SANTIAGO – Roughly 2,500 workers at the BHP Billiton-controlled La Escondida copper mine in northern Chile went on strike Thursday after union negotiators and management failed to reach a new collective agreement.
Hundreds of employees did not board buses early Thursday morning that were to take them from the port city of Antofagasta to replace night-shift workers at the mine, located 170 kilometers (105 miles) to the southeast.
The company, meanwhile, has said it will halt production during the strike, citing safety concerns.
During talks in recent days, the union demanded a three-year contract that, among others things, would include a 7 percent salary hike, a 25-million-peso ($38,460) bonus per worker and equal benefits for new operators.
But Escondida, which has been hit by a steep drop in global copper prices since the last collective agreement was reached four years ago, offered a four-year contract featuring a bonus of just 8 million pesos ($12,300) per worker, no salary increase and a reduction in some benefits.
“We’re not going to back down. We’re united. There was 99.9 percent support (for the strike), and that’s not easy,” union leader Jaime Thenoux told Antofagasta TV.
He added that at a minimum Escondida must preserve the terms of the previous collective agreement, which expired on Jan. 31.
“If we don’t put a stop to this, they’re going trample us. This will end up serving as a model for other companies,” Thenoux said.
La Escondida, the world’s biggest copper mine with average output of 100,000 tons of the red metal per month, is 57.5 percent owned by Anglo-Australian mining titan BHP Billiton.
London-based mining giant Rio Tinto and Japan’s Jeco Corporation have minority stakes in the mine.