Fear and Resolve in RusAl Pit Strike

Among the 96 miners spending their eighth straight day underground at the Little Red Riding Hood mine, the mood is grimly defiant, local union officials said Wednesday.

The miners, and many of their colleagues shut out of the same mine complex by owner United Company RusAl since last week, are calling for higher salaries and better working hours.

Yet they have one overriding fear: that the company will quit the struggling bauxite mines, on which more than 5,000 miners depend for their livelihoods in Severouralsk, a town 450 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, for good.

"We are RusAl's hostages," said Igor Taroyev, a blaster who has worked at the pit for 19 years. "There is no [other] place to work around here. If RusAl leaves, Severouralsk will die."

A spokeswoman for RusAl on Wednesday said the company had offered to hold talks with the union and hotly disputed claims that it might quit the mines. The company confirmed, however, that it would seek to have the strike declared illegal at a court hearing Thursday.

"Two years ago, we started the construction of a new mine, and it will be completed by 2010," RusAl spokeswoman Vera Kurochkina said by telephone. "But the resources of the existing [Little Red Riding Hood] mine are estimated [to last] until 2031, so there shouldn't be any concern that there is no work at this mine."

The spark for the strike, said Alexei Berdnikov, a driller at the mine who heads the local branch of the Russian Independent Miners' Union, was a confrontation over wages.

A group of miners asked their supervisors to have "a serious talk about money," Berdnikov said. "We were told to shut up or be fired."

The workers then downed their tools and refused to go up to the surface, demanding a pay raise of 50 percent, the end of Saturday shifts, and restarting the development of a nearby uncompleted mine, Berdnikov said.

After other miners expressed their support for the strike, RusAl announced that it was closing the mine and four others at Severouralsk to protect the safety and security of miners. The company has said it will not consider reopening them until the strikers return to the negotiating table.

"They are afraid we will all go down and stay underground for a big strike," Berdnikov said by telephone late Tuesday.

Those fears seemed well-founded.

"We are concerned by the actions of the local leaders of this independent trade union," Kurochkina said. "It is trying to initiate some other actions as well as trying to manipulate people."

The strike came after months of mounting tension since RusAl took over the complex from former owner SUAL, miners say. Oleg Deripaska's Russian Aluminum merged with SUAL and Swiss trader Glencore's alumina assets a year ago.

In February, work was suspended on the development of new seams at one mine, and the miners were sent on unpaid leave, Berdnikov said.

"We saw this as a sign," he said. "If we don't develop new mines, life stops. We have no future."

RusAl, which also mines bauxite in Guinea and Guyana, said Wednesday that "in the current market environment," operations at its Russian bauxite mines were unprofitable.

According to figures provided by RusAl, productivity at Severouralsk stands at just 480 tons per worker per year, compared with 3,522 tons in Guinea and 3,809 tons in Guyana.

But Taroyev, the blaster, said the comparison was unfair. "Our production is underground, and in Guinea it is open-cast. Besides, we use old equipment and decades-old technologies," he said.

RusAl is currently enjoying a boom in aluminum prices, which soared to a two-year high of $3,228 per ton last month.

On Wednesday, neither side appeared to be any closer to a deal.

The miners say they are ready to talk, but that RusAl has been reluctant to hold negotiations ahead of Thursday's court hearing in Yekaterinburg.

Kurochkina said the union's national leader had traveled to Severouralsk on Saturday with a deal he had signed with RusAl, which guaranteed no punitive action against the miners currently underground.

"We are ready to start discussing the collective agreement for 2009-2010 when they surface," Kurochkina said. "[Currently] we have a list of demands signed by 100 people. ... It is not actually an official demand, it is a wish list from a group of people."

The miners claim that they submitted written demands to RusAl as early as October but received no response, and that salaries have effectively been halved in the past year, because of a reduction in bonuses.

"My salary shrank in half, from 39,000 rubles ($1,650) last February to 18,000 rubles ($760) this March," Berdnikov said. "RusAl didn't give us any official reason, it just gradually cut our wages."

But RusAl dismissed such claims Wednesday.

"That's nonsense," Kurochkina said. "The company increases salaries every year. Last year, the [salary increase] was 14.5 percent, and the average salary for workers -- not for the administration staff -- at [the enterprise] is 28,800 rubles."

The Sverdlovsk regional administration has given partial support to the miners, sympathizing with their demands for better conditions, while criticizing their methods.

"RusAl initially took quite an inflexible position with the Severouralsk miners," Vadim Dubichev, deputy head of the administration, said by telephone Wednesday. "The administration is now putting pressure on RusAl to reach a compromise with the miners. We believe the strike will not last long."

One source in the town's administration stood by RusAl, however. "We're not exerting any pressure on RusAl," the source said. "RusAl's problems are our problems too."

"The miners understand that the 50 percent increase in salary is unrealistic," the source said. "Average salaries in our town are 18,000 rubles -- one of the highest levels in the region. What else do the miners want?"