LA's Labor Groups Stand with Locked-out Union in Dispute with Multinational Mining Group Rio Tinto
Standing in a parking lot outside of Dodgers Stadium last Wednesday, I joined a caravan of LA labor organizations who were bringing two semi-trucks filled with food to the locked-out workers of the ILWU Local-30. We took the 5 through the valley, cut across the San Gabriels, and then dropped into the vast high desert plains of the Mojave. Boron sits at the southern edge of the Mojave -- a 90-minute drive from LA, but it may as well be a different universe
Boron's only reason for existence is the vast open-pit mine sprawling across the town's northern borders. The world's second largest deposit of borax, that is boron, number five on the periodic table. It's used in agriculture to semi-conductors, and many things in between. In the US, Borax was first found in Death Valley, a hundred miles north of Boron, making famous the iconic twenty-mule team, which would bring the borax out of the valley to the nearest railroad. Boron's welcome sign claims the mule-teams.
Today, the massive mega-corporation Rio Tinto owns the mine. They are one of the top global producers of iron-ore, aluminum, copper; the minerals which if you consider oil the life blood of modernity, these minerals comprise modernity's bones. Rio Tinto was formed in Spain at the end of the 19th century growing to gobble up mining operations across the globe, including the mine at Boron several decades ago. They're headquartered in Melbourne and London, doing five-billion in profits last year, and are currently valued at $100 billion.
Driving through town, it's hard to believe Boron ever had a hey day. Today, it has a population of 2,000 people, a thousand less than it had ten years ago. Six hundred of them work at the mine. Half the stores on the main street are shuttered and seem to have been for a long time. The houses are small, many in disrepair. The US Census says Boron's average house is worth $57,000 dollars, compared to $119,000 nationally, and $211,000 in California. Almost 90% of the population is white, which is way, way over the average for California. The Okies coming out of the Dust Bowl in the '30s found work at Boron. There they stayed. Many employees of the mine are second and third generation.
Rio Tinto locked-out their workers three weeks ago and started hiring non-union replacements, "scabs" in the vernacular. The dispute revolves around outrageous attempts to cut benefits, and gutting the voice of the union in company affairs. Employees make $15,000 - $29,000 a year, with the average in the low twenties -- yes, those are "good union wages" in 2010 America. One locked-out worker, a single mother in her mid-30s said, "It's not about the money," but how much control the company will have over their lives.
Labor has been on its back in this country for so many years now, it's hard to remember it ever having power. It was in critical condition in the late 70s, then came "Morning in America". Mr. Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers, sending the signal it was open season for union busting. If you were in politics in Illinois you watched it across the state. One of my uncles was a pressman for theChicago Tribune. He helped Stilwell along the Burma Road in WWII, and spent almost forty years at the Tribune in a good union job. They locked them out in the mid-80s, shipping in scabs and breaking the union. None of them got their jobs back. It took them years to get the Tribune Company to cough-up their pensions -- Morning in America.
Across history miners have never had it very good. It was slave labor for most of recorded history, and they've fought for everything they've ever gotten. In 2010 they're still fighting. The most interesting and hopeful thing is that the LA labor caravan organized by the LA Federation of Labor was predominately black and Latino, more than 80%. They were bringing crates of beans, meat sauce and orange juice to an overwhelmingly Anglo workforce -- solidarity brothers and sisters, now more than ever. As the mega-corporate noose grows ever tighter, remember the words of Mr. Franklin, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately."