Thousands of Chilean Miners Strike for Better Wages, Benefits

Emily Udell

Workers at Chile's Chuquicamata copper mine wait during a general assembly at the start of a strike in Calama, on Jan. 4.

Nearly 3,000 striking workers at Chile’s biggest copper mining firm will attempt to resolve a dispute over wages and benefits today. Workers are likely to vote Tuesday on a pay increase proposed by employer Codelco that is 3.5 percent lower than what they’re seeking. Management has said it is committed to negotiation.

More than 2,800 Chuquicamata and Mina Sur miners did not report to work on Monday to protest the wage and bonus package offered by Codelco, which is the world’s largest copper producer.

The company has been the target of strikes and labor actions in recent years and the industry at large has seen numerous major strikes over the past two decades.

The Codelco workers want a 7.5 percent pay increase and a $28,000 bonus, which they say would bring their compensation in line with another mine in Escondida owned by BHP Billiton. On Monday night, Codelco presented an offer of a 4-percent increase, a $24,280 bonus and a $6,000 interest-free loan that the company said would expire on Wednesday.

The Chuquicamata mine in the northern part of the country produces 4 percent of the world’s copper, and copper provides a third of the Chilean government’s revenue. The strike bumped up the price of the commodity, which hit a 17-month high. The AFP reported that Codelco could lose $8 million per day. We believe that this is not going to be good for the country,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said.

Union leaders say 95 percent of the workers at the two mines joined the strike. There’s room for a solution,” Codelco representative Humberto Fernandois said. Management is ready to talk today with union leaders.”

****The BBC reported Wednesday that the strike has ended, with workers voting to accept the pay and benefits offered by the company.

Keeping COBRA Can Be Challenging

Even those who can afford to take COBRA benefits after being laid off can face problems maintaining their health coverage. This Miami Herald story documents an appalling case of a Florida couple who lost their insurance after mistakenly underpaying a bill by two cents. Only after numerous inquiries from the newspaper did Ceridian reinstate the policy. 

Last month Congress extended subsidies for workers laid off between September 2008 and the end of 2009, and made workers who lose their jobs before February 28th eligible for a 15-month subsidy. This will make COBRA accessible for some workers, though many will still find it too expensive.

In South Florida, where the couple featured in the Herald article lives, COBRA can cost $1,200 per month for a family. That’s a lot of cash when you’re unemployed and trying to make ends meet.

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Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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