Spanish coal miners angered by huge cuts in government subsidies for their industry are converging in Madrid for protest rallies after walking nearly three weeks.
The marching protesters are meeting more miners and supporters travelling aboard hundreds of chartered buses in preparation for a much bigger rally scheduled for Wednesday.
Two columns of miners met up in a Madrid suburb on Tuesday evening.
One group of about 160 miners walked all the way from the northern Asturias and Leon regions, as many as 400km away from Madrid, and about 40 made an almost equally long trek from the northeastern Aragon region.
They marched downtown at night, trudging along major avenues to the Puerta del Sol, the Spanish capital’s most emblematic square, where tens of thousands of mostly young demonstrators opposed to austerity cuts prompted by the financial crisis in Spain and Europe camped out last year in defiance of a government ban.
The protesting miners, wearing hard hats with lights turned on, were joined by thousands of sympathisers in the city.
Some lit flares above highway overpasses and erected banners comparing the miners’ plight to Spain’s increasingly pressured working class – hit by higher taxes, new regulations making it cheaper to fire workers and funding cuts for education and national healthcare.
The miners’ complaints include a 63 per cent cut in subsidies to coal mining companies struggling to maintain a share of the Spanish energy market against gas-fired electrical plants and renewable energy sources, while fighting to hold their own against cheaper imported coal.
Coal miners make an average of about $1,500 a month, said Conchi Alonso, a spokeswoman for the UGT union. She described the industry as dwindling to almost nothing.
Today there are 8,000-9,000 coal miners in Spain, whereas 20 years ago there were nearly 30,000 in Asturias alone.
Besides cuts in subsidies to the coal companies, Spain’s conservative government that took power in December has enacted austerity-minded cuts in funding for miners to learn new professions and for school grants for their children in the generally poor mining regions where they live.
Before setting out for Madrid, miners clashed with Spanish police in Leon.
Miners used homemade rockets and slingshots against police, barricading a highway and a rail line in the northern town of Cinera on June 19.
At one point, some 80 officers firing rubber bullets were repelled by hundreds of miners and forced to retreat.