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Drummond Colombia vote may pressure union to lift strike

By Luis Jaime Acosta and Helen Murphy

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A vote to end a more than six-week-long strike by union employees at U.S. coal miner Drummond's Colombian operations does not halt the work stoppage, but it may increase pressure for the main union to make that happen, sources said on Friday.

The ballot, which had support from unions representing a minority of Drummond's direct employees, appeared to be largely symbolic. The decision to lift the job action rests with Sintramienergetica, the mining and energy sector union which instigated it, a Labor Ministry source told Reuters. He added that the ministry had not been contacted and has received no paperwork after the vote was taken.

Even so, with slightly more than half of Drummond's 5,000 direct employees voting on Thursday in favor of ending the work stoppage, pressure will mount on Sintramienergetica, another industry source said.

Sintramienergetica Vice President Edgar Munoz told Reuters the union was not yet ready to call a halt to the strike, and was planning a consultation with workers and the Labor Ministry. He also said the voting may have been tainted by fraud.

"We have not contemplated lifting the strike, not under the conditions that the company wants," Munoz said. "The vote was not legal, and we will ask that it not be recognized."

Workers at Drummond, Colombia's second-largest coal miner, have been on strike since July 23 over pay, work conditions, and a demand that 400 port workers be given other jobs when automated loading is introduced next January.

The strike has shut down Drummond's two mines and private port and cut the country's coal output by about a third, putting a drag on economic growth in the country's largest mining sector. It has had little impact, however, on an amply supplied global coal market.

The price of European physical coal for November delivery dropped on Friday to $75.60 per tonne, down $1.70 from the previous session.

Sintramienergetica says it represents about 2,900 of Drummond's direct employees in Colombia, the world's fourth-largest coal exporter. Drummond also employs roughly the same number of third-party contractors who cannot vote.

The vote and subsequent confusion when some local media interpreted it to mean the end of the strike, is likely to put more pressure on Sintramienergetica, which for now is allowing the strike to continue. The fact that a majority of direct employees voted in favor of going back to work also implies that some of the union's own membership voted to end the strike.

In all, 2,549 of the direct employees - slightly more than half the workers - voted in favor of ending the strike, Drummond said.

While reiterating that the strike will continue for now, Munoz expressed some uncertainty about its duration.

"Will the strike be lifted?" he said. "That's the million-dollar question."

(Additional reporting and writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Lisa Von Ahn and Gunna Dickson)

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