Seven miners are refusing to leave a dark gallery deep underground at a coal mine in northern Spain unless the government reverses its decision to slash subsidies to the sector.
During a visit Friday, the miners, their faces and uniforms covered in soot, played cards to pass the time and keep their spirits up after having already spent 20 days some 800 meters (2,625 feet) below the earth at the mine near Santa Cruz del Sil.
“We will stay here until we have a solution. We are determined to keep fighting,” said 45-year-old miner Alfredo Gonzalez as he took a break from the card game.
Eight other miners are refusing to return to the surface at two other mines in a similar protest against the cash-strapped government’s decision to slash subsidies to the sector this year to 111 million euros ($142 million) from 301 million euros last year.
Above ground, protests by the miners against the cuts, which began three weeks ago, have become more radical, with striking miners blocking roads and railways and clashing with riot police on a daily basis in northern coal mining regions.
Unions argue the subsidy cuts will lead to the closure of Spain’s coal mines and the loss of up to 30,000 direct and indirect jobs, since Spanish coal relies on state aid to compete with cheaper imports.
The miners at Santa Cruz del Sil sleep side by side on inflatable mattresses on the floor of the damp gallery which is decorated with photos of their children and messages of support from outside.
“The hardest part is breathing because of the humidity and the dust,” said Gonzalez.
There were originally eight miners but one of them had to leave because he had bronchitis.
“Now the doctor visits us more often,” said Gonzalez.
The miners walk for one or two hours every day in the tunnels of the mine to get some exercise. They also receive food and drums of hot water each day for washing.
“Time passes by very slowly. What you miss the most is the sun and fresh air. And of course your family,” said another miner, 40-year-old Primitivo Basalo.
“We are very united and we give each other strength, if someone is down we give him a hug.”
The miners don’t normally get visitors and have no devices to listen to music or watch movies.
“This is a sit-in. We don’t want people to think we are on vacation,” said Gonzalez.
The miners said the support of their families and of their roughly 120 co-workers above ground motivates them to keep up their protest.
“We tell our co-workers to hang on out there and we will hang on down here. And that the government can’t abandon us,” said another miner, Jose Antonio.
Above ground hundreds of men with their faces covered invaded a road near the nearby town of Bembibre and within minutes they set up a barricade made of tires which they then set fire to.
“This happens every day, every day”, said 39-year-old Paul Martinez as he watched the thick black smoke rise into the sky with a group of fellow miners.
“It is the only way to get people to notice that there is a problem here, not just a labour problem but a very big social problem as well,” he said, adding that if the coal mines close “it would be a death sentence for this town.”
Spain’s coal mining industry has been contracting for decades, with its direct workforce shedding more than 40,000 people over the past 20 years.
The country’s roughly 8,000 coal miners began an open-ended strike against the subsidy cuts three weeks ago and their protest actions have become more radical.
The miners use trees, tires and rubbish bins to set up blockades on highways and railroads, disrupting transport, and then wait for police to arrive.
Clashes often follow, with miners using slingshots to throw rocks at riot police who respond with rubber bullets.
“There is more and more violence with the riot police,” said Florencio, a 40-year-old miner who declined to give his last name, as he stood by a blocked road with other miners.
“What we are seeing is that people are becoming more anxious because we are in the same situation as in the beginning.”
The government argues that austerity must be shared by all sectors.
But many miners expressed anger that the government argues it can not afford to restore the 190 million euros in coal sector subsidies it has cut from the budget this year even as it plans to inject billions into ailing banks.
“It seems like a huge injustice to us,” said Basalo, adding this is why they baptized their mascot, a canary which they are keeping with them in a cage below ground, “Deception”.
Spain on Saturday secured a European lifeline of up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to save its stricken banks and try to avert a broader financial catastrophe.
The cuts to coal subsidies also worry shopowners in coal mining towns like Bembibre.
“If the miners don’t work, they don’t earn a wage and if they don’t earn money we don’t eat. That’s the way it is,” said Soraya Moreno, 33, the owner of a sporting goods store in Bembibre, a town of some 10,000 people.