High spot. The ALMA radio observatory in Chile from the air.

Clem & Adri Bacri-Normier (wingsforscience.com)/ESO

Chilean Union Leader Speaks on ALMA Strike

For 2 weeks now, observing at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the world’s largest radio telescope, has been at a standstill as a result of an ongoing strike by the 195-member ALMA workers union. Several rounds of negotiations between the union—which represents the observatory’s technical, administrative, and support staff members—and managers have failed, despite mediation by a Chilean government agency.

The president of the union, Victor Gonzalez, says that even though the union has climbed down from most of its demands, a pending issue is management’s refusal to pay workers for the days that they’ve been striking. An ALMA spokesperson says management is not ready to discuss the matter with the media. But Gonzalez offered his take to ScienceInsider this morning. These excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity.

Q: What is the latest situation at ALMA?

V.G.: The offer made by the management on Wednesday was rejected by a vote of 160 to 26; there were a few people who did not vote. By Chilean law, individual workers can choose to leave the strike after 2 weeks, which is today. But we don’t foresee that many people will want to resume work.

Q: Are there any talks going on right now?

V.G.: The mediation process has been suspended, and there are no official conversations going on today.

Q: Why did the last round of talks fail?

V.G.: The main stalling point now is that we are asking for payment for all the striking days, which ALMA’s director had promised on 27 August. Now, the management says workers will be paid only until 27 August, and not for the entire duration of the strike.

Q: What are you demanding, exactly?

V.G.: Our main demands were that we wanted a 15% salary increase for all workers, a $5-per-hour bonus for workers who work at the high site (5000 meters above sea level, where the observatory antennas are located), and a work week of 40 hours instead of 45 hours. We didn’t press many other demands that we think would be fair, such as reestablishing the practice of giving a Christmas bonus, which is standard for most Chilean companies.

Q: What has the management offered?

V.G.: The management has agreed to our demand for fewer working hours and the $5-per-hour bonus at the high site. And it has offered a 4% raise for workers who earn less than $1500 a month. We have accepted that. That is a big concession.

Q: What would make you end the strike?

V.G.: There are two pending issues. One is the salary for the striking days. We have offered to continue working the extra 5 hours a week until the end of the year in exchange for getting paid for the strike period. That is a cost-neutral solution but the management is not agreeing to it.

There’s another problem. The management has agreed to pay workers a signing bonus of $2000 when we return to work, but the management wants to pay this amount even to those who are not bargaining—that’s about 50 workers who are not part of the union.

Q: Why do you have a problem with that?

V.G.: That’s an incentive to workers to leave the union. It would hurt our interests in the future.

Q: So what next?

V.G.: The conversation has stalled. We are trying to reach out to the director. We need to fix this soon.