(Adds comment from union and company)
SANTIAGO, March 1 A three-week-long strike at
Chile's Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine, turned ugly
on Wednesday when a group of striking workers blocked a highway,
provoking confrontations with the police.
Escondida's approximately 2,500 unionized workers began a
strike on Feb. 9 after contract talks with mine owner BHP
Billiton failed, boosting global copper prices
on expectations of tighter supply.
Early Wednesday morning, around 800 workers carried out a
protest on the main road that connects the regional city of
Antofagasta with the mine, the union said.
A Reuters witness said the protesters blockaded the road,
burned tyres and threw rocks and sticks at the police, who
responded with tear gas. By late morning, the protesters had
The union said a "strong police contingent" acted against
the protesters and left three workers injured, adding that union
leaders had calmed the situation.
Escondida criticized the violence and said: "We reiterate
the need to keep this process within the bounds of legality."
The events reflect the increasing bitterness and division
between the two sides, as the pressure to secure a deal on both
ratchets up, but whose positions still appear to be far apart
after three weeks of strike.
Key differences include disagreement over the level of
benefits new workers should receive, and planned changes to
shift patterns and benefits.
The union complained earlier this week that BHP had failed
to make back payments to workers, while the company said that it
would make the payments once the strike had ended, in accordance
with Chilean law.
A local judge ruled on Tuesday that a deferred payment from
2016 should go out to workers, and BHP said on Wednesday that it
disagreed with the ruling but would comply.
The union is keen to prevent workers from losing enthusiasm
as the strike drags on, especially as after 30 days, individual
miners have the right to break from the union agreement and
accept the company offer.
The company has waived the right to replace workers before
30 days, sacrificing output in an attempt to ease tensions and
potentially weaken the union position.
A government-led attempt at mediation failed last week.
Although both sides say they are open to talks, there has been
little concrete sign of a resumption of dialogue in the near
Escondida, which produced around 5 percent of global copper
output last year, is majority-controlled by BHP. Rio Tinto
and Japanese companies including Mitsubishi Corp
hold minority interests.
(Reporting by Fabian Cambero,; Additional reporting by Juan
Ricardo in Antofagasta; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by
Alistair Bell and Marguerita Choy)