* Workers to meet Drummond, govt mediators again on Thurs
* Union says strike can still be avoided if Drummond
* Stoppage would start after Friday and before end of next
By Peter Murphy
BOGOTA, July 17 Workers at Drummond Co Inc's
coal mining operations in Colombia voted to strike
late on Wednesday after failing to reach a deal with the U.S.
company in weeks of talks over pay and conditions, a union
But Edgar Munoz, vice-president of the Sintramienergetica
labor union, said staff were still open to negotiating and would
meet Drummond officials and Labor Ministry representatives on
Thursday in a further attempt to thrash out a deal.
A stoppage by Drummond workers would mark the second major
walkout in the Colombian coal industry this year after miners at
rival Cerrejon held a month-long strike that began in February.
Combined, the strikes could further dent economic growth in
2013, as coal is a top export earner for the Andean nation.
"We are willing to reach an agreement but if there isn't
one, we will strike," Munoz told Reuters, adding that the start
date for the walk-out would only be decided after Thursday's
negotiations, if they failed.
A prolonged stoppage at Drummond, which produced 26 million
tonnes or almost one third of Colombia's coal in 2012, could
boost European physical coal prices as buyers prepare to stock
up for winter. Colombia is the world's fourth-biggest coal
Physical coal prices for delivery to Europe are currently
trading around $75.60 a tonne, up from just above $70 in late
The miners would have to begin their strike after Friday and
before the end of next week, to comply with deadlines set out by
local labor laws, Munoz said.
A strike would be another headache for the government as it
tries to boost sluggish economic growth amid a slew of labor
disputes across the nation. Strikes in the coal sector slowed
GDP growth in the first quarter and could hobble expected
acceleration in the second half.
It would also add to Drummond's woes in what has been a
difficult year for the firm. Loading at a port it controls was
suspended in February after bad weather caused a spill from a
barge, and there was a ban on night-time railway use on a line
part-owned by Drummond.
"We understand the importance of this for the country and
the government's royalties," Munoz said. "Striking means a big
economic loss for the workers and for the company. That is why
we are trying to find a solution without a strike."
A Drummond spokesperson offered no comment on the possible
strike when contacted by Reuters.
SIDES CLOSE TO DEAL ON PAY
The country's artisanal and small-scale miners, which
produce a limited amount of Colombia's coal, also began a strike
on Wednesday to demand the outlawed activity be made legal.
"We have been forced to beg in our own territory for our own
riches," said Ruben Dario Gomez, a spokesman for Conalminercol,
the small miners' union.
The miners began blocking roads early Wednesday, prompting
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos to declare he would not
tolerate the closure of a single highway in the country while
condemning environmental damage he said wildcat miners caused.
Ballot boxes in which Drummond workers had been casting
votes in the last few days at the mines and in surrounding towns
were closed at 7 p.m. local time (8 p.m. EDT/0000 GMT) on
Wednesday and counting began immediately afterwards.
The union demands reached as much as a 10.7 percent pay
increase and a one-time bonus of 7 million pesos ($3,700), among
Drummond, which last weekend increased its pay raise offer
to 4.5 percent on top of a one-time bonus, has said the union's
demands for much more were beyond what would be sustainable for
it or any other mining company to pay.
But Munoz said he was confident the union could reach a deal
with Drummond over pay as the company's offer was near a level
it would accept.
Negotiations to retain 400 workers at Drummond's seaport,
many of whose jobs Munoz said were threatened by technological
changes, were proving tougher.
Drummond had sought to cut some or all of the 400 workers,
Munoz said. The company said in a recent statement that it was
trying to find new positions for some of the employees and
devising a "withdrawal plan" for those it could not.
"On the question of salary, we can reach a deal," Munoz
said. "The difficult part of the negotiation is to do with the
relocation of the (port) workers."
Drummond employs about 10,000 workers across its main
Colombia operations, about half of which are direct hires
represented by Sintramienergetica and the other half contractors
represented by a separate entity. They would follow
Sintramienergetica's decision to strike, Munoz said.