Underground but not in Chile: Spanish coal miners stage sit-in strike trying to save industry

INSIDE LAS CUEVAS MINE, Spain (AP) — Far, far away from a Chilean mine where 33 trapped men struggle to cope as they await rescue, 50 Spanish miners are also deep in the earth's bowels — but by their own choice.

Friday marked Day 9 of an unusual coal miners' protest, a sit-in staged 1,650 feet (500 meters) underground. No showers, no toilets, no Internet and soot-dusted mattresses are a small price to pay, the miners reason, in exchange for a more hopeful future for their beleaguered industry.

Their strike in northern Palencia province is the culmination of a long dispute over unpaid wages and the future of an antiquated industry struggling to survive as it competes with gas-fired electrical utility plants and heavily subsidized renewable energy projects. To make matters worse, all these sources of energy are seeking aid from a government grappling with a recession, high unemployment and a debt crisis.

Spain's coal mining industry employs about 10,000 people, down from 50,000 in the late 1970s.

The Spaniards underground vehemently deny any suggestion they are cashing in on the South American crisis where the Chileans have been trapped in a cramped shelter for a month, saying the two dramas overlap only in time. They acknowledge their plight is by choice, nowhere near as perilous and can end whenever they choose.

"You have to think about their situation. Their thing is about survival. Ours is about asserting ourselves," said Juan Carlos Liebana, 41, wearing a white hard hat turned gray with coal soot. "We send them hope and unity."

His colleagues sat in near silence at a long wooden table in the dim light. They read newspapers sent down daily by relatives and ate hot food like pasta and bean soup, gaining strength by looking at family photographs and messages.

Like a makeshift clothesline, a rope attached to one wall where coal is collected from the mine's shafts exhibits letters and pictures from the miners' children.

One crayon rendering showed a man dressed in a miner's blue jumpsuit standing next to a small boy. It read: "Daddy, I love you and I miss you. Hang in there so nothing happens to you. Love, Ivan."

Daddy is Eugenio del Amo, who turned 41 on Sept. 4 in the mine called Las Cuevas, Spanish for "the caves." He got the artwork from his 10-year-old son on his birthday.

"I didn't cry because I was embarrassed the other guys would see me. But don't think I didn't want to," he said Friday.

The mine's foreman, Eluterio Arto, a barrel-chested man of 42, choked up and looked away as he pointed to a drawing he got a few days ago from his three children. One part of it depicts him with a flashlight-equipped hard hat and a jackhammer digging away at a wall of coal. His smallest child, Alberto, 6, misspelled "cuevas" as "cuebas."

"We love you so much," the children wrote.

The miners earn euro1,000 to euro3,000 ($1,275 to $3,820) a month, the highest wages going to "picadores," those doing the most dangerous job of crawling into cramped spaces with heavy jackhammers to extract coal that has been loosened with dynamite blasts.

The strike in Palencia began when the miners' employer, a company called UMINSA, told them they would not be paid on time for August. The miners, however, insist their main gripe is much broader: Prime Minister Joe Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's failure to implement a decree that would subsidize utility companies running old coal-fired plants so they will use a certain percentage of Spanish coal instead of importing coal from developing countries such as South Africa.

The decree was signed in February but has been held up by the European Union amid concerns that the subsidies may hinder free-market competition.

Just outside the Palencia mine is an idle electrical power plant, its giant cooling tower and slim smokestack free of the steam that would indicate it is up and running. A pile of coal five stories high sits nearby, unwanted. Like the rest of Spain's coal-fired plants, it simply cannot compete on price when the government auctions off slots to generate power.

The government has been buying up the coal itself to help mining companies, but the miners dismiss this is as a makeshift solution.

Zapatero said earlier this week he is aware of the miners' concerns and is trying to find a solution, but his government has been a big proponent of renewable energy. His Industry Ministry has scheduled a Sept. 15 meeting with the mining unions over their demands.

Union representatives came down into the Palencia mine to talk to the strikers Friday and explain their latest proposals to the government, which include the threat of a general strike.

One miner, Manuel Linares, who is 44 but looks closer to 60, interrupted the union official.

"We are not leaving this damned mine until that decree is implemented!" he blurted out.

Further north in Leon province, 14 coal miners at another pit are staging a similar underground strike. Miners and supporters above ground clashed with police Friday, firing slingshots, tearing down signs and overturning heavy metal carts used to move coal in the mines.

Las Cuevas is a gloomy place of filthy, backbreaking work, a sharp contrast to the pretty countryside above that has granite hills where lizards scamper and apple trees grow wild.

Miners are taken to work in a 5-minute ride down a long, arched tunnel where water trickles on the ground. Every now and then, a sharp crack rings out overhead, as tons of settling soil bursts a sturdy nut on one of the mine's support girders.

"It's actually good, because the earth is doing what it needs to do," Isidro Llorente, a 42-year-old assistant picador, tells a doubting AP reporter.

Some of the miners at Las Cuevas came from the construction industry, the collapse of which sent once high-flying Spain into a shocking recession. Jorge Carballo, 33, used to be a builder but got laid off and headed down into the earth two years ago to support his wife and 2-year-old daughter Natalia.

"There was nothing else. In this region, there is simply nothing else," Carballo said.