back to article Workers at world's largest – and most remote – telescope go on strike

Workers at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, aka ALMA, have embarked upon a decidedly down-to-earth pursuit at the world's largest astronomical installation: they've gone on strike. "The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array regrets that it was unable to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with its …


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  1. Don Jefe

    200 Employees?

    That's a lot of employees for a telescope array. I wonder what they all do?!

    Nice timing in the strike though. Without those pictures most people wouldn't even know about ALMA. I heard a person yesterday, no shit, talking about the 'New Hubble' from South America that took pictures of star babies and that they were neat and told her friend to Google ALMA.

    She obviously didn't know much (any?) about the project, but she knew it existed and even how to direct someone else to find the pictures (of star babies). That says a lot about the marketable potential ALMA has, and why it's good timing on the union's part.

    *I neither endorse nor oppose unions. I was only commenting on the shrewdness of the ALMA workers for their timing of the strike.

    1. Katie Saucey

      Re: 200 Employees?

      There are 66 antennas. I'll assume 1 worker to switch on the power, one to aim at the sky, and one to supervise, for each antenna. This would explain why I get a 404 when trying to read up on said antennas

      (, there's no one left to maintain the website.

    2. An0n C0w4rd

      Re: 200 Employees?

      No idea what they all do, but the antennas are movable. Not just rotation and inclination, but between pads to alter the "focus" of the telescope. There are two (from memory) special vehicles that were used to transport the antennas up to the observatory from the assembly point (much lower down where supplemental oxygen is not needed). Once all the antennas are up there, they're used to move the antenna between pads, and presumably drag one down the hill again if it needs more than a quick fix.

      That's probably a few dozen people needed to do that work.

      What the others do I have no idea.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 200 Employees?

        Most of them are probably technicians. And they don't get paid nearly enough for having to deal with the environment or the work itsself. As the author stated, the Atacama is very rough. Imagine the Mojave but with no rain whatsoever, blazing temperatures in the daytime and freezing temps in the night. The closest parallel I can think of is the Gobi, but at a higher elevation. Or maybe how Mars would be after a century or so of terraforming.

        I know NSF or NASA (via a Subcontractor) talked to me about going down there to work as a tech but Raytheon was the sub-contractor trying to hire me and I'd heard many horror stories about them from the US Antarctic Program when they were the prime contractor as well as from the Patriot Missile program.

        They aren't exactly a good company to work for unless you're an actual employee. They treat their contractors like shit.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: 200 Employees?

          No direct experience of ALMA but from other projects.

          Take a reasonable number of admin for a government project and multiply by the number of different governments involved.

          Then add the same number again of local staff to keep the host country/province/town/tribe sweet

          I'm guessing ALMA is mostly remote operation and this type of astronomy is all scheduled/survey rather than visiting scientist so you don't need as many baby-sitting and hotel staff as something like the VLT

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 200 Employees?

        The others?

        Wild guess.

        Cleaners, caterers, building maintenance, technicains, IT, know the same sort of people you find in most other work places.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They want to be careful they don't go to far or the place will get automated.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: not go too far or "the place will get automated"

        I don't think you realize just how difficult it is to automate machinery in a place exposed to wind and dust.

        Especially machinery as complex as a telescope. I'd wager that half the work of the technicians on-site is just dusting off and oiling the machinery to keep it running. The other half probably consists of getting the grime out of a jammed piece to get it back online. You're not going to do that with a Roomba.

        To compare, our automobile industry is pretty much as fully automated as possible, and you still need a few hundred workers per factory to haul the pieces around and generally oversee the robots and catch the mistakes.

        And that in an environment which is as dust-free as is possible without reverting to surgery room procedures.

        Ask any automobile production-line worker what he'd think of working in the middle of a desert and he'll die laughing - and not because of the temperatures.

    4. alain williams Silver badge

      Re: 200 Employees?

      It is isolated enough to need accomodation, a canteen, etc. So there will be maintainance, cooks, ...


    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 200 Employees?

      Clearly you don't work in a science environment. There is a LOT of ancillary work that supports scientists in what they do. Britain's premier science site easily has 2/3 support staff and 1/3 scientists.

      Besides, if you appreciated how high ALMA really is, you would also appreciate that tasks that require physical exertion that high up do require more grunt. Since humans can't deliver more grunt at extreme height, more people per task is required.

      You should've seen when the dishes were installed... It was a tightrope ballet.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't like the conditions and the pay, find a new job like everyone else. I bet it won't take much to replace every single one of those workers.

    1. Don Jefe

      You raging moose cock, it isn't that simple for most people to just get a comparable job, even when global economies are in OK shape, much less in times like these when science jobs and funding are being cut.

