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Copper Union Plans Strikes as Chile Shipments Restricted

Workers at Chilean copper mines owned by BHP Billiton Ltd. and Anglo American Plc are preparing protests to push for greater job security as the country gears up for presidential elections this year.

“This is a warning to the presidential candidates that they need to get with the program,” Agustin Latorre, a spokesman for the Mining Federation of Chile, an umbrella organization known as FMC representing 11,000 workers, told reporters yesterday in the city of Antofagasta. “These themes aren’t going to go away.”

The FMC’s proposal echoes measures announced March 15 by a union representing workers at state-owned Codelco. Both unions said the protests will include strikes as they seek limits on the use of subcontractors and better health and safety conditions. FMC President Gustavo Tapia didn’t elaborate on the timing or duration of planned strike action.

The announcement comes as a strike by port workers in the No. 1 copper-producing nation restricts more than half of its shipments of the metal. Codelco is using more than 30,000 contract workers to run and maintain mines as well as carry out about $30 billion of expansions.

The port strike, which began March 16 at the Angamos terminal and spread to other ports in the country, is also restricting imports of materials such as sulfuric acid used by mines and may lead to the halting of some operations, Mining Minister Hernan De Solminihac told reporters yesterday.

World’s Biggest

Copper rallied the most in almost two weeks yesterday after De Solminihac said the port strike is restricting exports by 60 percent. Copper for delivery in May slid 0.4 percent to $3.3365 a pound by 8:43 a.m. today on the Comex in New York.

Angamos handles copper cathode shipments from Codelco’s Chuquicamata, Gaby and Radomiro Tomic mines as well as some supplies from BHP’s Escondida, the world’s biggest copper mine. China accounted for 64 percent of Chile’s copper exports in February, according to data compiled by the central bank.

The planned industrial action by miners threatens to disrupt operations as the cost of production and development escalates. Any strikes by miners in Chile would be outside of normal contract negotiations and, as a result, illegal, said Cesar Perez-Novoa, head of research at BTG Pactual in Santiago.

‘Special Year’

“Not only would you have a bad precedent for Chile, which accounts for 30 percent of global supply today, but that’s then extrapolated for the rest of the Pacific,” Perez-Novoa said by telephone. “Maybe there’s an element of politics. Because it’s an election year people think they may get away with demands.”

Chile holds presidential elections in November.

The FMC is also pushing for changes in pension regulations and better working conditions for all shift workers, Tapia said. Workers at Codelco’s Radomiro Tomic ended a four-day strike April 1 over the handling of a fatal accident.

“These protests are a warning,” Tapia said. “This is a special year for the country. We haven’t been listened to.”

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