Giant space observatory in Chile hit by strike over pay

Benefits should reflect unique working conditions in remote desert, union says

Santiago (Reuters) — Chile's Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, an international observatory that operates one of the world's most powerful radio telescopes, has been hit by a strike over pay.

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

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

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 for observing the night sky.

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

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 regrets that it was unable to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with its union ... to establish a new collective labour contract," the observatory said. "ALMA has activated a contingency plan that will enable it to continue basic operations."

The 194 striking workers are technicians and administrators and do not include scientists, an AUI spokesman said.

The $1.1 billion telescope, which began full-scale operation in March, has already spotted galaxies expelling gas and a star formation near the center of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole. It also has captured the first image of an icy ring around a distant star.

ALMA is funded by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Japan.

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