* Head of national mining group seen as key strike player
* Critics say Arancibia’s ambitions behind 13-day stoppage
By Alonso Soto and Fabian Cambero
SANTIAGO, Nov 17 (Reuters) - A couple of months ago, Cristian Arancibia, a trucker picked to head Chile’s national mining union, walked into government buildings and demanded to talk to officials about working conditions in decrepit mines.
Flanked by three police officers filming his every move with a portable camera, the portly 36-year-old told his audience that it was now time for miners in the world’s top copper producer to demand more.
Emboldened by a cave-in at an old mine that trapped 33 miners underground and prompted President Sebastian Pinera to demand an overhaul of safety regulations, Arancibia appeared to sense a political opening for his own ambitions.
Thirteen days ago he pushed for a strike at the world’s No. 3 copper mine, Collahuasi, that shows no sign of ending, has pushed up prices and could influence upcoming labor talks at Chilean mines that extract about 6.3 percent of the world’s mined copper.
Sources on both sides of the dispute say the strike is dragging on because of Arancibia’s personal ambition to boost the standing of his federation and gain more clout over legislation and regulation in mining powerhouse.
Arancibia is seen longing for his group to clinch the same influence as a separate labor federation that represents workers at state-owned Codelco, the world’s top copper producer. Codelco labor leaders can sway investment decisions and regulatory debate in Congress, experts say.
The Collahuasi stoppage has pushed up global copper prices and could influence upcoming labor talks at other Chilean mines which together extract some 6.3 percent of the world’s mined copper.
Arancibia’s Mining Federation, an umbrella group that gathers 11,000 union workers who extract most of the country’s copper, has flexed its muscles in a show of strength not seen since a 26-day strike at the world’s biggest copper mine, Escondida, in 2006.
“Collahuasi is really worried that the political element behind the strike could mean we’re heading into a long strike,” said an industry specialist who met Collahuasi executives. “It makes it more unpredictable no matter what you offer them.”
The mine operator and the union on Wednesday geared up for a test of strength as the mine seeks to entice strikers back to work and labor leaders vow to stay put.
Arancibia -- seen as a clever strategist who enjoys great support among workers-- denies that his ambitions are behind the strike.
“There are no politics behind the strike. This is about the workers, not the union leaders or myself,” Arancibia told Reuters. “This is simple ... the company makes hundreds of millions and we’re asking for our fair share.”
Sources on both sides of the dispute said the union went into talks in early November with plans to strike at Collahuasi no matter what the operator offered as a way to raise the group’s profile.
Collahuasi made a wage offer before talks went sour that government officials and some union leaders at other mines called a “great” deal.
It remains unclear if the union and the operator are ready to sit down and revive talks this week.
Seen as a hardliner, Arancibia is the most vocal of union leaders, usually heading marches and speaking to crowds about a “new age” in which unions want a bigger say in the distribution of the country’s copper wealth.
Arancibia, who used to drive huge trucks hauling mineral inside the deposit, is considered a media-savvy leader who rose to the top ranks for his pledges to unite workers.
Escondida mine union leader Roberto Arraigada said the Collahuasi workers’ struggle has struck a chord with other miners, who are unhappy about the use of non-unionized workers to maintain operations during the strike.
“The company is resorting to replacement workers. I see a great need for all union workers in this country to unite to change that legislation,” Arraigada said.
Unlike neighboring Peru, also a mining powerhouse, unions at private mines in Chile have never waged solidarity strikes to pressure companies.
However, more lengthy stoppages are seen as a latent risk for mining companies operating in the country such as BHP Billiton (BLT.L) (BHP.AX) and Xstrata XTA.L.
The operator’s spokeswoman Bernardita Fernandez said management scours at any political motivation during the strike that “hinders negotiations.” (Writing by Alonso Soto; Editing by Terry Wade)