The nation’s air-traffic controllers havereturned to work after hours of intense negotiationsthis week ended a 47-day strike that wasdeclared illegal by two judges and temporarilyleft the nation’s airports operating without theuse of radar.Though the government had initiated theprocess of firing the near 100 controllers after thestrike was declared illegal, Public Works andTransport Minister Javier Chaves said the agreementbetween the two parties, signed Wednesdaynight at the Casa Presidencial, has halted the firings.The agreement outlines salary increases for the controllersand absolves them of any legal repercussionsassociated with the strike.As a result of the agreement, Juan SantamaríaInternational Airport – the country’s main airport – wasto have been closed for about two hours before dawnthis morning while the Costa Rican controllers replaced28 foreign controllers who had been working as aninterim force.“THANK God we have reached an agreement,”Presidency Minister Ricardo Toledo told the press just after the negotiations ended Wednesday.“We are extremely content with whatjust happened a moment ago.”Though Toledo insisted the governmentwas not giving in to pressure, thebeginning of negotiations on Monday followeda decision by the LegislativeAssembly on Aug. 5 to deny 35 U.S. aircraftpermission to land in Costa Rica untilthe government opened a dialogue with thestriking controllers.The planes were to patrol the skiesover Costa Rica’s maritime possessions tolook for drug-running “go-fast” boats, as apart of the Bilateral Maritime Counter-Drug Agreement signed by both countriesin 1999.“This government has been veryclear,” Toledo said. “We will not acceptpressure.”Toledo said the assembly made a similardecision at the end of last year, whenthe government would not grant thedeputies vacation time until they clearedthe legislative agenda (TT, Dec. 19, 2003).Assembly officials said legislatorsvoted on Wednesday to allow the U.S.planes to land.ACCORDING to the agreementsigned with the controllers, the governmentwill provide a total of ¢348 million($792,710) to provide retroactive paymentfor the controllers for a salary increasepromised them in an agreement signed inMay 1994. The raise would have put theirsalaries 35% higher than certain CivilAviation inspectors who at that time earnedmore than the controllers.But in 2000, Chaves said, the categoryused as the indicator for that agreementwas eliminated from Civil Aviation. Assuch, the striking workers had been usingnew categories added to Civil Aviation in2000 to demand their salary increase. Asalary 35% higher than the new categories,Chaves said, would have raised the controllers’salaries from ¢400,000 ($915) to¢800,000 ($1,830).President Abel Pacheco was highlycritical of the amount the controllers hadbeen requesting.“I repeat: the salary of the President is¢1.6 million. How could 800,000 pesos –half the salary of the President – be thebase salary of people who have an educationthat last six months, who work muchless…and who have much less responsibility?”the President said during Tuesday’sCabinet Meeting. “In this country, we haveto understand we are poor. If we want goodsalaries, let’s work more to have moremoney. The day that we produce more, itwill be for the workers.”TO resolve the pay discrepancy, governmentnegotiators offered to create twonew inspector categories, and raise thecontrollers’ monthly salaries to 29% abovethem to ¢513,000 ($1,170).The agreement covers retroactive payfrom 1994 to 2000, but not from 2000 tothe present. However, the agreement doesleave the controllers the right to file anadministrative claim against CivilAviation, “for the amount that could correspondbetween 2000 and August 2004.”The controllers said they are happywith the agreement.“We are completely satisfied,” saidLeonardo Guillén, the spokesman for thestriking controllers. “Good will has prevailed.”The striking controllers and somepilots said the use of the 28 interim controllers,who came from Peru, El Salvadorand Nicaragua, put many flights in “gravedanger,” and said they had used radio monitoringequipment to log at least 84 incidentsof safety violations, several of themnear collisions.In one incident reported to CivilAviation, two planes flew within 150 feetof each other over Costa Rica’s centralPacific coast (TT, July 2).FOR 10 days after the strike began,the country’s airports operated without theuse of radar, until the government broughtin nine additional controllers specificallyfor that purpose. Guillén had told The TicoTimes that those nine were provided by theMexican military and were the same usedto fill in during a strike in the DominicanRepublic four months ago, but CivilAviation authorities denied that was thecase (TT, July 9).Chaves maintained even whileannouncing the agreement Wednesdaynight that there had been no disruption inairport safety or service. Guillén, on theother hand, merely thanked God there wereno collisions.Costa Rican controllers had maintainedthat the interim controllers were ahuge financial burden on the government.The foreign controllers were beingpaid $150 a day by the Central AmericanAir Navigation Agency (COCESNA), anon-profit organization that its representativessay is dedicated to Central Americanintegration. Costa Rica has had an agreementwith the organization since 1963, inwhich it guarantees the country the kind ofnavigational support it was providing.Officials from COCESNA said airlinespaying for its services provide most of theorganization’s income, and Toledo had saidthe agreement could have gone on indefinitely(TT, July 2).GOVERNMENT officials spentnearly 20 hours negotiating with the controllersthis week, and the controllers wentover the final version of the agreementwith a fine-tooth comb: they had announcedthe agreement would be signed at 4 p.m.Wednesday. It was signed at approximately8 p.m.“An ‘and/or’ can change everything,”said Edwin Jiménez, a striking controllerpresent at the announcement of the end ofthe strike. “It’s already happened to usonce.”In addition to halting the process offiring the controllers, the agreement statesthat both parties will cease all legal actionstaken as a result of the strike.Chaves reiterated that the controllerswould face no consequences for the strikeupon returning to work.
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