Govt. Ends Military Occupation at Ecopetrol

Colombia's government will end Tuesday the military's 20-day occupation of installations owned by state oil company Ecopetrol as talks with the workers' union USO restart, Ecopetrol said in a statement.

On June 26, President Alvaro Uribe published a decree restructuring Ecopetrol to make it more efficient, and split it into three parts. Fearing USO would call a strike, Uribe sent in the military to preempt any possible strike action and guarantee operations at refineries, pipelines and oil fields. USO has 6,500 members out of Ecopetrol's total workforce of 10,500. In the event, USO did not call a strike, and the two parties agreed last week to restart talks on the collective labor agreement and end the military occupation, USO international affairs secretary and former chairman Hernando Hernandez told BNamericas.

However, the union is making preparations for an indefinite strike later this year to protest the restructuring plan, Hernandez said, speaking from his home in Bogota, where he has been held under house arrest since January, accused of maintaining links with terrorist organizations.

"We're preparing an oil strike in Colombia to avoid Ecopetrol being liquidated, as the decree sets out to do," he said. Hernandez would not be drawn on when the strike would start, and said that the USO would take all the time it needs to prepare for a "formidable" strike. As for how long it could last, Hernandez said USO's last strike in 1977 lasted 67 days.

The union believes the Ecopetrol split brings it much closer to privatization, Hernandez said, an accusation that the government denies strongly. The talks between the two parties will focus on the collective labor agreement, which according to local press, pushed up Ecopetrol's pension commitments by 22% between 2000-2002. The contract also allows employees to retire aged 50 after 20 years service, makes it impossible to fire employees after more than seven months' service and uses a salary scale based on time served rather than merit, meaning that 57% of employees are on the top scale of the payroll.

As well as the Ecopetrol employees, USO has affiliate unions in other sector companies such as Occidental, Tepma, Esso and Gasoriente, Hernandez said, adding that if necessary these could also be called out on strike.

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