An island made of legends
A sad milestone is coming up this summer, marking the 100th anniversary of the bloody miners’ strike of 1916. After decades working under horrible conditions, regularly resulting even to their death, Serifos’ miners had just had enough…
August 21st 1916 went down in history as a bloodstained day. But it was much more than that: a clash between classes, the breakout of a brutally oppressed work force against tyrannical bosses and another example of political mismanagement.
Under the command of the infamous Grohmann family, who gained control in 1885 and retained it until they shut down completely in 1963, the mines in Serifos are said to have produced more than seven million tones of materials! Most of it was shipped directly to Germany to be used in the arm industry, with the gain for the family in command soaring year after year. But is seems the more profitable the enterprise was, the more working conditions deteriorated for the miners.
According to historical accounts and personal testimonies, the conditions under which the mines were operated were an absolute disgrace not only to workers' rights, but to the very core humanitarian values. It seems that human life was of no value to the mining company’s management. The miners worked from dawn until sun down, never actually leaving their posts throughout the duration of their shift. On top of their endless working days, their residences were located miles away from the mines and they had to walk two and three hours into the night to get home, when they had to be back in line for work before dawn broke the next day. Those last line, were refused the day’s wage. If they did not follow their supervisors’ orders or refused to work in a clearly dangerous dungeon, they were immediately fired. So, they bowed their heads and descended many dozens of meters under the earth, without knowing if they'd ever come up again alive: ground support brackets, helmets, masks and any other kind of worker protection devises were unknown to the management. And all this for a wage that was barely enough to keep themselves fed, let alone support a family…
It took a little more than 30 years of abuse and a charismatic leader for the Serifos mine workers to find the courage to oppose their bosses. Born and raised on the island, Constantinos Speras had studied in Alexandria and was a widely travelled, educated man initiated in the principles of syndicalism and anarchism. In July 24th 1916, he helped found Serifos first ever Mine Workers’ Union and was appointed its chairman. According to the Union's statutory text, signed by 460 members, their demands were the establishment of 8-hour working days, the restriction of the company&’s management atrocities, better payment and worker protection measures.
Speras formed a committee and visited the Greek Minister of Finance to hand over a memorandum pointing out the abhorrent conditions in the mines. Upon the government’s reluctance to take immediate measures, 300 miners went on strike, refusing to load a German ship on August 3rd 1916. The miners managed to take over and keep control of the island for 15 days, until a police regimen arrived in Serifos on August 21st with a clear order: to squash the miners’ riot no matter what. In the meantime, the miners had gathered on the docking bay at Megalo Livadi together with their women and children who supported them. The police force arrested their leader, Speras, and gave the rest a 5 minute deadline to surrender. When they refused, they indiscriminately started firing against the crowd. The first miner that fell was Themistoklis Kouzoupis to be followed by Michalis Zoelis, Michalis Mitrophanis and Yannis Protopapas. All four were killed instantly, while another 12 people were seriously injured as police continued to fire their guns.
The crowd went wild! Grabbing rocks and whatever other weapon they could find, they attacked and disarmed the policemen, killing their captain. The uprising soon spread out to the entire population, leading to the siege of the mining company’s headquarters. During the havoc that followed, a group of miners, encouraged by Speras who had been in the meantime released, boarded a boat, raised the French flag and sailed to Milos, in order to inform the French fleet that was docked there. They asked the French navy officers to rebuff any attempt by the German ship to load any material coming from the Serifos mines. Ever willing to take control of any situation that could lead to their advantage, the French sent not one but two warships to Megalo Livadi and forced the German trade ship to set sail empty.
The tention de-escalated during the following months with the Union leaders and the company owners finally co-signing an agreement in November 1917, with the arbitration of the Greek Ministry of Finance. The agreement satisfied in theory the demands set out by the workers. In practice, however, it was soon forgotten, as the abusive Grohmann family retained control over the mines until their demise in 1963.
Today, it seems that the mining remnants in Serifos remain in their posts not only as proof of the long-lived metallurgic activity on the island, but also to commemorate the workers’ devotion to make a better life for themselves and their families. The loading bridge, the abandoned minecarts, the dilapidated company headquarters and, most of all, the memorial built in the memory of those who fell during the Strike of 1916 stand as reminders of how many things can go wrong when man puts profit above his fellow man.