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Labor Showdown in the California Desert -- Mineworkers Stand-up to Multinational Rio Tinto

The multinational mining giant Rio Tinto has uprooted unions, slashed wages and abused employees all over the world. Now workers at its California facility are fighting a lockout.
 
 
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The biggest hole in California, with the exception of the current state budget, is Rio Tinto's huge open-pit mine at the town of Boron, near Edwards Air Force Base, eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles.

 

 

Seen from Google Earth, it is easy to imagine that the 700-foot-deep crater was blasted out of the Mojave Desert by an errant asteroid or comet. From the vantage point of Highway 58, however, the landscape is enigmatic: a mile-long rampart of ochre earth and gray mudstone, terminating at what looks like a giant chemical refinery.

At night, when a driver's mind is most prone to legends of the desert, the complex's intense illumination is startling, even slightly extraterrestrial, like the sinister off-world mining colony in Aliens.

Terri Judd's labor owns part of this eerie landscape--or rather its void. She's a third-generation borax miner, as deeply rooted in the high desert as one of the native Joshua trees. Every working morning for the past thirteen years, she has bundled her long red hair under a hard hat, climbed up the ladder of a giant Le Tourneau wheel loader and turned on its 1,600-horsepower Detroit Diesel engine. Her air-conditioned cab perches almost treetop height above custom-made, twelve-foot-high tires that cost $30,000 each. She operates this leviathan with delicate manipulations of two joysticks, more high-skill video game than Mad Max .

In a regular twelve-and-a-half-hour shift, she ceaselessly repeats the same mechanical calisthenic: lowering her twenty-foot-wide bucket, deftly scooping up twenty-five to thirty tons of borax ore, then delivering the load to one of the mine's plants to be made into boric acid or granulated for eventual use in dozens of industrial applications, from fiberglass surfboards to HD display screens.

Each year 1 million tons of borax products are fed into hopper cars (800 of which are permanently assigned to the mine) and hauled to the LA harbor for shipment to China and other industrializing countries hungry for the caustic residue of the Mojave's ancient lakes. The Boron pit, which replaced an underground mine, produces almost half the world's supply of refined borates.

Strip-mining the Mojave may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Terri--a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm and a single mom--flat-out loves her job. "What can I say? We get to play with the big toys. I guess I was always a tomboy. I preferred Tonkas to Barbies, socket wrenches to dollhouses."

But she doesn't play alone: Big Brother is looking over her shoulder, evaluating her performance. "In effect, the boss rides with me. The GPS in my loader can be monitored not only from the plant but from Rio Tinto's US headquarters in Denver, or, for that matter, from the global head office in London."

Peeping Toms, however, don't normally perturb Terri. "There are no slackers in the pit. Our productivity is sky-high because borax mining is our family history." Indeed, a Boron workforce shrunk to less than 40 percent of its 1980 size produces record outputs despite a rapidly aging plant; an ornery, dipping ore body; and an increasingly remote and hostile management.

Terri acknowledges that her devotion to the mine has been an act of unrequited love. In last year's contract negotiations, Rio Tinto (the British-Australian multinational acquired its Boron facility, U.S. Borax, in 1968 and renamed it Rio Tinto Borax) stunned members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU, Local 30 (Boron), by demanding abolition of the contractually enshrined seniority system and the surrender of any worker voice in the labor process.

According to Dean Gehring, the latest in a succession of recent mine managers, international competition compels a drastic switch to "high-performance teams that have the flexibility to do many different jobs, and we need to reward and promote our top performers. The old contract doesn't allow us to do that."

 
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