Mexico's Social Security Institute continued contract talks Friday with its unionized workers as a weekend strike deadline approached.
An estimated 370,000 workers at the institute, which provides health services for more than 40 million Mexicans, are threatening to walk off the job at midnight Saturday unless a settlement is reached. Telephone and electricity workers unions have threatened to strike in sympathy.
Deputy Interior Secretary Felipe Gonzalez told reporters Thursday that the government's main goal is to avoid a strike, "and I think that's also what the union is seeking." Gonzalez said that the government has a backup plan in the event of a walkout, but gave no details.
Aside from the Social Security Institute, the government workers social security institute has hospitals, as do the armed forces and state oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos. The Health Secretary also operates its own clinics.
The Social Security Institute has about 370,000 active workers and 120,000 retirees, but it provides health services for more than 40 million Mexicans, including 13 million active workers in the private sector.
Aside from wage demands, the workers have been protesting against reforms made to their pension system in the summer of 2004, which raised the retirement age for new hires, removed the automatic replacement of retiring employees, and kept contributions from non-institute workers from being used to pay pensions of future employees.
The union has said it agrees to a number of the changes, including a gradual increase in pension contributions by institute workers to 10 percent of their salaries from the current 3 percent and an increase in the retirement age, which is currently 53 compared with 65 for the rest of the country's workers.
The dispute has been a bitter one, including confrontations with police this week after institute workers blocked a main thoroughfare outside union facilities, causing widespread traffic delays. The dispute also led to the resignation last month of institute director Santiago Levy, who negotiated the reforms and steered them through the opposition-dominated Congress.
Supporters of institute workers argue that the reforms won't solve the social security system's financial troubles anyway, and that they violate the labor rights of its employees. Opponents see a relatively small group of workers benefiting unfairly from the efforts of the rest of the country's workers to the detriment of the health services the institute provides, AP reports.