Chile: will workers “think twice” after copper mine strike?

Workers at Chile’s Escondida copper mine voted on Aug. 5 to end a 15-day-old strike despite failing to win their demand for a bonus of 5 million pesos ($10,562). By a 65.5% majority they agreed to settle for a 2.6 million peso bonus ($5,492)—less than management’s earlier offer of 2.8 million pesos ($5,916)—but the company,the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton corporation, is to pay the workers for the days they were on strike. Union officials admitted the members were worn out after two weeks without pay.

The union called the strike on July 21, demanding that BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, share the rising profits on copper sales. But the company refused to back down; management said the job action, which started on July 21 outside the normal collective bargaining process, was illegal. BHP Billiton took a loss of some $450 million in sales during the strike, while meeting the workers’ demand would only have cost the company about $30 million. But apparently management felt it was more important to keep the Escondida workers from setting a precedent for other mines. “The workers at the mining companies will think twice before starting an illegal strike for more income,” Gustavo Lagos, a professor at the Catholic University, said after the settlement was announced.

The mine, in Antofagasta province in northern Chile, sits on the world’s largest copper deposit, and the strike helped raise international copper prices to a four-month high the week of Aug. 1—until fears of a new global recession drove prices back down. Analysts were concerned that with the Chilean government already shaken by a militant student movement, the strike—the first at the mine since August 2006—might inspire other walkouts. Miners at the state-owned Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco) had held a one-day protest strike on July 11. (Reuters, Aug. 5; La Tercera, Santiago, Aug. 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 7.

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