      Unions are part of doing business in many places and industries if the business, or organization, doesn't like that then the business either should not set up a union shop or should set up operations somewhere else. If the organization accepts those conditions then tough shit, they've got to deal with labor actions.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Don Jefe,

        The working conditions are the same as when they started. They knew what they were and they took the job. If they didn't like the working conditions, then they should:

        1) Never of applied

        2) Never of accepted

        3) Should have found a better job then.

        Also, a company does not decide that they want union workers. The company has no control if the employees decide to invoke a union or not.

        "it isn't that simple for most people to just get a comparable job, even when global economies are in OK shape, much less in times like these when science jobs and funding are being cut."

        Hmmm, then maybe they should be happy for what they have then! Sure they can go on strike and it is also within the right for each and every single one of them to be fired and replaced. How much do you think they are making while on strike? Your argument holds no water, if finding a job is tough, why strike and lose a job they cannot easily replace? Seems to me that they picked the wrong time to ask for a raise. What happens if they get their 15% pay increase but staff has to be reduced by 15%. I wonder how many would still want a raise; they could be one of the 30 that gets fired.

        Why don't you grow; having to resort to name calling. That speaks volumes of your character.

        1. frank ly

          @AC 03:22

          "Should have found .."

          Shirley, you meant to type 'should of ..'

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: @AC 03:22

            @frank ly

            Upvoted to counter the irony-challenged downvoters

      2. LarsG

        @Don Jefe

        'You raging moose cock'

        Upvoted for using such colourful descriptive language.

      3. Tom 7

        If you think Unions are somehow undemocratic and bad for the economy

        try the CBI for size - its just an unaccountable union for those with a wedge and it gets more than beer and sandwiches at number 10.

        And while we're on the subject - why do the Tories keep winging about the block vote - its the same mechanism they quite happily use in parliamentary elections.

        1. lglethal Silver badge

          Re: If you think Unions are somehow undemocratic and bad for the economy

          You are all making some big assumptions that the workers knew the pay and conditions when they started and are now being greedy.

          I personally have experienced in other companies, where you are promised on starting that payrises would be between 3-5% each year, and that certain other expenses would be paid. A year down the line, those promises are reneged on, and so after a couple of years, your down 10% on where you should have been.

          Now depending on your industry, you can do one of 3 things, you can quit and try to find another job (but I imagine Radio Antenna Maintenance Engineer is not high on the list of available jobs out there), you can suck it up and do nothing, or you can, in co-ordination with your union, go on strike demanding the conditions you were promised at the start.

          Without having the full details of the situation, people really shouldnt comment one way or another.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They are denying someone a job.

      Everyone has the right to find a better paying job and by staying at that job, they are denying someone of a better paying job. If they want more money they should find a higher paying job somewhere else and give someone else an opportunity.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Tom 7

        Re: They are denying someone a job.

        Try feeding that shit to parasitic management and be blown over as one wafts his enormous severance bonus check at you.

        One manager means >20 less productive staff these days but you don’t see then getting culled in times of crisis.

    3. JimC

      If you think through

      You'd realise what a nightmare that would be. Everyone resigns: the whole enterprise collapses. Industrial action is a LESS extreme way of resolving disputes like this.

    4. John Hughes

      AC is some kind of lefty wimp

      What do you mean "replace" them?

      Just line ten of up against a wall and shoot 'em.

      They'll soon be back to work.

      Kids of today have now idea how to run a business.

    5. Corinne

      @ AC 00:42

      "Don't like the conditions and the pay, find a new job like everyone else. I bet it won't take much to replace every single one of those workers"

      I'm not so sure about the "replace every single one of those workers" bit - maybe the support staff but the technical roles are quite specialised and I doubt they would be that easily replaced. Especially once word got out about just how bad the working conditions really are there.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: @ AC 00:42

        "I doubt they would be that easily replaced."

        Exactly. Even the low skilled workers such as cleaners not only need training to work safely at those altitudes but not everyone can cope with going up that high without getting altitude sickness. AIUI, no one knows if they are susceptible until they try it. They might recover and work happily there. Or they may never acclimatise and have to go back down.

        And that's not even getting into the remoteness of the location so that all staff have to "live-in". There's no local town where you can just stick a notice up in a local job centre and expect a queue of suitable applicants the next morning.

  3. Nick Kew

    Most remote?

    What, more remote than the Hubble?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Most remote?

      Well, I guess it depends upon what you mean by "world's" – owned by the world, or on the world...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Most remote?

      Given that space isn't really that far -up-, it's entirely possible that Hubble spends most of its time rather close to civilization than this observatory is.

      Hubble definitely has it beat as far as a thin atmosphere goes, though.

      1. Martin Budden Silver badge

        Re: Most remote?

        Nearest town to ALMA: approx 60 - 70 km away.

        Altitude of Hubble: 559 km.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Most remote?

          Sure, but what kind of town is it? Can you get good Chinese after 11pm? Is there a Best Buy?

