On May 13, 1890, two hundred miners at the Orconera Iron Ore Company Limited walked out in protest over the firing of five colleagues (and socialist activists) for their part in organizing protests over working conditions to coincide with international May Day that year. News of the walk out spread quickly to other mines and thousands more eventually went on strike. It was the first major strike in the “new” industrial Bizkaia, and set a pattern for labor protest that would extend until well into the twentieth century.

Nineteenth-century miners.

By midday on May 13, the ranks of the miners had swelled to some 4-5,000 men. gathering in the hilly terrain rising up from the left bank of Greater Bilbao in which they plied their trade, the miners then descended to the industrial satellite towns of Ortuella and Gallarta, where they were joined by a further 2-3,000 factory workers. By day’s end, production throughout the whole left-bank mining zone–the area at the heart of Bilbao’s spectacular industrial transformation process in the nineteenth century–had come to a complete standstill.

Mine workers in Gallarta, Bizkaia.

The strikers then planned to march on Bilbao itself the following day, with the addition of thousands of other workers from the riverside cities of Barakaldo and Sestao. By some estimates, some 20-30,000 were now on strike from both mines and factories and they were intent intent on marching toward Bilbao. The authorities in turn perceived this as a real threat and by the afternoon of May 14 placed the army on standby to counter any such march. What’s more, the activists coordinating the protest were arrested.

By May 15, there was a stalemate: production had been dramatically reduced in the principal mining and manufacturing area of Bizkaia, yet the strikers were unwilling to confront the armed forces. This in turn encouraged some mines and factories to return to work. That day, too, the jailed strike leaders issued a series of demands that were flatly refused by the collective mine and factory owners–for them, nothing short of complete defeat and humiliation of the striking workers would be acceptable.

General José María Loma Arguelles (1822-1893).

Yet just at that moment, a conciliatory figured appeared in the shape of one General José María de Loma–a native of Araba and head of the armed forces controlling the situation. He actually threatened to withdraw his troops if the owners did not sit down and negotiate the demands of the workers. This they were forced to do, and the result was the so-called Loma Pact in which many of the original demands, regarding basic working hours for example, were met. By May 17, the industrial zone of Bilbao was back to normal and a larger-scale crisis had been averted.

For a more detailed account of the strike, see Ricardo Miralles, “La Gran Huelga Minera de 1890. En los Orígines del Movimiento Obrero en el País Vasco,” Historia Contemporánea, 3 (1990): 15-44. Free to download here.