Codelco unions return to work, threaten more strikes

SANTIAGO, July 12 (Reuters) – Workers at Chile’s Codelco returned to work on Tuesday after a 24-hour strike that highlighted challenges facing the world’s top copper miner as it struggles to lift stagnant output.

Union leaders said thousands of workers trickled back to their mines in Chile’s desert north and mountainous south-central region after staging a walkout to demand more say in the restructuring of the state copper giant.

“This was a successful stoppage and now it is clear how much we are worth,” said Hernan Garrido, a union leader at El Teniente mine.

“Now the (Codelco) administration must look at us differently because otherwise this is the beginning of more strikes.”

Codelco, which aims to produce about 1.7 million tonnes of copper this year, has said the stoppage — the first in 18 years — was illegal and estimated losses of about 4,900 tonnes.

Union leaders fear the restructuring of Codelco could lead to benefit cuts, huge layoffs and the sale of world-class deposits that are key to the state’s finances.

The government of President Sebastian Pinera, which has denied any plans to privatize Codelco, has offered to start talks with workers to ease tensions and prevent more disruptions in the linchpin sector.

Pinera, a center-right billionaire, saw his approval rating fall to 31 percent in a poll last week while he grappled with the student protests, the looming Codelco strike and a customer credit scandal at retailer La Polar .

The strike was the latest labor dispute to hit Codelco, which was forced to slash output for several days at El Teniente after violent protests by contractors in June.

Copper prices fell again on Tuesday on concerns over the euro zone debt crisis.

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