          These things count, you know.

  4. Efros

    Showing my age

    Bennies, I thought was benzedrine, didn't phase me, I automatically assumed that the astronomers were speeding their arses off whilst collecting their data. I was surprised it came as part of their contract... a that is when the penny finally dropped.

    1. Martin Budden Silver badge

      Re: Showing my age

      Worse: I misread it as beanies, which would be useful at night in chilly Chile. Then the penny dropped.

    2. jackmerlot

      Re: Showing my age

      I, took, popped a bunch of benzedrine & stayed up all night & all day for three nights & days attempting to figure out why they didn't use the Low Earth Orbit Networked Intrusion Detection System ( LEONIDS ) in the first place, like the rest of us.

      That would however explain why astronomers picket.

  5. Neoc

    Everybody knows the old ALMA matters.


    I'll get me coat.

  6. IHateWearingATie

    Atacama is a pretty amazing place...

    ... one bit I visited had a shallow lake that froze every night and thawed every day.

    During the daytime I was wandering around in shorts and a t-shirt, but at night I needed proper winter gear (base layer thermals + 2 warm layers + outer etc). Also, sleeping at high altitudes gave me the weirdest and most vivid dreams...

  7. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Probably the same day they grow a brain.

      In other words, don't hold your breath.

      1. Benjol

        Or rather, don't hold your breath unless the wind's blowing this way

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        If we're all that stupid, Pascal, perhaps you should quit using the stupid network we came up with, the stupid cell phones we invented, the stupid transistor, stupid LCDs, stop using computer programs written in stupid C, stop using stupid Unix and stupid GUIs and the stupid mouse, and any number of other stupid American inventions invented by us stupid Americans.

        Or maybe that would just be stupid.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Ok but please don't use Boolean logic, electronic computers, stored programs, or indeed the very idea of a computing machine.

          And can you please invent you own language instead of misspelling ours?

          1. Acme Fixer

            Hah-hah! Touche'

            But talk about misspelling:

            (exact quote)

            "And can you please invent you own language instead of misspelling ours?"

            We have a Scotsman named Alistair, and it's such an improvement to listen to him, compared to the British accents at the "pub" down the street.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "If we're all that stupid, Pascal, perhaps you should quit using the stupid network we came up with, the stupid cell phones we invented, the stupid transistor, stupid LCDs, stop using computer programs written in stupid C"

          Oddly enough, none of those inventions are American or at least not wholely American :-)

          Germany -

          Canada - - Canada

          Various - (Swiss patent first practical use)

          US - - Mainly US, protocols etc, not so much

          US/UK - (Derived from "B", a stripped down BCPL from University of Cambridge, Britain.

          Now, if you'd said spare ribs in BBQ sauce, Krispy Kreme donuts (spelling adjusted for natives), Twinkies and SuperSized(tm) fizzy coloured water and drive in movie theatres you'd be onto a winner!

        3. Acme Fixer
          Thumb Up

          I Second That Emotion!!

          Just like the word soccer, it wasn't us Americans that came up with that system of measurement., it was the British. Just be glad it isn't expressed in furlongs!

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: 16,500 feet?

      I'd say we'll stop using esoteric measurements about the time the British value their money according to its actual weight.

    3. Irony Deficient


      Def, the unit of length that we in the States call a “foot” is hardly esoteric. I daresay that it is fairly well known in places where English is the mother tongue, having been in use at least since Æthelstan’s time. [And for those of you out there who genuinely do find the foot (ft) exotic, ft = m ÷ 0.3048; the foot has been defined in terms of the meter for 50 years.]

      Curiously enough, the original Associated Press article provided the height in both feet and meters. If you’re unhappy that El Reg only provided feet, you could let them know in an e-mail of no uncertain Digusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells terms; write a Greasemonkey script to automagically convert non-SI measurements to SI measurements to spare your eyes from such unspeakable monstrosities; or boycott El Reg due to their inexplicably esoteric editorial guidelines. Bonne chance !

  8. peyton?

    World's largest telescope?

    Surely Arecibo is bigger? ;)

    1. Richard 26

      Re: World's largest telescope?

      ALMA is way bigger than Arecibo, if you measure from one end to another. It depends whether you are measuring baseline or receiving area.

  9. LeoDV

    no altitude at all

    As long as we are sniping at each other concerning measuring systems, levels of smartness (or needing brains?), or whatnot, I'll take a turn.

    I looked at several pictures of the ALMA complex and did not observe any levitation. That is, the facility and all its components appear to be firmly attached to the earth. So the point is, whatever the measuring system of choice, ALMA is not at an "altitude" at all, but at an 'elevation' of some 5000 meters or 16000 feet. The paper airplane tossed out of the admin building is at an altitude of 5000 meters above seal level, until it smacks into the dirt.

    Ok, I feel better now.

    Carry on.

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