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Locked-out Mining Union Gets Solidarity Boost in Battle with Mineral Conglomerate Rio Tinto

A megabucks multinational thinks it can intimidate its unionized workers in the California high desert, but L.A. unions offer a show of union muscle and support.
 
 
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Hundreds of union members from all across Los Angeles gathered in a Dodger Stadium parking lot early Wednesday morning for a 125-mile caravan solidarity ride in support of 560 brave workers and their families in the Southern California high desert town of Boron (population 2,000). Seven TV news vans and many more reporters were on hand to witness a well-organized display of union solidarity overseen by the L.A. County Federation of Labor, heavily organized by the Teamsters and a diverse bunch of supporters, including the Car Wash Workers and the SEIU.

The solidarity and support is warranted: Since January 31, Local-30 members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been locked out for standing up to multi-billion dollar multinational mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Group’s strong-arm attempt to slash their basic workers' rights and benefits, busing in replacement workers from its other mines.

Union outrage and organized support was swift; $30,000 worth of food was donated, and ILWU Local-30 has received international support from as far away as Australia.

“The fact that this money was raised quickly from concerned union families in Southern California indicates that the miners' fight against Rio Tinto’s lockout and corporate bullying tactics is resonating and connecting with the public,” said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees. “This issue has the potential to become a powerful symbol of corporate greed, and a decision by these determined families to stand up and fight is becoming an inspiration to everyone who’s fed up with what’s happening in America today.”

The crowds in the parking lot reached the inspiring point by 7:30am and felt Southern California to the bone: Union members munched on organic burritos stuffed with Niman Ranch sausages served out of the hip and unionized West L.A. food on wheels enterprise, Green Truck on the Go. Dozens of burly Teamsters stood in circles chatting, posing in their bad-ass leather jackets and black sunglasses next to three gleaming 18-wheelers loaded with food supplies for ILWU members. Classic cars in mint condition were spread across the lot, mixed in with immaculately waxed and buffed pick-ups and SUVs -- all sporting American flags.

Maria Elena Durazo, head of the AFL-CIO’s L.A. Federation of Labor, got the crowd going as she named the unions in attendance, asking them to shout in affirmation. She fired up the crowd with the day’s plans: The group was going to deliver food, eat lunch and spend the day with ILWU Local-30 workers at their union hall to spread the good spirits and parade through the town of Boron to show solidarity -- and the organized strength and reach of union power in Southern California. At 8am, the three Teamster trucks set out and took the lead, followed by a 300-plus vehicle armada.

The SoCal union caravan made its way through L.A. suburbs that melted into high desert and Joshua trees in the stretch to Boron. Along the way, union members were greeted by their compatriots, waving flags over a dozen overpasses along the ride to the ILWU 30 Union Hall, located on the outside of Boron, just across the highway from California's largest open-pit mine and the largest borax deposit in the world. Rio Tinto purchased the mine in 1968 to capitalize on the demand from dozens of industries that rely on the mineral to make cosmetics, fiberglass and detergents, among other products.

The economic dividing lines between Rio Tinto Group and the union members at its Boron plant are staggering. In 2009, the company pulled in $4.9 billion in profits, and the company, with headquarters in Australia and England, rejected a $147 billion takeover bid with the response that the offer was "significantly undervalued." The ILWU union members who work at the mine in Boron, some of whom have been at the plant for four decades, take home between $15,000-$29,000 a year, with the average income in the low 20s. Members have to pay in as much as $400 per month so they and their families can access the mine’s health coverage system.

Yet Rio Tinto wants to squeeze even more out of ILWU Local-30. The lock-out is tied to what the union calls a “contract ultimatum.” The workers have refused to ratify Rio Tinto’s demands, which are beyond any civilized level of human decency or fairness, including, as ILWU describes, “authority to reduce employee pay, anytime the company wants, regardless of the contract wage rates and without any right of workers to file a grievance.” Further, the ILWU charges that Rio Tinto wants to be able to “outsource all jobs, anytime it wants, to contractors and temp agencies that pay low wages and provide little or no benefits.”

Terri Judd, a 13-year veteran of the Rio Tinto mine, spoke with me about her grievances with the concessions Rio Tinto is pushing for. Standing outside of the union hall, she looked through slit eyes at the mining facility across the highway. “They want to be able to take away the rights that come with worker seniority. They want to force me to work overtime,” she said. “They want to switch a lot of us from being full-time workers into taking part-time jobs. We said no to all of that, obviously, and they locked us out." As she stood next to her mother, Judd said these demands would make her life impossible. “I can’t take my mom to the hospital if they’re forcing me to work,” she said.

In a vivid illustration of how multinationals like Rio Tinto serve their interests even at the expense of most bedrock notions of national tradition, the company wants to eliminate the Veteran’s Day holiday for the union starting in 2011. And the ILWU accuses Rio Tinto of "unlawful discrimination against military personnel by denying them seniority credit for military service if they've served in the Armed Forces for less than one year or for more than four years,” which ILWU alleges is a violation of federal law.

Geronimo Duarte, a haul truck driver at the mine, shared some of the theatrics and attempts to demoralize the union employed by upper management. He explained that while Rio Tinto had been busing in outside workers, he and his fellow union members had done a head count and determined that the number of workers brought in over the past month was nowhere near enough to keep the plant operational. Not only that, said Duarte, but the mine’s conveyor belts for waste weren’t moving. “If the belts aren’t dumping waste, then you aren’t mining,” he said. On the same day of the rally, Rio Tinto's Borax spokeswoman was busy telling the press that the company has plans to hire temporary workers and it had already launched a round of interviews for about 250 temp jobs.

Duarte said the bused-in workers covered their faces as they entered the facility, adding that if management was serious about asking these outsiders to operate the plant, the health risks could be fatal. “We work with a lot of sulphuric acid, and the conveyor belts can tear your limbs off.”

After stretching their legs from the drive and greeting the ILWU members at their union hall, the auto armada reformed and drove through Boron’s main and only drag in a show of support for the miners. Well over half the shops in town were shuttered, and many of the homes were in the grips of deep generational poverty. The kitschy Route 66-style feel of the buildings and signs tempting tourists to Boron's museum and stores had long since crossed the entropy barrier, and were flat-out depressing to look at. Residents and shopkeepers stood on the sidewalks waving at the line of cars, reaching into open windows to shake hands. That solidarity parade was one of the best things to hit Boron in a long time. When the Teamster trucks and the caravan reached the end of the town, they doubled back on the strip for a final wave and headed back to the Local-30 union hall for lunch and the rest of the day’s events.

The main hall room filled up quickly with the brothers and sisters in good spirits, their plates loaded with barbecue, salad and beans. There was plenty of room for everyone along the VIking-length dining tables. Local-30 members put their performing skills on display when their bluegrass band kicked into play, a tradition rooted in the Scots-Irish heritage of the Oklahomans who settled in Boron after the Dust Bowl and make up most of its population. I walked outside where the ILWU Local-10 dockworkers’ Drill Squad was putting on its own show for the crowd -- a combination of strict military platoon formation choreography, mixed with tapdancing and union flourish ( watch a video of the Drill Squad in action).