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Giant Space Observatory In Chile Hit By Strike Over Pay

posted 23 Aug 2013, 02:59 by Mpelembe   [ updated 23 Aug 2013, 03:00 ]

Workers at Chile's $1.1 billion Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) observatory, go on strike over pay.

SANTIAGOCHILE (AUGUST 22, 2013) (REUTERS) - Workers at Chile's $1.1 billion Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), an international observatory that operates one of the world's most powerful radio telescopes, have gone on strike over pay.

Nearly 200 workers in the ALMA union began the strike on Thursday (August 22) after failing to reach agreement with their U.S. employer, Associated Universities Inc (AUI), the union said.

The union seeks a 15 percent wage increase and benefits "taking into account the isolation and altitude at which the workers carry out their jobs," it said.

"We have always been open to negotiating with the company but the company has behaved in an inflexible way towards us by simply giving us zero percent to all our requests. They did not even reply to our requests for better working conditions and they did not even wish to formalise the benefits we had been promised," a member of the ALMA workers union, Danilo Castillo said.

Disputes over pay and work conditions, as well as local unrest over environmental issues linked to the mines, have become increasingly common in the region.

"ALMA is sorry that union workers and AUI have not been able to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement to establish a new labour contract," the observatory said.

"ALMA has activated a back-up plan that will allow the observatory to function in a basic form," it added.

The 194 striking workers are technicians and administrators and do not include scientists.

"We have a unique union with technicians, professionals, engineers, astronomers, administrators, where there is great inequality among them. We want to improve these types of situations but the company has not wanted to negotiate," Castillo said.

"The excuse we have been given is that the company has no funds, has no money to improve our salaries and apparently, due to administrative or logistical reasons, they don't want to modify or improve our working conditions, which obviously for us, is completely unacceptable," Castillo added.

ALMA's antennas are in a remote part of the Atacama desert in Chile's north at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level. The dryness and altitude create some of the best conditions on Earth for observing the night sky.

Most of the mines that operate in Chile, the world's number one copper exporter, are also located in the Atacama.

The telescope, which began operating in March, has spotted galaxies expelling gas, a star formation near the centre of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole and the first image of a snow-line around a distant star.

Funded by the European Union, the United StatesCanadaTaiwan and Japan, ALMA was inaugurated in March with Chile's president Sebastian Pinera in attendance.