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Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 16, 2010, 1:12 pm

The Desert Lockout: Miners Continue Street Actions, as Negotiations Restart (Slideshow)

BY Rose Arrieta

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BORON, CALIF.—It’s 6:15 a.m. and cars and trucks are coming down the long stretch of desert road to the main gate at the Rio Tinto/Borax facility. Soon, scores of vans and buses filled with replacement workers—what more than 500 locked-out workers call “scabs”—will be shuttled in and out of the gates. Union workers of Rio Tinto line the road, with bullhorns, shining lights at the passengers, jeering and hurling insults.

Some of the replacement workers smirk. They’re mostly the young ones. Some have the music cranked up loud. Some wear headphones. Some wear caps and cover their faces with knit material with holes cut out for their eyes, nose and mouths. Some look downright ashamed.

The company is paying their lodging at various hotels around the area. But not in Boron, where there is overwhelming support for the workers, now in month three of the lock-out. If these workers don’t get their jobs back, “this town will just dry up and blow away,” says Bill Galloway, one of the locked-out workers and a rank-and-file member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30. “It will be a town of extremely low-income people instead of healthy middle-class families.”

THE MULTINATIONAL SQUEEZE

Welcome to Boron, Calif. Population 2,000. Home to the state’s largest open pit mine and one of the richest borate deposits in the world. The mine produces almost half the global demand for borates from the California facility, according to the Borax company website.

Rio Tinto/Borax, the world’s third largest mining company, is based in London and Australia. Relations with the mine's workers, represented by Local 30, have been strained since Rio Tinto bought the U.S.-owned Borax facility in 1968. The first labor dispute boiled over in 1974, when 100 Kern County sheriff deputies were brought in and two helicopters patrolled the line filled with hundreds of angry workers. (You can read about it here.)

Today’s troubles are almost as contentious.

In 2009, when workers were renegotiating their contract, Rio Tinto managers smelled blood: a weak economy had created workers desperate to hold onto any job.

In contracts talks they presented the union with, among other demands, the right to promote or demote at will, reduce retirement benefits for current employees, eliminate pension benefits for new employees, cut back sick leave and holidays, do away with seniority, outsource union jobs, eliminate existing work rules, force overtime,changes shifts and hours and work assignments with no scheduled days off, fire at will, authority to eliminate long-term disability coverage for any new worker and a laundry list of other ideas that will allow them to, as their ad placed in newspapers states: “…respond to a changing world and a more challenging workplace.”

Or, as Susan Keefe, Rio Tinto spokesperson has stated, “Modernize work practices to keep up with competition.” You can read the entire contract here at Local 30’s website.

Local 30 members rejected the proposal.

Last year, Rio Tinto reported profits of $4.7 billion. The company said that it lost 25 percent of its share of the global borax market to an operation in Turkey, Eti Maden, which pays its workers about $9.70 an hour. Even so, Rio Tinto reportedly made 30 percent more last year than they did before. Apparently that isn’t enough.

After several months of negotiating, the company claimed union negotiators weren’t playing fair. They couldn’t understand why no one would not want their retirement years lessened or, why cutting back sick days and getting rid of seniority was such a big deal. Or, why being able to fire someone because they didn’t get along with a supervisor was so bad.

Rio Tinto/Borax threw a collective tantrum. On January 31, 2010 at 6:59 a.m., the company locked its doors to 570 workers.

The company put out a large newspaper ad stating that union negotiators did not want to go about “changing the way we work” and that the “old ways” (aka fair wages, holiday and sick leave, and respect) had cost the multinational money and hundreds of jobs.

It’s not beyond reason to think that the owners thought no one would notice or care much when they locked the workers out — since Boron is kind of in the middle of nowhere. For a minute the workers were stunned and alone in their fight save for Local 30 and efforts of the ILWU. But word spread quickly in the labor movement and people came to help.

Since the lockout, Rio Tinto/Borax has gone on the defense. Says Jeri Lee, executive administrator for Local 30 and chair of the family support food bank committee,

Borax keeps putting these ads in the paper that they've called down here to negotiate and that the union keeps telling them no.

Well, let me tell you something, those phone calls come through me. I log every phone call that comes in this office and they have never called down here,

“Our (local 30) president and incumbent president have sent emails and calls to the federal mediator through our attorney requesting negotiations and the company has refused every one of them,” says Lee. “Borox is truly lying in the papers. We would negotiate 24 hours a day, seven days a week if we could, to get these workers back to work."

Terri Judd, who has worked at the mine for 13 years as a loader operator and is a U.S. Army vet., says:

It’s disappointing you put your faith and loyalty into a company and it pretty much feels like they just turned around and stabbed you in the back. I’m third generation out here. My grandfather came out here in the 40’s. He retired from here in 1975. My father worked here.

NEGOTIATIONS RESTART, AS DESERT BATTLE CONTINUES

The workers and their families are settled in for the long haul. Worker after worker I spoke with is convinced the stand they are taking is a stand for workers across this country.

“The support has been overwhelming,” says Galloway, a refrigeration mechanic who has been with the company for almost nine years. Says Galloway,

It’s going to be a tough run but its necessary, not only for this community and for the people out here but for everyone in this country because whatever happens here, labor is going to go that way.

Multinational corporations have so much greed and if they're able to do this here, they'll free to do it anywhere in the country.

Today (Friday, April 16), the workers are headed to Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada, where they will rally in front of British Consulates. (Organized labor is expected to turn out in mass; more information is here.) The rally follows an action by some of the locked-out workers, who went to the company's annual shareholders meeting on April 15 in London, England. 

The union and Rio Tinto/Borax met again at the negotiating table this week, as locked-out workers continue to stand at the mine's main gate seven days a week, 24 hours a day to stare down the buses filled with their replacements. There's still no end to the conflict in sight.

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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