Angry RusAl Miners Refuse to Leave Shaft

More than 100 miners who spent the night 700 meters underground in a Sverdlovsk region bauxite mine have refused to return to the surface until their demands for better pay and working conditions are met.

Aluminum giant RusAl, which owns the mine through a subsidiary, said it refused to recognize the strike, which began Wednesday, because the miners at the Little Red Riding Hood mine in the Urals town of Severouralsk have not officially submitted a list of demands.

"There can be no talk of any strike," Yelena Shuliveistrova, a RusAl spokeswoman, said in e-mailed comments Thursday. "Considering the fact that no demands have been put forward by the employees ... this is about an illegal refusal to work, which is a violation of the law."

A representative of the Sverdlovsk Regional Prosecutors Office said in a statement Thursday, however, that prosecutors, members of the Independent Miners Union and the director of SUBR -- the RusAl subsidiary that runs the mine --had been in talks with the 107 miners and come out with a list of demands.

"The reason the miners have not surfaced is their dissatisfaction with their salaries, which they want raised by 40 percent," the statement said.

Shuliveistrova would not disclose their current salaries but did say miners' pay is increased regularly, and last year outstripped official inflation figures.

Their pay is "above the industry average. ... [Salary] growth in 2007 was 14.5 percent," she said.

The miners' union could not be reached Thursday.

Valery Zolotaryov, head of the miners' union, said raises were just one of seven demands, RIA-Novosti reported.

The others include abolishing work on Saturdays, restarting the construction and financing of a nearby uncompleted mine, and allowing the miners to strike without the threat of sanctions when they eventually return to work, measures Zolotaryov said the miners called "repressive."

Shuliveistrova said RusAl was not aware of any repressive measures and did not answer an e-mailed question about forcing employees to work on Saturdays.

She maintained that employee complaints should be expressed through "a constructive dialogue with the administration, which is not happening at SUBR."

Russian laws make the organization of legal strikes a convoluted process. But changes may be afoot.

Following recent strikes involving Ford employees in St. Petersburg, union heads are in negotiations with the Health and Social Development Ministry to make changes to the Labor Code that would set concrete ground rules for strikes, such as the minimum, or "skeleton," workforce that would have to work during the strike, Vremya Novostei reported Wednesday.

Coal miner's strikes became something of a symbol of the chaotic economic situation under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

In 1998, hundreds of miners from all over the country descended on Moscow, demanding that their wages be paid as the country slipped into financial ruin.