The 17-day strike at the world’s largest ground-based observatory ended Saturday, and ALMA's revolutionary observations of the millimeter/submillimeter sky restart today.
|Update September 8th: ALMA operations will officially resume on Monday, September 9th, after a resolution ended 17 days of strike. A statement from ALMA noted that in addition to a reduced work schedule, “workers will receive an end-of-conflict bonus, payment for strike days, an increase in the allowance for work at high altitude and a small increment for those in the lower paid positions.”|
Two years ago the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) saw first light, and the observatory has been capturing cutting-edge images of the universe ever since. But for the past 15 days, new observations at the world’s largest ground-based telescope have been suspended as its workers go on strike.The mostly Chilean engineers, technicians, and administrative staff that support the observatory are employees of an American company: Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), a nonprofit corporation that manages large-scale facilities such as ALMA and is sponsored by nine universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. AUI employees’ three-year contracts were due for renewal in August, but negotiations became tense when AUI turned down the requests of a union representing 195 of the 270 staff members.
Despite intervention from the Chilean Department of Labor, mediation fell apart and 102 union members voted in favor of striking, with only two voting against. The strike began on August 22nd, and just three days later, the situation intensified as workers announced in a letter to observatory director Pierre Cox that they intended to camp out at the Operations Support Facility (OSF), the observatory’s base camp at 9,500 feet (2,900 meters).
The union originally demanded a 15% pay increase, shorter work shifts, and bonuses for time spent at the antenna array’s high-altitude site at 16,500 feet. The current average monthly salary is $2,000 for 45-hour weeks; nine workers earn less than $1,000 per month, and five workers earn around $6,000 per month.
AUI’s latest counter-offer agreed to a 4% wage increase, but only for the nine low-salary workers.
“After the negotiations, we accepted that amount of increase, understanding that, okay, there are economic problems,” says Victor Gonzalez, the union president. “We have made the counter-offer to the company asking them to increase [all] salaries by 75,000 pesos ($150), a lump sum equal for everyone.” (That amounts to about a 10% increase for those making the lowest wages.) “We have desisted on most of the points,” Gonzalez adds.AUI has agreed to make individual bonuses amounting to $5 per hour for time spent at high-altitude. “That’s the one point that they have agreed to, which in our opinion makes the proposal of the director acceptable.”
So what’s the holdup? Though AUI originally agreed to pay wages through the strike, they’re now saying that they’ll only pay through the 6th day of the strike. Negotiations were suspended yesterday afternoon, so the union will not be meeting with AUI today to iron things out.
AUI representatives were not available to answer my phone and e-mail requests for comment.
“We have written a letter to the partnership, to the director, and to the labor representatives telling them we want to finish as soon as possible,” Gonzalez says, adding it will be easier for all sides to come to a resolution if there are fewer striking days.
Striking ScienceALMA observes the largely unexplored territory of millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths, longer than infrared radiation but shorter than radio waves. Once all 66 antennas are online (and almost all of them have been added to the array at this point), ALMA will produce images up to 10 times sharper than Hubble. Even in the preliminary science phase the observatory has been producing some amazing results using only a fraction of the planned array.
Though new observations have halted during the strike, that doesn’t mean the observatory has stopped working. “ALMA has activated a contingency plan that will enable it to continue basic operations,” says a statement released when the strike began.
“We have maintained the normal rotation of personnel,” explains Alwyn Wootten (NRAO), the North American ALMA project scientist. “Some activities are certainly continuing — acceptance of the next-to-last antenna occurred on the 28th of August last week as scheduled, for instance.” But observatory director Pierre Cox acknowledged in an e-mail to ALMA users that the strike could pose a challenge to completing the current cycle of observations.
The Future of Chilean AstronomyThe current situation has led some Chilean scientists to call for better policies when it comes to negotiating access to one of the countries most prized resources: its sky.
In exchange for allowing ALMA construction in the Atacama Desert, Chile receives annual compensation ($700,000 every year for 50 years) and a guaranteed 10% share of the observing time for Chilean astronomers. But Gonzalo Gutierrez, a professor of physics at the University of Chile, and Leopoldo Soto, a plasma physicist at the Chilean Commission of Nuclear Energy, are among those saying that the compensation isn’t enough. Both published online articles on August 30th calling not only for improved labor conditions but also for better science and technology transfer in future deals. Soto was also involved in an open letter to the director, published in El Mercurio on September 2nd and signed by five physicists and engineers.
Soto argues that Chilean institutions ought to have been more involved in manufacture and training during ALMA’s construction. If Chileans were missing the technical know-how, he says, then they could have collaborated with foreign institutions to learn those skills.
But astronomer Ezequiel Treister (University of Concepción, Chile) doesn’t think Chile has received such a bad deal. “Of course it would be nice to have more resources, but I don't think that it is that fair to complain about what we are getting so far,” he says. “Things are moving in the right direction. There is a strong push from the largest universities in Chile . . . and from CONICYT (the Chilean equivalent of NSF) to support astro-engineering centers and projects.”
“We still have a long way to go to be able to join the large observatories as partners, but I'm optimistic that we will get there.”