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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 current lockout, in contrast, rallies a far more inclusive local patriotism. Along Twenty Mule Team Road, Support Borax Miners placards festoon the windows of homes and pickups. Skateboarders and grandmothers wear black Union Tough T-shirts. Sympathy with the ILWU is not a condition for loathing Rio Tinto's hireling army of scabs and guards.


Day twelve. The lockout is beginning to feel like a reverse siege. It is the town, not the mine, that is under growing pressure. At the Local 30 hall, the "gate watch" crew reports that the sheriff's deputies have become quite relaxed, even friendly, probably because they're engaged in their own contract battle with county supervisors. But the replacements have become more brazen, at one point deliberately bumping into a union member with their van.

One of the organizers gravely notes the incident on his legal pad, then returns to the kitchen, where he huddles with his cellphone. He's calling the Local roster to remind members about next week's big solidarity march. Boron workers are awaiting the arrival of ILWU members from up and down the West Coast, as well as a contingent of mining and dock union-leaders from around the world.

Across the hall, meanwhile, Terri is arguing with another loader operator, Kevin Martz, over which of them performs the most herculean labor in the pit.

Quantitatively, there should be no contest: Kevin operates a P&H 4100 "ultra class" shovel with a 115-ton payload capacity, one of the biggest machines in the mining world. In a few workdays he could probably dig the Panama Canal by himself. But Terri believes that quality is more important. "Come on, Kevin, you only shovel dirt; I dig ore. I'm high value."

Kevin pretends a smirk, then chuckles. He explains that a mining shift, like an army platoon in combat, relies upon constant ribbing to sustain camaraderie. "Our work depends upon friendship, not competition. In an environment of dangerous machines and high explosives, we have to watch each other's backs."

Neither he nor Terri discerns any rational logic in Rio Tinto's zeal to atomize the traditional work community and promote a dog-eat-dog struggle for bonuses.

"Some genius in Denver or London," Terri says, "believes that you can improve output by adopting the law of the jungle. But without a fair system to determine promotion and pay, teamwork will be undermined and morale will collapse. The mine will become less productive and more dangerous."

Conversation moves to the impact of the lockout on the town's economy. Terri is a major mover-shaker in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, while Kevin is a scout leader and active member of his Latter-day Saints ward.

"Normally the VFW is packed to the rafters on Friday nights for karaoke," Terri explains, "but last Friday there were just three families. Business at Domingo's [a Mexican restaurant made famous by its popularity among Space Shuttle crews from nearby Edwards] is way down, and the town dentist could close because everyone has lost their family dental benefits."

Kevin adds that many Local 30 families, especially those who recently bought homes in now-sunk boom-burbs like Victorville and Palmdale, forty or so miles from Boron, face imminent disaster. "Their mortgages are already below periscope depth, so the lockout is just the final shove out the front door. They'll lose their homes."

Kevin believes that fundamental values are under threat. Like many working-class Mormons--the most misunderstood social group in the American West--he's a good trade unionist but no liberal. Not inaccurately, he sees Local 30 making a conservative last stand on behalf of the decent jobs that allow frugal families to prosper in stable, human-scale communities like Boron.

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