At first it seemed like a throwback to an earlier era: miners trudging along the Spanish highway, protesting the death of their industry.
In the age of financial services, the internet and ever-changing technology, the miners have become an almost forgotten species in Europe.
Yet, by the time they reached Madrid at the end of a 400km march from their mines in the north, their plight had captured the public imagination. In Spain, the public also feels under threat from job cuts and further austerity.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the miners strode into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, their pit lamps blazing on their safety helmets. The assembled crowd reached out to touch them, shake their hands. The cheers were deafening.
The miners did not expect this welcome, but their action was having a liberating effect on Spaniards uncertain how to respond to the economic crisis and its impact on their lives.
“People were waiting for someone to stand up against the politicians,” said one miner, as the crowd pressed in on him, yelling their support.
The miners, men and women, already had their place in Spain’s history. They dared to stand up to the last dictator, General Francisco Franco, when the punishment for industrial action could be severe. No wonder, then, that the atmosphere on their arrival was charged with emotion.
Will they succeed in hanging on to their subsidies while they attempt to make their industry viable? The politicians will decide, and the real decisions are not being made in Madrid.
The European Commission and Central Bank are shouting the orders. And although there are plenty of independent voices saying the mines should be given a chance, it would take a brave Spanish politician to follow such a route in the present economic crisis.
A few hours after the elation of the miners’ arrival in the capital, the prime minister announced more austerity measures. People understand the realities here, but often it is a battle between their hearts and minds.
If the miners lose, their communities will be devastated. No one wants that. The hard economic facts remain, however, and may well win the argument.