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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 company wants a contract that would allow it to capriciously promote or demote; to outsource union jobs; to convert full-time to part-time positions with little or no benefits; to reorganize shift schedules without warning; to eliminate existing work rules; to cut holidays, sick leave and pension payments; to impose involuntary overtime; and to heavily penalize the union if workers file grievances against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Rio Tinto, in essence, claims the right to rule by divine whim, to blatantly discriminate against and even fire employees for felonies like "failing to have or maintain satisfactory inter-personal relationships with Company personnel, client personnel, contractor, and visitors."

"The company's proposal," union negotiators emphasize, "would destroy our union, lower our living standards, and give Borax total control over our jobs." On January 30, Local 30 members unanimously rejected the concessions demanded by Rio Tinto.

The company deadline expired the next morning, when Terri Judd set off for work as usual with her lunchbox and thermos. At the locked front gate she and other day-shift workers encountered a phalanx of nervous Kern County sheriff's deputies in full riot gear. Inside the plant, an elite "strike security team" hired by Rio Tinto had taken control of operations.

Delaware-based J.R. Gettier & Associates brags that it is the Home Depot of unionbusting, a one-stop source for security planners, armed guards, legal experts, industrial spies and, most important, highly skilled replacement workers. It even has staff who can operate Terri's giant loader.

The Gettier mercenaries wore sneers and dark glasses as they pushed their convoy past a crowd of angry Local 30 members. "Being locked out," says Terri, "is different from going on strike. Initially there's disbelief that the company is actually serious about booting you out the door. Hey, my granddad worked in this mine. But then you see that caravan of scabs coming to take your jobs, and the betrayal cuts like a knife in your heart."

II

Once upon a time, there were several thousand mining communities in North America; perhaps fewer than a hundred still exist. Boron (unincorporated, population 2,000) is one of the survivors--and all the more anomalous since it is not in the red desert of Wyoming or the hills of West Virginia but in the outer orbit of Los Angeles sprawl. In the boom days of the 1930s it was a textbook company town, where employees of what was then called Pacific Borax--many of them, like Terri Judd's grandfather, Dust Bowl Oklahomans--lived in company houses and used company scrip to shop at the company store.

Unionization (originally by an old AFL affiliate called the Borax Workers Union) ended the feudal era, but the one-employer character of the town remained intact until a bitter, often violent 132-day strike in 1974 forced blacklisted miners to seek new jobs. Some found work at a nearby rocket-test range, while others learned to polish mirrors at an Israeli-built solar power station or applied for guard jobs at the federal prison up the road.

But economic diversity remains limited, and fully one-quarter of Boron's households still punched a Rio Tinto time clock this past New Year's. There are probably an equal number of mine retirees and former employees, so virtually everyone in town has some intimate link to the mine and its turbulent history.

During the 1974 conflict Boron polarized into majority pro-union and minority pro-company factions. There was a famous riot at the front gate in the first hours of the conflict, followed by the dynamiting of several foremen's homes, the blowing up of the mine's power line, episodic exchanges of gunfire, an exodus of managerial employees and de facto martial law during the nearly yearlong occupation of the community by Kern County sheriffs.

 
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