Chile Escondida copper mine union agrees to early labor talks
* Early talks seen improving chances of new deal
* World's No. 1 copper mine hit by labor action last year
* Escondida produced 787,000 tonnes of copper Jan-Sept
SANTIAGO, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Unionized workers at the world's No.1 copper mine, Chile's Escondida, have voted in favor of early labor talks with the mine's controller, global miner BHP Billiton, a union leader told Reuters on Tuesday.
Escondida's union stunned the copper market last year by staging a two-week strike, which sent the mine's output tumbling and raised the specter of an increase in labor action. Holding early talks this year suggests improved chances that the firm and workers can clinch a deal.
"We were invited by the company (to hold negotiations) and the workers accepted," Marcelo Tapia, a union leader at Escondida, told Reuters.
BHP declined to comment. Escondida's labor contract is set to expire next June.
BHP and Rio Tinto, which owns 30 percent of the mine, have approved plans for a $4.5 billion expansion of Escondida to boost output.
Escondida's third-quarter output surged 72.4 percent from a year earlier to 253,800 tonnes, boosted by better ore grades and a low base of comparison from the year-ago quarter. Output in the January-September period was 787,000 tonnes, up 31.6 percent from a year earlier.
The mining industry in Chile, the world's leading copper producer, is also bracing for collective negotiations at state copper producer Codelco's massive Chuquicamata mine. Most unionized workers at the century-old deposit have voted to start early contract negotiations, a union source told Reuters earlier this month.