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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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"My wife's a schoolteacher at Edwards Air Force Base, we've no debts other than our mortgage, our kids flourish in local schools, we love the desert--yet if Rio Tinto continues to play this hand, we'll eventually be forced to leave, perhaps to Wyoming."

Terri, the quintessential Boronite, confesses that she also has been wondering whether pits in Nevada or Wyoming are looking for experienced loader operators. She's optimistic about the union but knows that Rio Tinto wields power almost beyond ordinary people's reckoning. "Will we be a ghost town next year? That's the real issue."

IV

"Where the hell is Bougainville?" someone asks Dave Dorton.

"An island near New Guinea," he replies.

The Local 30 gate-watchers are gathered under a sun canopy, drinking black coffee and talking about the skeletons in the company's closet. Dave, a dashing character who looks like he just jumped off a Viking longship, is "silo chief" at the plant and one of Local 30's many old-school bikers. He says that the lockout has incited new rank-and-file interest in Rio Tinto's notorious history. "It's like waking up and discovering that you're married to a serial murderer."

Last summer the US district court in Los Angeles upheld the standing of Bougainville residents--represented by Steve Berman, the superstar class-action litigator--to sue Rio Tinto in an American court for "crimes against humanity, war crimes, and racial discrimination." Like the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens's Bleak House , the suit is moving glacially through the courts against terrific opposition from the corporation and may take years to reach a judgment, but the charges are horrifying.

In the late 1960s Rio Tinto, supported by Australia (and after 1975 by the independent government of Papua New Guinea--PNG), began expropriating land in the fertile center of the northernmost Solomon Island of Bougainville to mine one of the world's richest copper deposits. Millions of tons of pit tailings poisoned ecosystems and devastated local agriculture, and by 1989 the relentless repression of nonviolent protest ignited a full-scale revolutionary uprising. The company appealed to its business partner, the neocolonial Papuan government.

In Bougainville, according to its former commander, General Singirok, "the PNG Defence Force was Rio Tinto's personal security force and was ordered take action by any means necessary." The lawsuit provides stunning evidence of company/government atrocities in a conflict that led to the death of almost 10 percent of the island's population. (During the Spanish Civil War, Rio Tinto applauded Gen. Francisco Franco for executing the radical miners who had occupied its namesake Spanish property.)

Bougainville is only one item in a long résumé of devastation. The Norwegian government pension fund, the world's second-largest, recently divested $870 million in Rio Tinto stock to protest its "unethical" partnership with Freeport McMoRan in the infamous Grasberg mine in Indonesian-occupied Irian Jaya (western New Guinea). Grasberg is an environmental disaster almost beyond imagination, and as in Bougainville, tribal resistance has been met with assassinations and massacres by the Indonesian Army.

If Rio Tinto's operations in the southwest Pacific recall King Leopold's Congo, its industrial relations, from southern Africa to Labrador and Utah, are a state-of-the-art experiment in worker intimidation.

In southern Africa, miners' unions have long questioned whether Rio Tinto, long rumored to have supplied uranium to Pretoria's clandestine atomic weapons program in the 1970s, has ever really broken with apartheid in its treatment of black workers. In February there was a worker uprising at its huge Rössing uranium pit in Namibia over management's unilateral raising of performance quotas and its refusal to address worker grievances. (Interestingly, the government of Iran is Rio Tinto's junior partner, with 15 percent of shares, at Rössing.)

 
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