INSIDE LAS CUEVAS MINE, Spain — 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.
Saturday marked Day 10 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."