No end in sight to Collahuasi strike

[] — STRIKING workers at Collahuasi, the world’s No. 3 copper mine, held firm on Friday, with most staying on the picket line despite management’s prediction that many would abandon the 15-day-old walkout.

Management told Reuters about 5% of 1,551 employees returned on the first day Chilean law allowed them to quit the walkout and go back to work without fear of fines by their union.

Hundreds of employees and their families, some blowing plastic horns, marched in Iquique to support the strike, as labour federations across the country geared up for a rally to put more pressure on conservative President Sebastian Pinera.

But in an ominous sign for strikers, employees at nearby Los Pelambres, the country’s No. 5 copper mine, accepted a wage deal on Thursday that was less attractive than what Collahuasi management has offered.

The Collahuasi strike is the biggest among privately owned mines in Chile, the world’s top copper producer, since workers downed tools for 26 days at top mine Escondida in 2006.

Manuel Munoz, president of the Collahuasi union, said no more than six strikers have returned to work.

“We believe the possibility of a mass return of workers to the mine is impossible,” Munoz told Reuters. “We are expecting a big majority, hopefully all of them, to stay out.”

The union wants a new round of wage talks, but the company called the latest sweetened package its “final” offer.

Mine official Bernardita Fernandez said management expected workers to gradually return to their jobs before the latest proposal expires on Nov. 23.

But Collahuasi workers hoped to gain strength from a meeting on Monday of union leaders from privately owned mines, state-owned mines and oil refineries – three labour groups that historically have failed to forge concrete alliances.

Union leaders complain their concerns have been sidelined since Pinera took office this year, and they hope the summit will boost organised labour’s political clout.

Elsewhere on Friday workers at Chile’s main oil refinery Bio Bio started a 24-hour “warning strike” to protest possible layoffs, though it was not designed to impact output.

Leaders said the action at the 116,000 barrel-per-day refinery, owned by state-run ENAP, was not held to show solidarity for Collahuasi workers.


The Collahuasi union says the strike is already taking a toll on the mine, and called management’s latest maneuvre a “desperate act” to halt further output losses.

Fernandez said mine operations were normal under a contingency plan, acknowledging only a “minimum impact within the range of normalcy that cannot be attributed to the strike or the contingency plan itself.”

Collahuasi loaded a copper shipment on Friday at the Patache port, a source at the port said in a sign the mine was still producing and had stockpiled the metal, though analysts see problems if the stoppage continues into a third week.

Analysts said copper output was not likely to be normal at the mine without all its unionised workers. But the company says it has been able to keep operations running by using non-union and replacement workers.

The union said the mine currently working at only 20% after failure at two concentrator plants.

The mine, jointly owned by Xstrata and Anglo American, aims to lift output to more than a million tonnes a year and challenge nearby Escondida as the world’s biggest copper pit.

The strike has boosted world copper prices and may set a precedent for forthcoming wage negotiations at other Chilean mines that extract about 6 percent of the world’s copper.

Collahuasi has offered a one-time payment of nearly $29,000 in cash – up from an earlier offer of around $28,000 – for employees who return to work before Nov. 23.

The operator said its latest offer would lift average wages for a new 40-month contract by 16.4%, similar to an early November proposal union leaders turned down.