Spanish coal miners call strikes over unpaid wages

by reuters | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 September 2010 12:56 GMT

* Govt says coal firms can afford to pay wages

* Sept. 29-30 stoppage coincides with general strike * Unions eye EU approval for aid plan on Sept. 29

By Martin Roberts

MADRID, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Spain's two largest unions on Thursday called for two 48-hour strikes by coal miners later this month to demand that wages be paid and the government implement a long-delayed plan to aid the industry.

The second strike called for Sept 29-30 will coincide with a nationwide general strike, part of a wave of unrest expected in Europe this autumn. The first industry-wide stoppage has been set for Sept. 22-23. [ID:nLDE67O0PI]

About 35 percent of Spain's roughly 7,400 miners say they have gone without pay for about two months, which has prompted many to down tools for three weeks, as well as block roads in protest and hold underground sit-ins in two mines.

The strike call by Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO.) and UGT came after talks late on Wednesday broke down between the unions and the Industry Ministry to restore pay and revive plans to support the coal industry.

"Although the problems and solutions have been identified, the response by the Industry Ministry is not satisfactory," a CC.OO. statement said, although it added talks would continue.

Spain's coal industry receives state subsidies because it cannot compete with cheaper and higher quality imports. The government says coal needs support because it makes Spain less dependent on imported fuels.

Spain's coal industry head said last week the two companies which had not being paying miners could not afford to because they had been unable to sell coal since February. [ID:nLDE6890NK]

Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian told state television the two companies had received government support.

"Grupo Viloria and Grupo Victorino Alonso have received 367 million euros ($480.3 million) of public money since July 2009, so they cannot have any justification or excuse to say they cannot afford to pay wages," Sebastian said.

AID PLAN

Also in dispute is a government decree to oblige utilities to burn domestic rather than imported coal, which has been awaiting approval by the European Union since February.

"It is foreseen that this issue will be resolved at a meeting of EU commissioners on Sept. 29," CC.OO. said.

Producers and analysts say the plans could slash imports in what has been a major European market for coal, as well as raise electricity prices. [ID:nLDE63C1AA]

However, sources with direct knowledge of the matter have told Reuters the European Union executive was split, with some commissioners questioning the validity of Spanish arguments in favour of the decree. [ID:nBRU010945]

Environmentalists have criticised the government for subsidising an industry they say is destined to disappear, and that the money would be better spent on developing renewable energy sources, in which Spain is a world leader. (Editing by Keiron Henderson)

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