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Fighting Coal While Supporting Miners?

Can you fight austerity and climate change at the same time?

I came upon La Noche Minera almost by chance. I was in Madrid for a political science conference, staying in a hotel that overlooked the Puerta del Sol, the big plaza at the heart of the city. I knew about Los Indignados, the large movement of young people who’d been occupying public places in Spain to protest against unemployment and austerity since 2011. I knew this plaza had been the site of many demonstrations, but I saw no sign of any such thing. Mostly I saw lots of tourists and people dressed up as Smurfs, muppets, or Mickey and Minnie Mouse, who were trying to get money from those tourists. There were also many people wandering around with vests that read “Compro Oro” (I buy gold) and the phone number of a place next to my hotel—a sign of hard times, perhaps, but nothing explicitly political.

Then, as I was getting ready for bed at about midnight on July 10, I noticed a few signs and flags out in the plaza. I couldn’t make out what they said, but a quick Twitter search for #Madrid revealed that this was #nocheminera, or night of the miners. A delegation of several hundred miners had marched for nearly 300 miles to Madrid from the mines where they work. By 2 am, there were 10,000 people gathered in the plaza to welcome them (and thousands more elsewhere in the city; their arrival was delayed by the size of the crowds). Finally, at 2:30, they arrived, their miners’ headlamps creating a river of light that flowed through the mass of people gathered below. The crowd cheered and chanted madly, and so did I, standing on the balcony in my pajamas. The sight was truly inspiring, a wonderful manifestation of the people’s will to resist the government’s austerity program.

I had a sinking feeling, though, when I realized that these were not just miners but coal miners, and that their specific complaint was a planned 63 percent cut in government subsidies to the coal industry. As a climate activist, I think fossil fuels subsidies should be ended. In fact, I think carbon should be taxed rather than subsidized! So how should I relate to these miners’ demands? How could I reconcile my strong emotional support for this glorious outpouring of popular anger with my intellectual conviction that coal is a bad thing?

Here I must restate I was in Spain as a tourist, with no detailed knowledge of the local politics, mining industry, or economy. It’s not my place to tell the people of Spain what to do. Rather, I offer three general reflections on the paradox of coal miners’ struggles.

First, I think my initial emotional enthusiasm was justified. The crowd was not there to express their support for the continued emission of greenhouse gases, but to show solidarity with fellow workers, fellow human beings under attack from the Spanish state and international capital. My mind went back thirty years to Margaret Thatcher’s assault on British coal miners and her demonization of their leader, the unyielding Arthur Scargill. Thatcher had lots of arguments about the inefficiency of the industry and the need to end its subsidization, but her real intention—and the real effect, when she won this struggle—was to break the power of British trade unions and the British working class. The crowd at Puerta del Sol understood that the same thing is happening in Spain today. The people as a whole are under attack, and it’s important not to let the coal miners—or any other group—be isolated and picked off.

My second point is that that the climate movement needs to think more deeply about the workers in energy industries. Historically, coal miners in the U.S. have been at the heart of the labor movement, vital to industrial unionism. In the 1930s they helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which broke away from the more conservative, craft-oriented American Federation of Labor, and later rejoined it to form the AFL-CIO. Coal miners were central players in the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which finally gave workers the right to organize. The power of the miners’ unions has dwindled along with the industry, but it is still significant, and, more importantly, coal miners are working people with real needs. Progressive climate activists have talked about job training, and we have rallied around “green-collar jobs,” but we should get much more specific and start proposing concrete programs that will assist coal miners in getting good jobs in other industries.

Finally, we need to keep emphasizing the destructive effect of coal mining on the miners themselves, as well as on the miners’ own communities. In the USA, black lung disease—caused by inhaling coal dust—is on the rise among miners, due in large part to lax enforcement of existing law. More than 10,000 miners died of this painful disease between 1995 and 2004. We should work to get the law enforced and to end this disease. Moreover, operators have turned to mountaintop removal, the destruction of entire mountains, together with the communities on and around them, to get the coal from inside. The fight against mountaintop removal has been a real inspiration in the U.S. and climate activists everywhere should support it, not just because ending mountaintop removal will mean less coal to be burned, but because we care about what happens to the people in mining communities.

The noche minera helped touch off a new round of activism in Spain. There were demonstrations of thousands, including various public employee unions, in the Puerta del Sol each of the next two days—and for all I know more took place after I left the country. There was also a somewhat alarming night of anarchist action (including small fires set in the street) on July 11.

The miners showed a tremendous anti-capitalist spirit. We should embrace this spirit with enthusiasm, continuing our work to end the use of coal while supporting the lives and well-being of the miners.


John C. Berg wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He teaches political science and directs the environmental studies program at Suffolk University. He is the author of Unequal Struggle: Class, Gender, Race, and Power in the US Congress and editor of Teamsters and Turtles? Progressive US Political Movements in the 21st Century.

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