help stabilize the sector. The E.U., however, has blocked the plan, saying it impedes free trade.

The protests in Spain are part of the much larger problem of coal's uncertain future in Europe. Part of it has to do with the market: Member states in the E.U. are not, in general, permitted to subsidize national industries. But because of coal's importance to Spain — it accounts for 30% of electricity production — an exception was made in 2002. That exception is set to expire this year. "This is the final time that an exception is allowed," says Marlene Holzner, spokeswoman for Energy Commissioner Günter Oettinger. "European coal is not competitive, and the European Union is very clear on this: We do not want to subsidize an industry that cannot survive on its own."

Free-market concerns are not the only issue driving the E.U.'s decision. As the E.U. seeks to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by the year 2020, coal, a notorious pollutant, is increasingly seen as the black sheep of the fuel family. "This is the other argument," says Holzner. "If we are committed to investing in clean, renewable energies, it doesn't make sense to contribute to an old sector with high emissions."

Those commitments, however, come with some painful adjustments for those who have long made their living in Europe's coal shafts. Many mines in Hungary and Germany have already closed, and France is set to shutter about half of its coal-fired power plants by 2015. Spain's industry hangs by a thread. "If those subsidies are cut at the end of the year, all the mines in the country will have to shut down," says union leader Fernández. "All of our miners will be out of work."

That fear has driven Spain's government, along with Germany's, to request an extension of the subsidies until 2014 in order to buy the time it says it needs to train miners in new fields, and to develop new industries in the hardest-hit areas. But even if approved (the Commission will consider it sometime this year), the stopgap measure can't fend off forever Europe's embrace of cleaner energy. As a result, the miners cling to the hope that new carbon capture and storage facilities — six of which, financed by the E.U., are currently in development, including one in Spain — will save their livelihood. And they reassure themselves with the fact that powerful countries like the U.S. and China still have a ravenous appetite for coal. "We haven't accepted that there's no future," says Fernández. "Maybe it's true that the future won't pass through coal the way it once did. But until then, we, and the country, need it."

The Black March will arrive in León on Sept. 29, the day that member states meet in Brussels to decide whether or not to permit Spain to enforce its Royal Decree. Should the commissioners decide against the measure, the marchers plan to continue their protest for another 200 miles, all the way to Madrid. "What else can we do?" asks Alvarez, the retired miner. "Coal is all the towns around here have. Without it, we all disappear."