There are no coal or miners in León anymore; but mining and the trade union movement remain associated in the collective memory. Poor working conditions and the physical harshness of the work have forced thousands of miners to mobilize and organize strikes, marches and demonstrations for years. One of the first and least known mobilizations began in 1962 and lasted for a decade, which is now recovered by the book The anti-Franco spring (Ed. Marciano Sonoro), by Alejandro Martínez (Berlanga del Bierzo, 1987).
May 1962. A month after the miners from Asturias said ‘enough’, the miners from El Bierzo and Laciana joined, learning of the mobilizations on Radio Pirenaica. More than 20,000 workers’ stopped ‘for 15 days and managed to hold the first workers’ and democratic assembly since 1936 in León. More than 150 miners from the Ponferrada Mining Company (MSP) drew up their demands and elected a stable labor commission of 12 advisory members elected outside the vertical union. These representatives participated in all company meetings up to the union elections held in 1963.
The assembly was authorized by the Civil Guard and, although they were not allowed to dismiss the company jury, they were able to vote for their own representatives. The civil government acknowledged to the Ministry of Labor that they were forced to violate their own legality: “In order to discuss the claims presented there was, in many cases, to give way to the deliberative bodies, to representatives designated in hiding, becoming true” strike committees’, whose efforts were carried out outside the entire legal framework “.
The foundations of the anti-Franco movement
According to Martínez, the protests of 1962 cemented the anti-Franco movement in both regions, which would later be structured into Workers ‘Commissions, the Workers’ Brotherhood of Catholic Action and the PCE. “After the outlawing of class unions and political parties in the 1940s, in the 1960s people began to lose their fear and to organize,” says Martínez, who has spent years investigating the Bercian mining basins. Benjamin Rubio He was one of the main union leaders at the mine, he promoted this assembly in 1962, brought to light the Workers’ Commissions in León and was closely linked to the PCE. When democracy was restored, Rubio actively participated in an association of historical memory.
With infiltrators in the vertical union —but de facto militants from other unions such as CCOO—, the miners demanded democratic unions, health centers — which there were none — or schools for the miners’ children. Some demands were met, others not.
They achieved the urbanization of some towns or the recognition of their right to pensions or the recognition of some diseases. “There were partial concessions to appease that social and strike movement,” says Martínez, historian and high school teacher. Others were not so successful. The lacianiegos started the commitment to build a health center that never came. The strength of the El Bierzo and Laciana miners – now extinct – lay in the importance of the materials they extracted, such as anthracite, key to thermoelectric plants. “A tradition of class solidarity is re-emerging, with a new generation and an organized movement,” says Martínez.
Corn for scabs ‘chickens’
The pressure was not only directed towards the extractive companies, but also towards the scabs and the forces of order. The book also delves into how the miners lived the mobilizations that took place between 1962 and 1971. Some communist militants watered the María well (Caboalles de Abajo) with corn to charge against the scabs, which were ‘chickens’ and therefore, they ate corn. This strategy was repeated over the years. In 1968, the parish priest of Matarrosa del Sil encouraged the women of the town to appear at the entrance of the mine with corn and barley in cola-cao cans to say to the scabs ‘pitas pitas’.
“The role of women is very defined in Fabero and Villablino”, comments Martínez, who works in the project of historical dissemination Our History, El Bierzo and Laciana. In Villablino, in 1962, stones were placed under blouses to simulate pregnancies and later confront the Civil Guard and the scabs with these stones as a weapon. At the Julia (Fabero) well, the women confronted the Civil Guard with sticks and wood. “These reactions helped to maintain the pressure for almost a month,” explains the author.
Martínez remembers how the gender divide was not only obvious, but also legal. “For the selection and washing of anthracite, women charged six pesetas a day, but men charged 11,” he details. “Apart from the fact that they had to stop working once they were married, women were forced to perform functions that did not correspond to them, such as going up very steep paths with material. This represents a worsening of the patriarchal system,” says Martínez.
College student support
The historian also points out the importance of the University Labor Service (SUT), which advises the workers’ commission to draft their petitions in 1968. “They represented plays, but opposition organizations infiltrated. This team was from the University of Zaragoza When they mounted a work, they did it under the watchful eye of the Civil Guard, “says Martínez. Why? Because there were students from the Chamber Theater and militants from the PCE who gave a permitted libretto but performed a piece by Lorca instead.
After more than a month in El Bierzo, the SUT team is expelled from the province. By then, it has already helped the miners to formulate their demands, which are met, but they pay a high price: the members of the workers’ commission are exiled to Barcelona and cannot return to their homes in León.
The book also recalls the longest strike that León experienced under Franco: between November 1969 and February 1970 the miners called an intermittent strike that began with a company but extended throughout the Fabero basin. “In December 1969, several workers were locked up in the Julia well, and, although they achieved some demands, 13 miners were fired,” adds Martínez.
On The anti-Franco spring, Alejandro Martínez wants to remember all those miners and residents of El Bierzo and Laciana who fought for their rights. Through interviews with some survivors and historical documentation, the book delves into the mining mobilizations of El Bierzo, which are less remembered than those in other places. Martínez hopes that with similar initiatives it will not be forgotten: “The mining movement in Asturias and the Basque Country has been studied a lot, but there is a gap in El Bierzo. In León there was also a movement in opposition to the dictatorship.” In 1962 alone, some 20,000 people went on strike in El Bierzo and Laciana, when just raising it could amount to a crime of sedition.